Sunday, May 20 , 2018, 11:53 pm | Fair 58º


Mark Shields: Different Trade Winds Blow These Days

Amid persistently high unemployment, national tide has turned against unfettered free trade

As King Henry VIII said to each of his six wives, “Don’t worry, I won’t keep you long.”

Mark Shields
Mark Shields

The public debate on free trade in the United States has essentially been one-sided. The nation’s Establishment — financial, corporate, academic and media — has always unequivocally backed any and all free-trade agreements. When the editorial pages of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post simultaneously endorsed the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, the public debate was basically over and the deal was effectively sealed.

Trade-deal opponents were dismissed by the establishment media as certified eccentrics (Ross Perot) or short-sighted “economic nationalists” (union members and Democratic officeholders such as former House leaders Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., and David Bonior, D-Mich.). Business interests always insisted that trade pacts include enforceable protection of intellectual property, but when opponents insisted that the treaties include workers rights, environmental rights and human rights, they were patronized as unrealistic and obstructionist.

I felt at the time, and still do, that one major reason for the monolithic media support for free trade treaties was that no editorial writer or Washington bureau chief ever was at risk of losing her or his job to a Chinese or Third World journalist willing to work for $30 a week.

But painful human casualties — characterized by 19 consecutive months of U.S. unemployment above 9 percent — have finally routed abstract theory. The national tide has turned against unfettered free trade.

Please don’t take my word for it. Listen to the candid counsel delivered by respected Republican pollster Bill McInturff to a Wall Street Journal conference of CEOs that “free trade has become synonymous with outsourcing, with shipping jobs overseas.”

There is among Americans, McInturff noted, “a growing sense that other countries are taking advantage of us.” It is in the numbers of the surveys, among others, that Republican McInturff and respected Democratic pollster Peter Hart together do for the Wall Street Journal-NBC News where, “when you ask people, has free trade helped the economy, by a 2-to-1 margin, they say (free trade) has hurt.”

This judgment is now dominant among “Republicans, upper-income households and people with the largest assets,” whose support for free trade “has dropped precipitously.”

In the past 10 years, jobs in U.S. manufacturing have dropped by one-third. There are today more than 5.6 million fewer manufacturing jobs with good wages and good benefits than there were just 10 years ago. You may not want to call it, as Perot did, “a giant sucking sound,” but manufacturing as a share of the U.S. economy has shrink during the past two generations by 71 percent.

Obviously, this hemorrhaging is not attributable solely to free trade. But those treaties have further fed the growing public perception that we in the United States don’t make anything anymore except deals and, maybe, movies, and that American financial and corporate interests have been more than willing to sacrifice American jobs on the altar of higher profits.

Last year alone, primarily because of the national recession but also because every year fewer and fewer employers offer health insurance to their workers, the number of Americans without health insurance increased 4.3 million to 50.7 million in all.

Free trade obviously is neither the only villain in this melancholy story, nor would its suspension miraculously restore lost American prosperity. But the uncritical embrace of free trade by the comfortable American establishment left in its wake shattered dreams and battered communities. It was only inevitable that by late 2010 the country’s “trade winds” are blowing in a much different direction.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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