Clinton promised that free-trade agreements would emphasize new environmental standards, would expand the rights of workers in signatory countries, that we would not trade with countries that employed subsidies or tariffs against us, and that displaced domestic workers would eventually see gains after being retrained and redeployed for new jobs that would eventually appear to replace the lost ones.
“To the men and women of our country who were afraid of these changes,” Clinton said, “the gains from this agreement will be your gains, too.”
It was never articulated this way, exactly, but the basic promise of free trade was that the American middle class would experience temporary losses that over time would be balanced out by increased growth worldwide.
It was trickle-down economics, only repackaged with an international spin: After a long trip around the world, the wealth eventually gets back to you.
Twenty-three years later, we see how all of this has turned out. There have been some improvements in the economic condition of foreign workers.
But we never excluded politically oppressive regimes from free-trade deals, never made sure that trade partners weren’t also massive human rights violators, never seriously worried about environmental enforcement. Mostly, we just made cheap, un-free foreign labor available to Western manufacturers.
Even a onetime die-hard NAFTA cheerleader like staunch Clinton supporter Paul Krugman, who once compared free trade’s critics to the anti-evolutionist followers of William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes Monkey Trial, now admits that the case for “ever-freer” trade is a “scam”…
A Republican Workers’ Party?