Border Unemployment


As an avid reader, I’ve shopped at a store in Des Moines for years. It’s hard to believe that I’ve probably walked through its doors for the last time.

As much as I’ll miss the occasional visits to browse, the real tragedy involves the people who have showed up for work every day at one of America’s great retail chains. They must go, too. More than 10,000 are losing their jobs.

Now they’ll hunt for work in an economy that suffers from an unemployment rate of more than 9 percent–and there’s no federal program called Bookshop Adjustment Assistance to help them.

Their plight calls attention to one of the stranger aspects of U.S. trade policy. Although congressional approval of three pending trade agreements would create jobs for these displaced workers, Washington won’t act because of a dispute over something called Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), a program that benefits some unemployed Americans but not others.

In other words, Washington wants to lend a helping hand if your job crosses borders but not if you’ve just lost your job at Borders.

This is no way to conduct trade diplomacy. And it’s certainly no way to help people survive in a depressed economy.

I know what it’s like to lose a job because it no longer exists. As a former political professional, I’ve experienced what happens to campaign staffs after disappointing elections.

Borders employees face a similar dilemma. They’re the victims of large economic forces involving technology and consumer taste–and no matter how hard they worked to satisfy customers, there was probably nothing they could have done to save their company from its fate.

Their story is hardly unique. The digital revolution in music has devastated record-store employees. Companies like Netflix and Redbox have eliminated jobs for video-rental workers. Growing up on an Iowa family farm, I have vivid harvest memories of my mom driving the corn picker and my dad hauling loads of corn – still on the cob – to store in a corn crib on our farm. When we needed the corn for livestock feed, my dad hired a local businessman who owned a corn sheller to remove the dried corn from the cob. John Deere’s ‘new’ combine negated my dad’s need to hire the corn sheller for that dusty job!

It’s distressing to see good people lose jobs for any reason, but sometimes this is how progress works. Without the constant churning, we’d still be sending messages by telegraph and driving buggies to the farmer’s market. The upside is that our economy would have a place for lots of telegraph operators and buggy drivers. The downside is that none of us would have cell phones or cars.

Americans also can lose their jobs due to foreign competition–and when it happens, it’s not less fair or more painful than when they lose jobs for any other reason.

Yet Washington’s insistence on treating people who lose their jobs because of foreign competition as different from people who lose their jobs for other reasons now imperils three trade agreements that will help the entire U.S. economy.

The trade pacts with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea were negotiated by the Bush administration. President Obama has been calling for their congressional approval for a year and a half. Congressional majorities appear to favor them.

Everybody agrees that they’ll lead to a surge in U.S. exports–along with more employment opportunities across a range of industries. There are real numbers to support this. The FTA between South Korea and the EU went into effect on July 1. The Wall Street Journal reported that in 2 weeks, trade between those two countries increased by 17.4 percent. With an estimated export increase of about $13 billion when the US agreements with Colombia, Panama and S Korea go into effect – we’re talking real jobs and real money at no cost to our country. Now that’s how you begin to deal with a deficit!

Yet there’s a hang-up involving TAA–and it could be a political deal killer. Some politicians insist that they won’t support the trade agreements unless the federal government also pumps additional funds into TAA. Others question its effectiveness and add that when Washington is busting through debt ceilings, we should try to trim spending rather than increase it.

I hope they figure out a way to approve these trade agreements, with or without TAA. They’re too important for our economy–and especially for Americans who need jobs.

At the same time, it seems odd that our lawmakers have let this dispute over a small segment of the unemployed delay action on a job-boosting measure that will help all people who need work, regardless of whether they’ve arrived at the misfortune of unemployment because of borders or Borders.

Mary Boote serves as the Executive Director for Truth About Trade & Technology.


Mary Boote

Mary Boote

Mary Boote serves as Chief Executive Officer of the Global Farmer Network. Raised on a Northwest Iowa dairy, pork, corn, and soybean family farm, she had the privilege of serving as agriculture adviser to Iowa Governor Terry E. Branstad from 1997-1999.

Through the Global Farmer Network, Mary works with farmers around the world to develop and deliver communication platforms that engage the farmers' perspective and voice as an integral part of the dialogue regarding the global agri-food system. The mission: To amplify the farmers' voice in promoting trade, technology, sustainable farming, economic growth, and food security.

Named as one of the Worldview 100: Global Industry's top 100 Visionaries and Leaders in Biotechnology by Scientific American Worldview in 2015, Mary has had the opportunity to travel internationally, serving on agriculture leadership missions that focused on issues as varied as instruction on strategic planning and personal representation for privatized agriculturalists in newly independent countries to learning more about smallholder maize projects to observing the trade negotiation process at the World Trade Organization.

Mary attended Northwestern College, Orange City, Iowa and was privileged to participate in the 2009 Harvard AgriBusiness Seminar.

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