Sherrod Brown: Covid Shows How Corporate ‘Free Trade’ Policies Threaten Public Health

Sherrod Brown: Covid Shows How Corporate ‘Free Trade’ Policies Threaten Public Health

Sherrod Brown: Covid Shows How Corporate ‘Free Trade’ Policies Threaten Public Health

The Ohio senator proposes a radically different approach to trade policy. It starts with the word “public.”


Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown wears a pin of a canary in a cage, recalling the days when coal miners carried the birds underground to detect poisonous gases.

Brown has spent three decades warning Americans about the danger of trade policies that prioritize profits over workers and the public interest. He continues to highlight the error of letting corporate interests and pliant politicians shape our trade and manufacturing policies, particularly in light of the supply shortages that have made fighting the coronavirus pandemic so challenging. We talked about the need for policies that renew our sense of public goods and necessities.

—John Nichols

JN: When Covid-19 hit, we suddenly had shortages—not enough ventilators or masks. Governors cut deals to import personal protection equipment. Is this a consequence of wrongheaded trade and tax policies?

SB: There’s been a 30-, 35-year buildup of this. We established an economic environment, in large part because of corporate lobbying, of a very compliant, wanting-to-please Congress and administrations…so that the most profitable business plan for lots of manufacturing companies could be to shut down production here—especially if it was a union plant—move it overseas, enjoy cheap labor and weak environmental rules and worker safety rules, and sell the products back into the United States. It became the business plan [for] manufacturing company after company after company…. Republican presidents, Democratic presidents share some guilt in the trade regimen part of it. When you had administration after administration, Congress after Congress layering [bad trade and tax policies] one on the other, you ended up, in a sense, with our disarmament when it came to public health.

JN: Is this part of a broader failure to maintain public health infrastructure?

SB: Until a decade ago, we had a strong public health system. Then one of the most vicious attacks by the Tea Party was on the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and on public health generally. That began the unraveling of our public health infrastructure. With [Donald] Trump’s firing of Timothy Ziemer, the admiral that was head of the pandemic surveillance operation at the White House, things unraveled even more. The biggest lesson of what happened is that our public health system was weakened. But you’ve got to include in that the fact that the manufacturing [of vital equipment] was moved.

JN: Other countries have industrial policies that plan with an eye toward serving the public interest, as opposed to simply deferring to corporations. Can the US strike a better balance?

SB: I would start with anything that has “public” in front of it. So what do you need for public transportation? What do you need for public education? What do you need for public health? And that’s where our trade policy should begin. That’s where you want to make it a priority to take away the incentives to move overseas—and to provide incentives to keep manufacturing here.

If it’s about public transit, we should be making public buses here, city buses here. If it’s public education, we should be making school materials of all kinds here. If it’s public health, we should make what we need here. That doesn’t mean we’ll never [import] our pharmacological drugs. But we should be looking at how we can make what is needed in the US.

JN: If Democrats win in November, what needs to be done to make the kind of changes you’re talking about?

SB: If the Democrats take over, I think you will see some adjustments for sure in tax law, in corporate taxes, because of the huge giveaway that Republican corporate interests did three years ago. That’s the beginning. But then you also maybe need a domestic sort of peacetime Defense Production Act. The Defense Production Act is for defending the country in times of peril, in times of an assault on our national security one way or the other. It could be about war. It could also [be used to prepare for] a pandemic.

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