"Fair Trade" continues to be a winning issue

By Arthur Stamoulis of Portland, Oregon. Arthur is director of the Oregon Fair Trade Campaign.

Trade policy gained prominence as a winning election issue in 2006, when "fair trade" candidates used it to beat "free trade" incumbents in 37 separate Congressional races across the country. It didn't make a lot of headway in Oregon that year, mainly because there were few incumbents being challenged from the left, but that has changed in 2008.

At least two television ads aired in the state so far highlight candidates' views on trade: Barack Obama's "Enough" criticizes "tax breaks to companies that are moving overseas," and Jeff Merkley's "Places" says he will "fight to end trade deals that ship our jobs overseas." Trade policy has also been raised time and again by a wide range of candidates in voter pamphlet statements, printed campaign materials, fundraising letters, stump speeches and candidate debates.

Many pundits predicted that trade would fade as an election issue after the much-contested Midwest primaries, but that just hasn't been the case. Trade has proven itself to be a viable issue across the entire country, including here in the Pacific Northwest. A new poll by the Pew Research Center suggests why.

According to Pew, "There is now broad agreement that free trade negatively affects wages, jobs and economic growth in America. By greater than six-to-one, the public says free trade agreements result in job losses rather than in new jobs."

The fact that these numbers apply almost as much to Republican voters as to Democrats suggests trade will continue to be a hot topic in the general elections, when candidates compete for Independents and other swing voters.

Comments

  • Peter Shaw (unverified)
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    An important part of the push towards fair trade is dealing with the waterheads who utter gibberish about how people who do not support their investor rights agreements that are all about maximizing profits with no concern for the human and environmental costs--what they call free trade--are anti-globalization. This is false. We want a globalization that works for all people instead of tramples on them.

  • allison (unverified)
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    In the spirit of, "The only dumb question is the one you don't ask" I kind of wonder what exactly "fair trade" means? In this context is it things like having labor and environmental practices be part of trade negotiations? Is it something on behalf of American workers or is it on behalf of citizens in underdeveloped in other countries? Are those two at odds?

    Does "fair trade" in this context mean the same thing as when its printed on a bar of chocolate? What does it mean then? How is the fair trade price set for such commodities?

  • Rhonda Ealy (unverified)
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    Thanks for the article. We must keep working to keep this issue on the forefront in the elections and in our everyday lives.

    Rhonda Ealy Strictly Organic Coffee Company

    To Allison: For more information about Fair Trade Certification(like "on a bar of chocolate"), go to www.fairtradecertified.com. It should be able to answer your questions.

  • orftc (unverified)
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    In the context of elections, "fair trade" generally means opposing trade policies that make it easier for large corporations to ship U.S. jobs overseas.

    Other "fair trade" themes raised in campaigns include protecting American consumers from unsafe imports; ensuring that domestic environmental protections and other U.S. laws and regulations are prioritized above the rights of foreign investors; addressing undocumented immigration by improving, rather than worsening, living standards abroad; and reducing the federal trade deficit.

    The term "fair trade" as it is applied to fair trade coffee or chocolate generally hasn't risen to the level of a election issue. You can learn more about standards for fair trade products at: http://www.transfairusa.org/

  • David Delk (unverified)
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    Without question, the issue of corporate globalization is an issue in this election. The question is why has it taken so long and why have our US representatives and senators so often sold us down the river?

    Just as important as the negative labor and environmental consequencies of these so-called "free trade" agreements are the consequencies for our democracy and the role of government to protect the people from globe trotting multi-national corportions. Chapter 8 of Nafta and similiar provisons in later agreements give corporations the right to challenge rules and regulations deemed barriers to profit-making. Governments are forced to pay private corporations for the right to make rules and regulations in our interest and, as a result, governments are not forced to look over their shoulder for the possible suit if profits of multi-nationals are impacted.

    So when we talk about "free trade", the discussion needs to include not only the effects of these agreements on labor and the environment but also on how democracy and the ability to have a government "of the people, for the people." The major effect of "free trade agreements' has been to dimenish democracy in favor of profit-making. David Delk Alliance for Democracy - Portland Chapter

  • G. Z. Prescott (unverified)
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    Excellent analysis by Mr. Stamoulis.

    Clinton's NAFTA ushered in 12 long years of Republican control of the House. No modern-day Democrat has done more to harm the party's base than Bill Clinton. He failed to deliver right-to-strike protections when within his grasp, and turned his back on workers, unions, and the vast majority of the American electorate with his all-in approach to passing NAFTA against mass public opposition.

