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Podcast: Rethinking Trade in 2021 – What Are We For?

Rethinking Trade - Season 1, Episode 25

With Georgia’s run-off elections shifting control of the Senate to the Democrats, the party will have a lot more room to pursue progressive reforms than in previous years. What does this mean for fixing our rotten trade rules, and what kinds of policies should we be pursuing?

In part one of this episode, we address this question by discussing the TRADE Act of 2009. Co-sponsored by 135 members of the House and developed with a coalition of labor, environmental and other civil society organizations, the TRADE Act laid out a comprehensive vision for trade policies that would promote employment and development while protecting the environment and public health. But a lot has happened since then, from the harsh lessons COVID-19 had taught us about the facilities of hyperglobalization to the growing climate crisis to Big Tech’s monopoly choke hold. So how would progressives build on the vision of a decade ago?

In part two, we look at President-Elect Biden’s commitment to impose a moratorium on new trade deals until major investments are made to protect U.S. workers, and we discuss how important it is that this period also include a process of rethinking and fixing U.S. trade policy to work for people and the planet.

Transcribed by Sally King

Ryan: Welcome back to rethinking trade where we don’t just talk about trade policy, we fight change it. I’m Ryan and I’m joined once again by our in house trade expert, Lori Wallach. Lorie, it’s hard to know exactly how to start this episode, given the shocking things that have happened in the last week and a half in the United States. I’m sure more is to come. One thing that’s not changing, however, is the results of the Georgia election and the fight for control of the Senate, which will no doubt have an impact on the fight for good trade policies in the coming year and years. I know many of our listeners are wondering whether these results will help deliver new trade rules that work for working people and the planet. To introduce this new political moment, though, I wanted to do two things. First, I wanted to actually step backwards a bit to just over a decade ago to discuss a comprehensive trade bill that you know a lot about called the TRADE Act. And then I want to talk about the more immediate trade deal moratorium that President-elect Biden has committed to. Let’s start with the Trade Reform, Accountability, Development and Employment Act or TRADE Act. What was this bill? Or why is it important for us to be discussing it today?

Lori: So the TRADE Act was a comprehensive vision of a different kind of trade and investment policy that would promote employment, development, accountability, promote the environment and public health. And it was developed from the bottom up from members of Congress who would oppose the old NAFTA/WTO model of trade agreements, and a vast set of citizens groups, family, farm groups and consumer groups, labor unions and environmental groups, faith groups and small business groups. And it basically came out of a process that was a year long, that was basically started with discussions, what would it be? What would we be for? What do we want? What are the outcomes we want, and then some of the trade wonky allies sat down and start writing the technical trade language that would get to those results. And then there was an iterative editing process, until ultimately, with the members of Congress and the outside groups that basically are like the core constituency of the Democratic Party, a fully articulated version of what kinds of trade agreements, how to review the old ones. And if they weren’t working, fix them, and how to replace the fast track trade authority with a new process that would put an emergency brake and a steering wheel on the negotiations, to make sure that the substantive vision in the TRADE Act was going to be the outcome for agreements negotiated under this new process. And the thing that’s the most amazing about this is a 60, page long, detailed bill ended up with something like 150 c0-sponsors, agreeing that this should be the new way forward on trade.

Ryan: And what is what is this bill mean, now 10 years later, do you think we need a new TRADE Act for today?

Lori: For sure, because at that point, the focus was on a lot of issues that are still around with serious problems, offshoring of jobs, race to the bottom wages, multinational companies, abusing workers and developing countries and effectively violating people’s basic human and labor rights to maximize their profits. And really bad environmental practices and attacks on our best existing environmental and health and safety laws. All those issues were issues already. And those issues were dealt with in the TRADE Act. But now there’s been a decade more experience of what does and doesn’t work as far as the rules and trade agreements and whether they can change the behavior of these dangerous multinational corporations. But then there are a whole set of issues that weren’t at the forefront when the TRADE Act was being created. Climate we knew, but we didn’t know that it was the do or die crisis of our future. Or at least a lot of people didn’t. Some smart people did. The whole sort of issues around the massive digital monopolies, the Amazons, the Googles, Facebook, the platforms that have both become enormous threats it to small businesses to the safety of consumers with their unsafe imported products that sneak around normal tax and other obligations small businesses have to face, but also their monopoly of information and their training and our private information as if it were commodity, those issues were really not engaged then. And those issues are now some of the outrageous tie the hands of government rules that big companies are trying to insert into trade agreements. And then finally, I think the TRADE Act, though it was way ahead of its time, also didn’t fully incorporate the degree to which multinational companies would be using the so called trade agreements to dodge things like financial regulation, and anti trust breaking up monopolies broadly, not just the big tech companies, and trying to systematically undermine the space government’s had domestically to ensure that the economy works for most people. So all of the outrageous problems that were surfaced with COVID of these hyper brittle globalized supply chains, where the only thought was efficiency, not web and corporate profits, not whether consumers could get goods they needed for their health and safety and to deal with emerging crises. So those are things that any new trade policy going forward is going to need to deal with up front that the TRADE Act did not.

Ryan: And I will drop a link in the description of this podcast episode where you can learn more about the TRADE Act from Public Citizen’s website. Laurie, for part two of the podcast, I wanted to talk about President Elect Biden’s commitment to impose a moratorium on trade deals, meaning he would not negotiate any new deals until we’ve, quote, made major investments here at home and our workers and our communities, equipping them to compete and win in the global economy. That includes investing in education, infrastructure and manufacturing, here at home and quote, why is it important that Biden stick to this plan, and maybe you could just tell us a little more about this plan.

