Free Trade

Vatican to WTO: Change Your Approach, Remember the Poor

Image via Noor Khamis / Reuters / RNS

A Vatican envoy urged the World Trade Organization to keep promises made to the poor, amid concerns that its tariff-cutting efforts are disproportionately benefiting rich countries. The appeal came as the WTO, a Geneva-based organization that regulates international trade, was holding a four-day meeting ending Dec. 18 in the Kenyan capital.

A Wish List for the 1 Percent

THE TRANS-PACIFIC Partnership may be the largest free trade agreement you’ve never heard of. Or if you have heard of the TPP, it’s likely due to media reports about efforts by President Obama to fast-track the agreement through legislative hurdles. Still, details of the agreement and its secret negotiation process are sparse. Were it not for released drafts of the document and sub-chapters made available by the whistle-blowing site WikiLeaks, it is likely the general public would know little to nothing of the accord.

Building on the foundation of a 2006 economic partnership agreement adopted to encourage trade between Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, and Singapore, the TPP’s expansion of the agreement grows the number of participant nations to 12, adding Australia, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Vietnam, and the United States. The combined economic force of these nations would dominate global trade, representing roughly $28 trillion—nearly 40 percent—of the world’s gross domestic product.

But the magnitude of this trading pool isn’t what concerns most critics of the TPP. What is more troubling to labor, environmental, and health groups are the powers seemingly granted to multinational corporations by the agreement and the unilateral easing of climate change laws that serve to restrain industrial nations from disproportionate consumption and pollution.

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The Good of Manufacturing

High unemployment and declining incomes are changing America so drastically that we’ll soon have a country our grandparents wouldn’t even recognize. And our best and brightest lack the imagination to do anything about it.

Those are the messages, overt and implied, in a recent run of brilliant analytical journalism by Don Peck, an editor at The Atlantic. In March 2010, The Atlantic published Peck’s supremely important, and very long, article “How a New Jobless Era Will Transform America.” September 2011 brought a follow-up, “Can the Middle Class Be Saved?” and the material in both pieces has been expanded into a book, Pinched: How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures and What We Can Do About It.

In that first Atlantic article, Peck successfully does what almost no one ever does: He pulls together the relationship between economics and culture. On the economics side, he establishes that what we are experiencing today is no ordinary “business cycle” recession, but something more like a slow-motion equivalent to the Great Depression. And he cites studies of previous generations that entered the work force in times of high unemployment to show that the effects of the hard times didn’t wear off, but instead persisted over a lifetime of lower earnings and diminished happiness.

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Corporate Greed, Meet Coconut Theology

Coconut vessels. Images via Wylio.
Coconut vessels. Images via Wylio.

It's a clear sign something's wrong when talks on "free trade" turn an island paradise into an armed camp.

Hawaii is on lockdown this week while the U.S. tries to hammer out a regional trade agreement that's being called "NAFTA for the Pacific." While some mean this as a compliment, Hawaii's faith and labor leaders are lifting their voices against an agreement they believe will put profits for banks and corporations above workers' rights, indigenous culture, and local communities. Those leaders are drawing on the Pacific region's indigenous "Coconut Theology" to provide an alternative vision of the common good.

"Coconut Theology came out of our contextual understanding of the Gospel in the Pacific," said Rev. Piula Alailima, pastor of Wesley Methodist Church in Honolulu and a core leader in the community organizing group Faith Action for Community Equity (FACE). "When we break the body of the coconut and partake of the juice, it's a symbol of the body and blood of Christ, of sacrifice, of community and the common good."

Class Matters

Danny Duncan Collum got it right in his article on media and academic bias in the service of free trade and globalization ("One Side to Every Story," May 2007). Probably some economists will cancel their subscription, but here is one who will eagerly renew!

Herman E. Daly
College Park, Maryland

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Sojourners Magazine July 2007
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World Market 101

Imagine you're a Mexican corn farmer in 1994. On a small plot of rain-watered land, you grow corn for your family, with a bit left over to sell so that you can buy medicine, clothes, and other necessities. You may or may not be aware that your government has just negotiated a trade deal, the North American Free Trade Agreement, with the governments of the U.S. and Canada. But if you don't know, you will soon—up close and personal.

Hundreds of miles north, impelled by market forces, U.S. farmers are using petroleum- and pesticide-intensive farming methods that produce large yields but pass on environmental costs to future generations. Because of this, and also because they receive massive government subsidies (most of which wind up going to agribusiness), their corn sells for a much lower price than yours. For decades, your government, like that of many low-income countries, has protected its farmers with tariffs on imported corn, which makes it easier for your corn to compete in Mexico. Now NAFTA will end the tariffs that protect you, without affecting the production model or subsidies that make U.S. corn so cheap. To ease the impact, the Mexican government had negotiated a 15-year transition period on corn tariffs—but large-scale Mexican cattle growers, who want cheap feed and have more political pull than you do, will talk the government into getting rid of tariffs in a mere 30 months. The price you get for your corn will plummet nearly 50 percent.

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Sojourners Magazine May 2007
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One Side to Every Story

On the morning of Jan. 8, 2007, I was driving along a narrow, twisting, two-lane highway through rural Kentucky. I'd delivered my oldest son to school. I was still on Christmas break and returning home to work on a book proposal. The newly elected Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown was on the radio talking about "fair trade." It was morning in America, and despite the grey, sleety sky, I was feeling a rosy patriotic glow. Then National Public Radio's Morning Edition co-anchor Steve Inskeep turned to analyst Cokie Roberts for a comment on the Brown interview, and I almost drove into a goat pen.

Naturally, Inskeep framed the issue as a horse-race question. "Is the notion of cracking down on free trade a winning issue for Democrats?" But Roberts brushed such petty considerations aside and turned loose an ideological tirade. "It is in some states and in some districts, but it's a long-term loser," she said. "It puts them essentially on the wrong side of history with globalization." Having declared the spirit of the age, she continued, "Even though labor unions often lose with trade agreements, consumers gain." Roberts signed off with a stern warning to Brown and anyone else who might buck the corporate trade agenda. "Democrats have to be very careful here .…"

Roberts is, of course, the ultimate insider journalist, and her reporting usually repeats conventional Beltway wisdom. But she's not in the habit of issuing Hegelian pronouncements on the tides of history. Corporate globalization, however, is covered by a different set of journalistic rules. When it comes to the supposed benefits of "free trade," virtually all of the mainstream media have, for the past 15 years, shed their customary skepticism, embraced corporate economic orthodoxy, and brooked absolutely no dissent.

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Sojourners Magazine May 2007
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Not A Fair Trade

Countries in the Global South forged alliances against U.

Countries in the Global South forged alliances against U.S. and European bullying during last fall’s WTO meeting in Cancun. Two months later, in negotiations for the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas, U.S. negotiators were forced to back off again from some of their most draconian demands.

The U.S. response? The Central American Free Trade Agreement, a pact hastily negotiated with easily intimidated neighbors and slated for a vote in the U.S. Congress as early as June. The intended message of the agreement with Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica, El Salvador, and possibly the Dominican Republic is that the rest of Latin America had better toe the line or risk being left in the cold. But the fight against CAFTA in Congress—a fight that, in this election year, can be won—offers the perfect opportunity to send a far different message: that trade pacts must consider the welfare of citizens, not just of big business.

According to Angel Rivera of the Latin American Council of Churches, "churches are worried about the increase of poverty NAFTA has created in their fellow Mexican churches and how CAFTA is reproducing the same institutions on this treaty." They—and we—have good reason to worry.

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Sojourners Magazine June 2004
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