Free Trade Debate: Giving Credit Where It Is Due


by Lorna Salzman (November 2016)

In 1999 a variety of environmental and workers’ organizations and unions gathered in Seattle for a week to confront a meeting of the World Trade Organization and resist its globalization and free trade policies. These doubters were dismissed as uninformed radicals who were resisting its claims about the benefits of global economic trends and, according to some pundits, were actually putting jobs and the welfare of American workers at risk. One of the most prominent pundits was Paul Krugman, a Nobel Prize winner and regular Op-ed writer for the New York Times. One of those he went after, in addition to the globalization doubters, was William Greider, author and columnist for The Nation.

Greider, in the April 1, 2013 issue of The Nation, reflected on Krugman’s harsh, repeated attacks in Slate, the Washington Post, and Krugman’s book, The Accidental Theorist, on Greider’s book, One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism, calling it a “thoroughly silly book.” Today Krugman has capitulated to his “silly” critics in the face of incontrovertible proof that their criticism was valid and that his projections of the benefits of “free trade” had not materialized.

But there is an equally important piece of this history that has become apparent only because of the 2016 presidential campaign. Against all odds as well as a complacent economic community and a generally disinterested media, the issue of free trade has risen from obscurity to the surface of the public debate. Focused on the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and not least a president obsessed with pushing the TPP onto American workers, it is not unimaginable that the election could be won or lost over this single issue.

How and why this came to be needs to be understood: it happened because of Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen organization and its indefatigable director Lori Wallach, with valuable assists from the International Forum on Globalization (IFG), which has sponsored about five teach-ins across the country on this topic in the past decade. One could frivolously dismiss them as typical Washington policy wonks remote from the real world. But the organizing strategy of the Seattle protest and presentation were brilliant, convening environmentalists from small and large groups across the country and union workers, a partnership named “Turtles and Teamsters.” It was unprecedented, of course, but eventually the tumult and the issue died down…..or so it seemed. 

Actually the opposite happened. One of the most important economic schemes, designed by bureaucrats, economists, financiers and politicians, was revealed as a conspiracy to put the actions of giant corporations out of reach of the citizenry and democratic decision-making, much like the recent European resistance personified by the Brexit debate over the unaccountable control of the unelected EU Commission and the growing European opposition to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a sister to the TPP. The whole WTO arrangement was exposed as one designed by and for the corporations, intended to be put in a niche that was beyond democratic control. A detailed analysis of the implications of free trade is in “The New Rules of the Road: A Progressive Approach to Globalization,” by Lori Wallach and Jared Bernstein, which states: 

Our new framework starts from the premise that the current “trade” agreement process has been co-opted by corporate interests whose goal is to establish binding, enforceable global rules that protect their investments and profits. This corporate capture comes at the expense of both peoples’ rights to democratically govern their own affairs and the ability of sovereign governments to effectively enforce worker, consumer, and environmental safeguards. Achieving such inclusive policies will require a new policymaking process to replace the current system of opaque negotiations, a system heavily influenced by hundreds of official corporate trade advisors.

One other thing about the “Turtles and Teamsters” team was also notable: the absence of the traditional left and the social justice movement. The environmentalists were almost all white and middle class, something that the (absent) social justice people and critics in the black community later focused on in their attacks on the Seattle protest. And the workers were also white and middle class. There were no Hispanic or black sponsoring groups. There were no panels or lectures by the left or minorities. Critics made much of these absences. But wait. These groups and movements were not there for one reason: none of them had ever shown any interest or been involved even remotely in the free trade/globalization issue. They were focused on racial justice and because of this they could not perceive how opposing a growth-oriented treaty would intersect with their own interests….mirroring of course their failure to understand the economic and social justice implications of environment issues in general.

