It’s an outrage–unless you think the federal government, in the midst of a severe financial crisis and distressing levels of unemployment, needs to devote $6.8 million to performing arts at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
Why can’t each of these spending decisions be considered on its own merits, one at a time? I think we know the reason: Members of both parties have an interest in making sure this never happens. Sources tell me that if you want to eavesdrop on their strategy sessions, loiter in the hallways of the Kennedy Center during the intermissions of the ballet performances.
Sadly, this short-sighted approach to policymaking isn’t confined to Congress and its budget bills. It goes on all the time–and its deployment in the arena of international trade is hurting the U.S. economy in a moment of dire need.
Last week, the Obama administration released its official Trade Policy Agenda. It is a paltry, four-and-a-half-page document. As Terence Corcoran pointed out in the Financial Post, nowhere does it identify free trade as an operating principle, unless you count this sentence: “If we work together, free and fair trade with proper regard for social and environmental policy and appropriate political accountability will be a powerful contributor to the national and global well being.”
That’s an awful lot of qualifiers for a single sentence.
Just as Congress lards up its spending bills with special-interest projects, the Obama administration appears committed to bogging down trade talks with all varieties of unrelated issues. Rather than seeking to advance a trade agenda that will benefit American workers and consumers, it apparently plans to hold trade hostage to a social and environmental agenda.
On Monday, U.S. trade representative-designate Ron Kirk said as much at his Senate confirmation hearing: “The President and I believe that our mission is not simply to increase American exports, as important as that is, but to ensure that the way we promote trade reflects our country’s values about economic progress and justice, including through the advancement of internationally recognized labor and environmental standards.”
Trade policy is trade policy–it’s that simple. If President Obama wants to promote better labor practices in other nations, I wish him well. I also encourage him to work through the normal channels of diplomacy, including the International Labor Organization, a special branch of the United Nations that exists for this very purpose.
It would be bad enough if our government was merely failing to complete sensible trade agreements, such as the unapproved deals with Colombia and South Korea, due to hang-ups about ergonomics in Colombian factories and the condition of Korean wetlands. Even more worrisome, however, is the possibility that the stated concerns about labor and the environment are stalking horses for something else entirely: protectionism.
When I was young, I worked at a slaughter plant in Iowa. Years later, I was involved in negotiating trade rules between the United States and Europe, including discussions about slaughter-plant operations. The Europeans wanted to regulate just about everything, right down to the color of the boots Americans would wear on the job.
Their concern for the way we looked was touching. Yet there was no rational reason for their demands, except one: They didn’t really want to promote trade. Instead, they wanted to maintain protectionist policies that prevented U.S. products from penetrating their markets. So they came up with a list of absurd requirements.
This is now what’s happening to U.S. trade policy. Rather than making it easier for Americans to sell goods and services to foreign customers, our leaders are insisting that other countries meet unrealistic directives on labor and the environment.
The World Bank says that global trade will shrink by more than 2 percent this year. This will compound our problems domestically, as more than 30 percent of last year’s U.S. GDP was tied to trade.
If Washington truly wants to stimulate the economy, it will abandon the fantasy that its taxpayer-funded handouts to the Kennedy Center do any good. It should forswear pork-barrel politics and introduce a trade policy that promises to put Americans back to work.
Until then, one of Washington’s leading export products will be sheer nonsense.
<i>Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org Mr. Kleckner was the only farmer on the U.S. advisory team to the GATT negotiations when they began in September 1986 in Uruguay. Kleckner served on the U.S. Trade Advisory Committee, first appointed by President Reagan, reappointed by President Bush, and reappointed twice by President Clinton.</i>