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Saturday, Jul 13, 2024

World’s Big Shots Had Better Not Forget the Little Guys

Pacific Perspectives , Tom Plate

There is no such thing as “free” trade. In truth, the phrase “free trade” is an ongoing oxymoron.

Indeed, you’d have to be pretty naive to think that anything of any importance in life was ever going to be cost-free. As the clich & #233;d saying goes: there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

Nevertheless, this oft-used term, which you read about in the media all the time, flies out at us from the large closet of increasingly commonplace terms about globalization. “Free trade” hangs on the rack just next to “lower tariffs,” “trading blocs,” “trade negotiations” and the most dreaded of all contemporary global outfits: “outsourcing.”

These terms get pulled out of the closet and draped , or carelessly thrown , into news stories, sometimes with insufficient thought and explanation.

They floated precariously amid the overheated hot air of the Group of G8 summit held earlier this month in Germany.

That silly sideshow not withstanding, the swirl of international trade, currency and other kinds of economic issues around the globe has morphed into one Earth-wide typhoon , and not even G8 leaders with all their smart super-educated advisors have properly addressed them.

Job Change

The sole constant in motion these days seems to be economic and job change.

This cyclonic swirl (of the current international economic system and its effect on countless workers and professions) is the prime cause of the high cost of globalization, which includes “free trade” agreements left and right.

These pacts often do create tremendous economic efficiencies and over the long run are potentially hugely helpful in improving economic conditions.

But that’s over the long run, which can ticktock on and on like a near-endless stretch of time.

As the great Lord Maynard Keynes once drolly put it: “In the long run, we are all dead.” This droll but true observation compels us to raise the pressing question of the cost of “free trade” in the short run , short run meaning: while many of us are still alive!

One Korean worker, protesting in front of the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Seoul, recently dramatized his fury over the free trade agreement reached between his government and that of the United States.

The Hyatt was where negotiators were reaching agreements that he felt would leave the “little people” like him jobless. He set himself ablaze with a can of gasoline.

But that free trade pact (yet to be finalized) seeks to lace the economies of South Korea and the United States more closely together , as if reflecting a relationship much like that of California and New York.

The instrumental method is to denationalize impediments of the movement of goods from one economy to the other, including products like cars, agricultural goods, beef and other such things that they would agree on.

But in central Seoul, no less than thousands of people gathered to voice their fierce opposition to the free trade agreement.

U.S. Products

Their fear: that cheaper U.S. products bound to enter the Korean market would help some Koreans but many others would have to pay the immediate costs , their own livelihoods and jobs.

Thousands of miles away, similar fears shake American auto workers who are convinced that yet more (generally excellent) Hyundais coming into the market will translate into fewer jobs for U.S. auto workers. Unfortunately for them, they are probably right , in the short run, it will.

Now, there are all sorts of cold-hearted responses to the plight of the threatened “little people” in both countries: “Get off your duff and find new jobs!” and “Go back to school!” are some of those responses.

But it’s not easy to land a job when you don’t have one and it’s tough to go back to school when you have hungry mouths to feed and no money for tuition.

The tide of anger against globalization’s immediate effects is swelling , dramatically.

I personally felt it recently when I was bombarded with explosive e-mails over a column endorsing, as I still sincerely and passionately do, the U.S.-South Korean free trade agreement.

One writer said: “Wait until they outsource your professor’s job to India , then you’ll see how we feel.”

But just as this particular agreement faces tough going in the American Congress, all future such pacts, no matter how much economic sense they make, will face the firing squad of domestic politics unless national governments wake up.

Training Needed

What’s needed is more funding for temporary unemployment benefits, for school tuition and training of all serious kinds, and transportable and decent health insurance, so that globalization works for more people and leaves less people behind.

If we don’t do this, the political lobby will push all these free trade pacts into the grave.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt deserved credit for saving American capitalism after the Great Depression with a host of domestic policy innovations that helped the average working man survive the rough spots of working life and retirement.

This series of programs initiated by Roosevelt was called the New Deal.

We now need something like that to ameliorate the negative effects of rapid economic global integration.

We need a New Deal for Globalization, and we need it urgently.

Syndicated columnist Tom Plate, a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy, teaches Asian politics and media at UCLA.


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