Lori: It’s important that Biden’s stick to his promise about a moratorium on new trade agreements. And that also that that moratorium practically means that they’re not going to continue with the negotiations that the Trump administration started. For free trade agreements with the United Kingdom, or with Kenya, or for new rules that big tech wants at the WTO to handcuff all of our governments from protecting our privacy and holding these monopolies accountable. All of that stuff needs to go on hiatus. And a lot of it just needs to get dumped. Because number one, a lot of the existing rules directly conflict with the goals and policies that the Biden administration itself has said it will prioritize as part of its build back better plan. So expanding by American and by America, reinvesting our tax dollars, into creating innovation and jobs, and improving our infrastructure here violates existing trade rules, giving subsidies to create the industries of the future, necessary for our resilience and ability to respond to future crises necessary to improve our economic resilience in this global economy, necessary to address economic injustice by investing in communities of color and poor parts of the country that have not had real investments for decades to create jobs, and move the economies in these regions. Those kinds of subsidies, depending on how they’re done will violate WTO and NAFTA rules against subsidies or breaking up the big tech firms regulating the banks making sure we have affordable health care, depending how any of that is done, or all of the most common sense things we need to do with respect to the climate crisis with respect to energy, for instance, a bunch of those violate or conflict with the service sector, corporate guarantees and the WTO and all of our free trade agreements. And that’s just serve a sampling of the problem. So to do what the bytom ministration is guaranteeing they’re going to do domestically, not about trade, they need to fix the existing rules, they should not be doubling down on damnation and problems they need to fix the existing rules. And then the number two reason why this moratorium is critical is we need to get the rules, right.
So we know what didn’t work. We know what the policy disasters of that have been. And we now have seen that political disasters, that these corporate rigged rules that leaves so many Americans clobbered and feeling hurt and aggrieved have caused. So we need to take the damn time to have the conversation in Congress, in the administration, with outside stakeholders in, in labor in the environmental and consumer and small business and family farm and faith communities, everyone who could be engaging needs to be engaging in sorting out what do we want trade policy to do? The new US Trade Representative nominee Catherine Thai said exactly right. trade is not an end until itself. It is a tool to use to promote our values and our goals. So as a country, we need to have a discussion about how do we make a new trade policy for the future that actually promotes not undermine undermines where we want to go with climate and saving the planet; with creating good jobs and improving people’s wages, and dealing with racial and economic inequalities that have blighted our nation for decades. What are we going to do? As a nation? How do we want to go building an infrastructure that’s not just safe, but creates innovation gets us ready to be part of the climate solution, not part of the disaster? All of those questions need to be thought out in the context of “Oh, that tool that’s called trade, the rules we’ve been using make it worse, how do we actually make it better? How do we harness that tool to promote our goals, not have the old policies undermine the things we care about.” And without a moratorium to basically put the steamroller in neutral and pull it off, and park it and have a thoughtful discussion. We’re going to just be continuing the disaster, or a lot of us are going to be distracted from being able to put our shoulders to fighting what for what we’re for. Because we’ll be in these stupid backwards repeated fights to stop the bad stuff. And you know, we’ll do it and you know, we can. We stop the TPP, US activist united. But what a dang waste of time as compared to having this hiatus and having time to think about how we’re going to go forward together.

Ryan: And how can civil society organizations like the ones that you’ve mentioned, how can folks like that and grassroots activists, like many of our listeners, helped shape this process to ensure that it results in real progressive changes in our trade policies?

Lori: Well, that’s the perfect question. So the first thing is, we have to make sure that the moratorium is real. And that includes those agreements, including the WTO, big tech agreements, the UK and Kenya free trade agreements, and any new investment agreements with ISDS or without are not going forward. First thing to do about that is I recommend folks call members of Congress, email text, right? They’re members of Congress with a two part message. Number one, I want this moratorium on trade, and I want to be reliant needs to include all the leftover Trump agreements. And number two, right to me member of Congress, and tell me what the new trade policy is going to be after this moratorium, I want to be part of creating that I want you to be part of creating that we need to replace our old trade policy. You want to get the members of Congress thinking about it, and you want to get them engaged. So open that discussion, you don’t have to have the answers. And then number two, to help you think about the answers go to our website, tradewatch.org and rethink trade. Both of those are places where number one, you can see what was in that trade at. But number two, you can start thinking for yourself what’s most important to you, in a good trade policy, what things should always be in trade agreements, obviously, they all have to have a floor of decency that companies have to meet if they want to get the benefits of the trade agreements, certain labor and wage standards, certain environmental standards, certain human rights standards, they don’t pay, they don’t play. And number two, there’s certain things trade agreements can never have again, some of them obvious like, for instance, big new protection monopolies for Big Pharma, to jack up medicine prices, the Investor State Dispute Settlement system that has corporations empowered to attack our governments. Basically, the bottom line is all of us progressives, labor unionists, activist, environmentalist, small business people, people of faith, we banded together and we made Trump have to go renegotiate his renegotiate NAFTA. And the deal we got was not perfect. It’s not what we’re for. We all said it. It’s just the floor from which we are going to continue the fight and build onward. So this next piece of business is to remind Congress that NAFTA ain’t the fix the new NAFTA is where we start from, and to get them engaged and get your brains engaged. This is that turning around moment, an enormous amount of hard works been done till now. So now, at that point, what do we for? What do we want? We will use this moratorium after winning this moratorium to actually turn around and actually rethink trade. So we get trade policies that support the goals and values that we all support.

Ryan: Rethinking trade is produced by public citizen’s global trade watch, I would encourage you to visit rethinktrade.org as well as tradewatch.org to educate yourself and to find out how you can get involved in the work we’re doing to fight for fairer and more equitable trade policies.