Global Policy Forum

Abandoning the Clinton Legacy


By Jonathan Tasini

Tom Paine
June 04, 2004

The term "free trade" doesn't refer to "free" trade at all. Instead, it means carefully designed agreements to protect corporate rights and investments. But Clinton's NAFTA-centered plans weren't much better, and they left a legacy of lost jobs and climbing deficits. John Kerry needs to go much further—beyond Clinton, way beyond Bush—to ensure that workers' rights and environmental protections come standard in our trade agreements.

Let's start by stating the obvious: John Kerry's written economic plan would be better for workers than the current administration's disastrous record or false promises. The people—that is, those not numbering among the wealthiest five percent—cannot afford another four years of economic mismanagement and hostility to workers.

But there are minefields ahead and, from time to time, I'll try to point some of them out. One reared its ugly head in the past few days: trade. Last week, quite unnoticed in the press, the current president signed yet another so-called "free trade" agreement: The Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). CAFTA is a NAFTA-like so-called "free trade" agreement covering Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Similarly, with almost no fanfare, the president recently signed a so-called "free trade" deal with Australia. Though CAFTA probably won't come before the Senate before November, Kerry will likely face a vote on extension of something called the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). And the pressure on Kerry to vote for AGOA will come from many quarters, including the New Democratic members of the party.

I have referred and will continue to refer to any of these trade agreements as "so-called free trade" because they bear no resemblance to free trade. "Free trade" is just a marketing phrase picked up uncritically by college-educated journalists and politicians who probably absorbed the theoretical wonders of free trade in an introductory economics class. True free trade could be written as a 10-page document. NAFTA-style trade agreements are voluminous, carefully written documents mainly crafted to protect investment and capital rights such as corporate intellectual property. Indeed, rather than free trade, these agreements are tightly-managed trade for special interests.

One of the unhappy consequences of the war in Iraq has been that coverage of trade has moved from feeble to almost nonexistent. As Public Citizen reported at the time of AGOA's initial negotiation in 1999, the deal would single out Africa for "imposition of harsh IMF-style domestic social and economic policy changes, budget cuts in health and education, privatization through divestiture of public assets, cuts in corporate taxes, etc. as a condition for U.S. trade relations." More revealing, AGOA was highly sought after by the oil industry; the industry's leading magazine, Oil Daily, reported that AGOA was an industry bill promoted by "U.S. oil companies including Chevron Corp, Mobil Corp., Texaco, Inc. Exxon Corp., Conoco, Inc. and Amoco Corp. . . ."

Already, the drumbeat has begun. In a June 2 editorial, The Wall Street Journal challenged Kerry to refute "the Bush campaign's charge that he favors ‘economic isolationism." Voting no on AGOA—which the Journal proclaims is one "of the happier legacies of the Clinton years"—would mean that Kerry was "abandoning Bill Clinton's New Democrat legacy and leading his party back into economic defeatism."

I hope Kerry remembers that the legacy of NAFTA, using the same methodology NAFTA's proponents wielded, was 750,000 American jobs lost, many of them good-paying manufacturing jobs that were a backbone of America's middle class; a ballooning trade deficit with Mexico and Canada to $87 billion in 2002; and plummeting wages in Mexico and Canada. Why would anyone want to emulate such a legacy? Kerry has already pledged that he will review all trade agreements within 120 days. In particular, he said he will make sure that the so-called "free trade" agreements have strong labor and environmental protections. This is certainly a laudable goal.

But the problem has always been that the labor and environmental provisions are afterthoughts, tacked on to assuage enough politicians to vote for agreements likely to be unpopular with constituents, whose jobs might actually be put at risk by the agreements. Adopting this frame of so-called "free trade" agreements automatically casts the discussion in such a way that the rights of workers and the right to a clean environment are secondary to the investment and capital rights that drive these deals.

The real challenge will be to fashion an entirely different notion of what it means to engage in economic relationships between countries. A modest reframing of the whole process would start with a blank piece of paper upon which is written the overriding principle of trading agreements: "the goal of economic relationships is to democratically enhance the welfare of the people, while building a sustainable system to leave behind for future generations." From there, it's a no-brainer to write a document that puts labor and environment at the forefront and makes capital rights subservient to those goals.

That would mean, as the Journal warns, abandoning the Clinton legacy. And that would be a good thing.

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