I’m becoming increasingly disconcerted with the American electorate’s flirtations with economic protectionism. One of the attractions of having been a Bill Clinton supporter is that he was never a protectionist. Clinton pursued globalization because he realized that that you can’t turn back the tide.
I’m all for Unions. Someone has to protect the interests of workers in a world in which global corporations will pursue the bottom line with ruthless efficiency. They need to mitigate the realities of a global economy and the desire of global corporations and multi-national companies to answer to their shareholders.
The role of government and unions in this new world is critical. While I support increased free trade and the competition it brings, we must realize that the great and irresistible macro-economic forces of globalization and free trade often crush the little man in the short-run – hence French farmers protesting in their tractors or Unions calling strikes everything a CBA needs to be re-negotiated – though we are all better off in the long run. The Invisible Hand, championed by Adam Smith, and deified by laissez-faire business Republicans can be a pitiless and cruel force.
Negotiating free-trade agreements that force other countries to play nice in the sand-box is crucial to protecting the interest of all Americans as we seek to find our place in an increasingly connected world. Government can’t simply close our economic borders but it can help to soften the fall. For their part, Unions are beginning to understand that the days of 40yr jobs and huge pension plans are gone.
This isn’t just an economic issue. It’s also a security issue. By trading with countries, we attempt to force them to play by the same rules as everyone else. We slowly help to raise the standard of living in poorer countries. As workers in other countries become less poor, their salaries go up, they demand more rights, more freedoms, more say in how their lives are governed.
Competition provides jobs to workers in other countries. Jobs provide meaning and purpose to people who otherwise might be targets of extremist ideologues. Not all trade agreements are good two-way streets but we can try to approach the middle ground.
This also isn’t just an security issue. It is a social and moral issue. Part of the so-called breakdown of the American family that is so stridently decried by the Right can be attributed to the admittedly destabilizing forces of globalization. When families lose their sense of economic security, everything else starts to break down. As women move into the workforce, men struggle to comprehend the changing structure of the family. Family life suffers as savings rate drop due to increased insurance costs. And children lose because the dream of affording college and university slips through their parents’ already over-stretched hands.
Unfortunately, we can never go back to FDR’s vision of the middle-class because it was predicated on über-stability in the job market and companies being able to pay out pensions and health-care plans. However, we can adapt and re-configure the role of government and unions in assisting our citizens in an increasingly competitive and flat world.