The church of global free trade, which rules American politics with infallible pretensions, may have finally met its Martin Luther. An unlikely dissenter has come forward with a revised understanding of globalization that argues for thorough reformation. This man knows the global trading system from the inside because he is a respected veteran of multinational business. His ideas contain an explosive message: that what established authorities teach Americans about global trade is simply wrong–disastrously wrong for the United States.
Martin Luther was a rebellious priest challenging the dictates of a corrupt church hierarchy. Ralph Gomory, on the other hand, is a gentle-spoken technologist, trained as a mathematician and largely apolitical. He does not set out to overthrow the establishment but to correct its deeper fallacies. For many years Gomory was a senior vice president at IBM. He helped manage IBM’s expanding global presence as jobs and high-tech production were being dispersed around the world.
The experience still haunts him. He decided, in retirement, that he would dig deeper into the contradictions. Now president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, he knew something was missing in the “pure trade theory” taught by economists. If free trade is a win-win proposition, Gomory asked himself, then why did America keep losing?
The explanations he has developed sound like pure heresy to devout free traders. But oddly enough, Gomory’s analysis is a good fit with what many ordinary workers and uncredentialed critics (myself included) have been arguing for some years. An important difference is that Gomory’s critique is thoroughly grounded in the orthodox terms and logic of conventional economics. That makes it much harder to dismiss. Given his career at IBM, nobody is going to call Ralph Gomory a “protectionist.”
He did not nail his “theses” to the door of the Harvard economics department. Instead, he wrote a slender book–Global Trade and Conflicting National Interests–in collaboration with respected economist William Baumol, former president of the American Economic Association. Published seven years ago, the book languished in academic obscurity and until recently was ignored by Washington policy circles.
I asked Gomory if his former colleagues from the corporate world quarrel with his provocative message. “Most of them have never heard it,” he said. “It’s a pretty new message.” He has discussed his reform ideas with some CEOs, “who said, Well, maybe we could do that. Others couldn’t have disagreed more strongly.”
Now Gomory is attempting to re-educate the politicians in Congress. He has gained greater visibility lately because he has been joined by a group of similarly concerned corporate executives called the Horizon Project. Its leader, Leo Hindery, former CEO of the largest US cable company and a player in Democratic politics, shares Gomory’s foreboding about the destructive impact of globalization on American prosperity. Huge losses are ahead–10 million jobs or more–and Hindery fears time is running out on reform.
“We want to be a counter to the Hamilton Project,” Hindery explains. “They have a sense of stasis that is more benign than I have. I don’t think this is all going to work out.” The Hamilton policy group was launched last year by former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin to make sure the laissez-faire trade doctrine known as Rubinomics continues to dominate the Democratic Party. “We’re never going to have the status of Bob Rubin,” Hindery concedes. “But we’re not chopped liver either. We have respectable business careers. You can’t tell Ralph Gomory that he is ‘smoke and mirrors,’ because he wrote the book.”