    This is the first Presidential election to spotlight that, and the following FTA's failures that have been pushed down the throats of a weary public by the folks they elected to represent their interests.

    The dialogue concerning the FTA is long overdue, and much needed. The damage these FTA's do to democracy and working people around the globe deserves even more attention.

    Gaylan Z. Prescott United Steelworkers - District 12

  • Tom Cox (unverified)
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    Hey, Arthur. Good to see you posting here.

    What I find deeply flawed with this line of argument is the idea that popular opinion should somehow determine facts that in turn should drive public policy.

    Take this gem:

    "There is now broad agreement that free trade negatively affects wages, jobs and economic growth in America. By greater than six-to-one, the public says free trade agreements result in job losses rather than in new jobs."

    There's a big gap between "the public says" that X causes Y, and what X really causes.

    The economic reality is that free trade always results in a net gain for the world - more jobs, more wealth, more total output. It also results in uneven advances, dislocations, and the "creative destruction" that all economic advances bring.

    Our goal as a society should be to maximize global wealth, prevent externalizing costs, and helping those who are temporarily negatively affected by the forces that enrich the world.

    Stopping growth solely because it's disruptive is evil and wrong. Had such policies been in force in 1770, we'd all be farmers living in relative squalor, with a life expectancy of 45 years.

    "Fair" trade really has the effect of preventing the poor from becoming better off. Which party benefits from large numbers of poor people? Oh - the one advocating a time-out from good economic policies that lift the poor out of poverty.

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    No, Tom Cox, that's not the economic reality, it's an economic ideology. Not at all accurately descriptive of what unregulated markets do.

    Not all destruction caused by markets is creative. Much of it is destructive destruction.

    There also is a difference between maximizing wealth and maximizing well-being.

    Preventing externalizing of costs is exactly why considerable regulation of markets is necessary, both in the fundamental role the state in creating market institutions themselves and the legal frameworks that let them exist, and in the secondary role of limiting some ways they would operate absent the regulations.

    Some of the issues in regulating global trade are quite straightforwardly externalization issues, especially in the environmental area. Others are a special type of externalization issue involving unequal market power and negotiation under the coercion of threat of starvation or impoverishment.

  • hook (unverified)
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    Great post! As to this question: Should the candidates should be opposing Free Trade Agreements (which have little to do with actual "free trade" theory) because they're bad policy, or should they be opposing them as elected officials in a representative democracy because their constituents want them to? The point is, stopping these bad economic policies is good policy and good politics. Kudos to the candidates who are making this an issue!

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    In the spirit of, "The only dumb question is the one you don't ask" I kind of wonder what exactly "fair trade" means?

    "Fair trade" means protectionism. It always has. In 1904, Winston Churchill left the Conservative Party in Great Britain and joined the Liberal Party in large part because the Conservatives abandoned free trade policies for protectionist policies under the guise of "fair trade." (He also objected to the Conservative Party's embrace of anti-immigrant policies, another apt historical analogy).

    The notion that free trade agreements have hurt the U.S. economy are nonsense, of course, although as always there are some winners and some losers and the losers scream louder than the winners.

    Dumping our free trade agreements makes as much long-term economic sense as the Gas Tax Holiday both Clinton and McCain are touting. There is no shortage of pandering across the political spectrum.

  • Margaret (unverified)
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    US workers have been hurt by free trade agreements--outsourcing, economic insecurity, a downward spiral of wages and conditions for the majority of workers, while the economy continues to grow and wealth and productivity gains flow to the top. Workers in other countries have also seen immediate negative impacts from trade deals with rules that benefit corporations and the wealthy and not ordinary people. The question is really whose interest do the trade deals serve? Many, many more workers understand that these trade deals are not in their interest.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)
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    Tom Cox,

    Like you, I believe public opinion can be very wrong sometimes. This is most common when some powerful interest uses the machinery of government, the media, and the public relations industry to sell some idea, ideas such as "Iraq has weapons of mass destruction" or "the 'death tax' causes Americans to lose the family farm" or "wealth trickles down."

    The public is much better at developing correct opinions when they work from their own experience. Public support for fair trade is such an instance. Americans have heard for decades from the politically and economically powerful - and from their stenographers in the press - that free trade is right, just, and profitable for all. It has taken quite a bit of firsthand experience to convince people that this is a load of bullshit, but they have a firm grasp on the idea now.

