Dude! Where’s My Debate?

Dude! Where’s My Debate?

The majority of Americans support fair-trade policies–so why do mainstream pundits treat the idea with so much contempt?


Lest I appear obsessed with how (simultaneously) wrong and out-of-touch mainstream pundits were about Iraq, let’s turn now to trade, where conventional conservative wisdom is, amazingly, even more dominant.

A demand for tougher trade policies was nearly as fundamental to the success of the 2006 Democratic electoral sweep as opposition to Bush’s catastrophic war. “There has been an evolution among almost all Democrats that these trade agreements simply need to be constructed in a different way–for fair trade, not for free trade,” a victorious Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio explained. In Virginia, James Webb promised, “We are going to work very hard on issues of economic fairness in a country that has become too divided by class…. We must re-examine our tax and trade policies.” And Rhode Island’s Sheldon Whitehouse beat Lincoln Chafee, despite the latter’s anti-Bush stance, by proclaiming, “It’s time to reject trade deals like NAFTA and CAFTA that fail to protect American jobs.”

Now, how many mainstream pundits share the fair-trade view endorsed by so many millions of voting Americans and demonstrated in decades of polls conducted by the Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs? Virtually none. “Free trade,” really just a nice name for a free investment policy that allows global corporations to move production and capital around the world with no thought to the human and environmental consequences and that offers countless exceptions when the powerful are threatened, is the religion of the American elite. The primary punditocracy outliers–Pat Buchanan and Lou Dobbs–oppose it from a right-wing nativist perspective. The columns by the Washington Post‘s invaluable Harold Meyerson–which reflect a progressive, pro-labor, pro-environment, fair-trade perspective–may make him the only mainstream pundit with mainstream values on the issue.

As with Iraq, the punditocracy not only embraces a theoretical model that bears little resemblance to reality but also insults the intelligence and integrity of anyone who dares disagree. One expects such tactics from ABC’s Cokie Roberts, Washington’s most reliable weather vane of conventional wisdom. Earlier this year she warned that if Democrats pursue fair-trade instead of free-trade policies, they will be “essentially on the wrong side of history with globalization.” Even among liberals, fealty to free trade is nearly as reflexive. During the 2004 election, New York Times “liberal” Nicholas Kristof went so far as to equate mistrust of corporate-friendly free-trade arguments with attempts to spread lies about John Kerry’s war record. Kristof opined, “Intellectual consistency requires a tough look first at one’s own shortcomings. So Republicans should be denouncing the smear against Kerry’s war record, and Democrats should be denouncing their candidate’s protectionist tone on trade.” Kristof did not seem to realize that he was equating deliberate lies and slander–of a war hero, no less–with an honest disagreement on a matter of policy.

Kristof sounds kind of open-minded when compared with his colleague on the page, Thomas Friedman. Asked at a speaking gig, “Mr. Friedman, is there any free-trade agreement you’d oppose?” Friedman replied, “No, absolutely not,” adding, “You know what, sir? I wrote a column supporting the CAFTA, the Caribbean Free Trade initiative. I didn’t even know what was in it. I just knew two words: ‘free trade.'” (Um, dude, you also didn’t know its name: It’s the Central American Free Trade Agreement.) Friedman has explained to those who disagree with him that there was “a country that tried that. It guaranteed everyone’s job, maintained a protected market and told everyone else how to live. It was called the Soviet Union.”

This column is not going to settle the dispute over whether the United States needs a tougher trade policy. I happen to think so, but I don’t expect to convince, say, Paul Krugman or Jagdish Bhagwati that I am right and they are wrong. My question is this: Why does the opinion of the majority of the country get nothing but contempt in public discourse? Are Americans who question the dogma of “free trade” merely “duped by knaves like Pat Buchanan,” as Friedman insists? Why are the arguments of economists like Frank Taussig, Dani Rodrik, Dean Baker and the folks over at the Economic Policy Institute considered beyond the bounds of rational debate? Of course, the inherent bias of the economics profession is one answer. But so too, I fear, are the results of globalization, which are largely great for the rich but not so hot for those holding on to their livelihoods by a rapidly fraying thread. A report issued by the American Political Science Association in 2004 titled American Democracy in an Age of Rising Inequality noted, “Skewed participation among citizens and the targeting of government resources to partisans and the well-organized ensure that government officials disproportionately respond to business, the wealthy.” As a result, less-advantaged Americans “are so absent from discussions in Washington that government officials are likely to hear about their concerns, if at all, from more privileged advocates who speak for the disadvantaged. Politicians hear most regularly about the concerns of business and the most affluent.” This is true in terms of indirect as well as direct influence. Wealthy people and their corporations own newspapers and fund think tanks, public affairs television, university chairs, advertising campaigns, lecture series and the like. Ordinary people do not. With few exceptions, these same organizations and institutions represent the views of the wealthy and well connected.

“It’s all very well to sympathize with the working man,” William Rainey Harper, the first president of the University of Chicago, once remarked. “But we get our money from the other side, and we can’t afford to offend them.”

* * *

This feels like the right place to mention how much I regret the loss of Molly Ivins, who over and over showed us the meaning of toughness and compassion, to say nothing of fun. She is already deeply missed.

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