Trade sets Wall Street’s
Heart athrob;
While it robs me
Of my job.

Does it matter that no cell phones are made in America? Or scarcely any solar panels? Or that 91 percent of Walmart’s goods come from China? Should we care that our sundry free trade agreements have caused so many of those spiffy products on our shelves to be produced in the world’s grimmest sweatshops?

Maybe not. As the world’s capitalist bulwark we benefit more than most from the resultant cheap prices.

But it turns out that free trade causes a couple problems for us too. One is jobs. They’re gone. This isn’t surprising since we don’t make stuff here anymore. With 9 percent unemployed and another 9 percent underemployed or dropped out, who’s left with money to buy things? Even Walmart is now shifting its focus to overseas markets since our middle class is shrinking so. Median family income is plummeting.

Then there’s the debt. Every month we buy shiploads more stuff from others than they buy from us. Thus our foreign debt piles up faster than nuclear waste.

The only way we can avoid disaster is to stop buying, but that annoys the mostly American corporations who profit from it. They manufacture or subcontract those goods abroad but wield great influence over the government and politicians at home. Thus we watch in awe as President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner propose still more free trade agreements that will make it even more profitable to produce abroad and export back to the U.S. market, tariff-free.

America’s subservient flat-earth economists don’t mind that at all. They visualize all those abused sweatshop workers growing up into consumers one day and buying foreign-made (but U.S.-owned) products wherever they happen to be. Other economists understand the horror of those workplaces and fail to envision those workers ever becoming real consumers.Creative Commons image by Marissa Orton.

No doubt time will produce some of each, but in any case few new jobs will accrue to the United States. That damage is already well advanced. Anyone who has traveled to the Eurozone lately will confirm that the dollar isn’t worth much anymore. This plunge will accelerate as Republican lawmakers play games with our national debt ceiling. It just takes one black mark from a rating agency and you can kiss your dreams of a trip to Europe goodbye.

What America really needs today is a good old-fashioned trade war. Give the required six months notice, withdraw from NAFTA, DR-CAFTA, and the WTO, and start over. International trade agreements are meant to benefit corporations, not workers. And if you think such treaties are bad for people here, well for poorer countries they’re worse.

A good healthy trade war would dramatize the issue and haul our present trade cabals out of the back room where American negotiators are not fit to be trusted.

Already they have agreed to allow corporations to bypass national court systems and sue governments in international tribunals over local environmental, labor, and zoning laws that may hurt their profits. Citizens have suffered under these rulings. Corporations, though, have made out like bandits. Our political leaders may thrive on America’s mindless shooting wars, but trade wars are needed now to save the country.

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William A. Collins

OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut.

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