It took years for this to become apparent. But though the WTO may not have been in citizens’ consciousness or the media regularly, one thing was clear: the Public Citizen-sponsored Seattle protest had not only put the issue on the map but had literally helped prepare public awareness of this issue. So when the TPP became the top news story, people were primed to, first, doubt it, and second, question it more closely, and thirdly and finally, oppose it. Then the TPP became hot news as Pres. Obama frantically worked in congress to bring his distorted vision of neo-liberalism to fruition. But then we all know what happened. 

Some members of the media, having now discovered the European battle against the TTIP, started asking hard questions. Gradually Obama’s support in congress dried up, and simultaneously the media smelled the rat behind the smiling Krugman-endorsed face, and voila! the TPP was in deep trouble, even though most Democrats and Republicans in congress had given Obama fast-track authority to push it through without further discussion or amendment. This fast track authority is still in effect and could be implemented by its former supporter, Hillary Clinton, if, as president, she so chooses. Small wonder that Donald Trump has pushed the TPP to the forefront, quoting Clinton’s description of it as the “gold standard of treaties.” It is not impossible that Trump could win the election because of this single issue, which he has rightly put at the top of his list for the campaign.

Said Greider: “..influential voices like Krugman grossly misled the nation’s political debate for a generation…..he was the bell cow for a herd of ambitious young academics who….worshipped at the same shrine of macroeconomics that’s now a shambles.” And here is the new Krugman backtracking: “… much of the elite defense of globalization is basically dishonest: false claims of inevitability, scare tactics (protectionism causes depressions!), vastly exaggerated claims for the benefits of trade liberalization and the costs of protection, hand-waving away the large distributional effects that are what standard models actually predict.” Of course all of these had already been articulated by the anti-WTO movement and Public Citizen.

Two important points need to be made here. The first is that it was the environmental movement, led by Nader and Wallach, that put WTO, NAFTA and globalization on the map, politically speaking. Those on the left who had been absent on the issue picked up the ball on the globalization issues years later, years during which the social justice movement continued their accusations against environmentalists for not caring about poverty, inequality and jobs. Nader and Wallach deserve medals for their prescience, critique and commitment to revealing the connection between environmental protection, jobs and democracy. But the social justice movements get no points for their studied indifference to the economic policies that were widening the gap between rich and poor throughout the world, and not least which were undermining democracy and accountability everywhere. 

Fast forward to today for a final analysis. During this whole period from the 1990s on (and earlier) there was no equivalent to movements such as Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall St. or militant social justice activism on any issue but the Iraq war. But where are they today? Not on the battlements with the environmentalists on free trade and globalization, nor on any other issue such as energy policy and biodiversity. True, they acknowledge the urgency of the climate change issue. But they have chosen to focus their activism elsewhere, onto an imaginary “racist.” “sexist“ society that cannot be reformed short of totalitarian governance and brainwashing, some signs of which are already visible. They have withheld not only their presence but their conscience from the enormous planetary crises caused by the monstrous industrial growth system that is rapidly destroying the biological and physical capital on which it depends for survival.

Of this they have nothing to say even though it is abundantly clear that the multiple environmental crises will only exacerbate social injustice and the suffering of the poor worldwide, and not least the refugee crisis which will balloon from millions to hundreds of millions as sea level, temperature and disease inundate Africa, the middle east and southeast Asia. It is not far fetched to imagine that the social justice movements are doing the bidding of the globalists like George Soros  and corporations, whether or not with actual funding. This may not literally be true but they behave as if it were. And if these treaties are approved, they will accelerate social injustice and ecological collapse, the inevitable results of economic and political globalization.




Lorna Salzman’s career as an environmental activist and writer began when the late David Brower hired her to be the regional representative of Friends of the Earth in NYC. Later she worked as an editor on National Audubon’s American Birds magazine and as director of Food & Water, an early opponent of food irradiation, and then spent three years as a natural resource specialist in the NYC Dept. of Environmental Protection. She co-founded the New York Green Party in 1984 and in 2004 she sought the U.S. Green Party’s presidential nomination. She is the author of “Politics as if Evolution Mattered,” which addresses the intersection of evolution with socio-political policy. 


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