    It is not only Americans who have realized this. The people of the nations who are our trading partners have largely come to the same conclusion - free trade, as it is practiced in the age of NAFTA, CAFTA, and WTO, is destructive to economy, culture and the environment. The folks who remain supportive of free trade are the ones who profit from moving jobs to lower and lower wage countries, shopping for the lowest standards of worker and environmental protection, and wasting huge amounts of precious energy moving tainted pharmaceuticals and lead-laced toys across vast oceans.

    Jack Roberts wrote:

    "...as always there are some winners and some losers and the losers scream louder than the winners."

    Yes, Jack, that is true. In this case the losers scream louder because are most of the population. The winners, as usual, are the economic elite. Since the conventional statistics value dollars spent on yachts and mansions the same as dollars spent on food eaten by a poor family, free trade does not look so bad overall; there are simply winners and losers.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)
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    First sentence in reply to Jack Roberts should be:

    Yes, Jack, that is true. In this case the losers scream louder because they are most of the population.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)
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    A school teacher in a rural Oregon district might say,

    "Take good care of your textbook; an Iraqi child gave her life so our school could pay for it."

  • Stuart Fishman (unverified)
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    It's not that we don't want trade agreements; we want trade agreements that protect labor, the environment, human rights and our democratic process so the least harm is done to the folks living in all trading partner countries.

    NAFTA and other agreements are part of the problem of mass migration to the U.S. Instead of building walls to keep out undocumented workers we must stop unfair U.S. competition with Mexican and Central American farmers driving them to the cities for jobs that don't exist or pay so little that they have no choice but to move north. And we must work to stop the flow of wealth from lower and middle classes to the very top in all countries, including the U.S.

  • Urban Planning Overlord (unverified)
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    "Fair Trade" is the Democrats' version of the Republicans' anti-immigration hysteria.

    Both rely on simplistic arguments to demagogue an issue for political gain.

    Both are fundamentally flawed, both on an economic level AND on a human rights/dignity level.

  • Jimbo Jumbo (unverified)
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    Some comments from above:

    "The economic reality is that free trade always results in a net gain for the world - more jobs, more wealth, more total output. It also results in uneven advances, dislocations, and the "creative destruction" that all economic advances bring."

    What the hell does this mean? Are net gains, regardless of how they came about, the goal here? Shit, I am sure the Nazis considered the Holocaust creative destruction, and by their ideology there was a net gain in IQ because all the Jews were murdered. The real reality seems to be that people can always come up with reasons to support their own self-interest even as it results in others' suffering.

    "Our goal as a society should be to maximize global wealth, prevent externalizing costs, and helping those who are temporarily negatively affected by the forces that enrich the world."

    So why support these so-called free trade agreements? Unless by relieving those who are temporarily negatively affected you mean by just letting them die from the poverty and environmental degradation that comes from these force fed accords.

  • Jerry Fletcher (unverified)
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    How in the world can anyone defend a "Free Trade" agenda that has absolutely no provisions for compliance concerning patent piracy, morals, environment or living standards?

    Our trade deficit is through the roof, wages have not kept up with inflation, the gain in jobs does not equate in lost payroll (i.e; we lose a $25 dollar a hour job with insurance and pension plan and gain two minimum wage jobs with no benefits), our "trading partners" routinely exploit their workers for the bottom line.

    Now lets turn the coin- The good trading partners (i.e; France, Germany, Great Britain, Japan) have subsidized insurance and pension and companies are subsidized in their business as well just like we have seen with the fight with Boeing versus Airbus. How the heck is that "Fair"!

    I believe in "Free Trade", it is essential for the earth that we live on for all of us to share products, ideas and values. I also believe in this vision as long as it is "Fair" and there are penalties for non-compliance. Our trade agreement with China should be called SHAFTA. Not just for the jobs we have lost here, but for the environmental disaster for the people in that country.

    Yours truly,

    Jerry Fletcher Central Oregon Labor Council

  • Tom H. (unverified)
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    "provisions for compliance concerning patent piracy, morals, environment or living standards?"

    As I understand it these countries i.e. (Colombia) for one have their own constitution and Colombia's costitution has provisions for (H)uman rights.

    "The public is much better at developing correct opinions when they work from their own experience."

    Experience thats the word, the word is out that the mill in Halsey is shutting down. Along with that I hear that lay-offs at numerous plants in our area are imminent.

    I've read through the above posting all great points and arguements. To which I have little to add but we must work to keep "trade" in the fore front these candidates are all business minded people they don't live in the circle the rest of us do.

    Many of these countries we do trade deals with (Colombia) for one still get money from us in the way of hand outs. (foreign aide)

    Random thoughts!

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