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How Trump’s New NAFTA Shafts Workers And Consumers Again

“Keep your eye on the ball” is a core principle not only for baseball players but also for us commoners trying to assess exactly what the spinmeisters of global trade are hurling at us. Their deals are and always have been large-scale hustles, filled with hypocrisy, deceit and greed. Promoted as fair and good for all, they’re invariably rigged with profiteering schemes that lock into law advantages for corporations over the common good of consumers, the environment, labor, independent businesses, governments and all other democratic forces.

Further, they are works of deliberate deception, drafted in strict secrecy and couched in page after page of arcane legalese that intentionally obscures the corporate thievery so We the People don’t know that we’ve been had until it’s too late. They hide the ball to keep you, me and even Congress from seeing specifically who’ll profit and who’ll pay. So, heads up, for here comes another sucker pitch.

“A historic transaction,” Trump grandiloquently hailed his Afta-NAFTA handiwork in an April tweet, lauding the 1,809-page United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement as “the most important trade deal we’ve ever made by far.” Backed by a coalition of some 200 corporate and Wall Street powerhouses, Trump demanded that Congress quickly ratify the USMCA “so we can bring back our manufacturing jobs in even greater numbers, expanding American agriculture, protecting intellectual property.” “Once again,” swooned Fox personality Laura Ingraham, “Trump delivers.”

Yes, but what … and for whom?

Big Pharma: If the USMCA passes as currently drafted, it would require the governments of the U.S., Mexico and Canada to guarantee — and even extend — Big Pharma’s monopoly price-setting power. Specifically, the deal gives drugmakers 10 years of exclusive marketing for critical “biologic” meds that millions of people need — in addition to the 20-year monopoly that U.S. patent laws already grant. Trump’s deal would prevent generic competitors from offering cheaper versions for an extra decade while also shackling Canadians and Mexicans to the pricing racket that Pharma already runs in the U.S.

Big Oil: Although the USMCA largely eliminates the anti-democratic and unjust system of dispute-deciding corporate-run “courts,” seven oil behemoths (including Shell, ExxonMobil and Chevron) would retain their NAFTA-granted access to these odious tribunals. One particular concern is that the giants will use these kangaroo courts to block Mexican efforts to strengthen environment and health protections and address the climate crisis.

Big Bosses: The USMCA would finally outlaw Mexico’s notorious company-run “unions” that allow workers no control or even participation. While the deal prohibits these fraudulent labor units, it provides no way to monitor, much less enforce, corporate compliance.

Big Food: The original NAFTA included a literal gag rule. It allowed cheaply produced Mexican beef and other meat to be sold in the U.S. — even if it didn’t meet our food safety standards. Trump’s “fantastic” redo of NAFTA keeps this rule prohibiting our supposedly sovereign government from setting our own health standards for meat sold to our consumers.

Congress must obviously kill this thing, right?

Hmmm … not so fast. Even with all the uglies and absurdities in the USMCA, progressive strategists see enough pretties and potential for fixes that it could become one of the only positives to emerge from Trump Hell. As Lori Wallach, head of Public Citizen’s savvy band of trade jujitsu artists puts it, “Improbably, things are going quite well.” Prettiest of all is the USMCA’s whacking down of NAFTA’s most repugnant component: “investor-state dispute settlement” tribunals. These autocratic, plutocratic, corporate-controlled “courts” empower multinational corporations to obtain unlimited taxpayer dollars through specious lawsuits claiming that their special NAFTA privileges are restricted by the people’s democratically enacted laws — laws intended to protect consumers, workers, the environment and other social/economic interests. The investor-state dispute settlement provision is an anti-democratic abomination, and gutting it would truly be a huge step forward — one worth taking while we can.

Further, if we can strengthen the USMCA’s labor and environmental standards — and make them strictly enforceable — they might counter corporate America’s race-to-the-bottom outsourcing that converts middle-class U.S. jobs into Mexican sweatshop servitude. And of course, the absurd goodies for Big Pharma must be removed. But the fight, then, is not simply to reject the USMCA but instead to expose its flaws, democratize it and force improvements. That’s not easy, but it’s doable.

Yes, trade fights can be complex and tedious, but pay attention to this one. The USMCA is a momentous battle that’s more about people’s democratic power than trade. It unites folks across the left-right political spectrum, it’s worth the fight, and it’s winnable — if we team up to wrangle our Congress critters to oppose Trump’s corporatized version and add essential democratizing improvements. Let’s do it!

On Trump’s Trade Policy, A Democratic Echo

If you want to get an unanimous verdict from any gathering of economists, just ask them about Donald Trump’s trade policy. If it were a movie, its Rotten Tomatoes score would be zero. One expert analysis after another has torched it.

A report from the Becker Friedman Institute at the University of Chicago found his tariffs on washing machines cost consumers $1.5 billion, or more than $815,000 per U.S. job saved. A study for the National Bureau of Economic Research concluded that Trump’s trade war has reduced Americans’ real incomes by $1.4 billion per month.

The Tax Foundation says the new tariffs amount to a tax increase of $42 billion on Americans. A team of economists from the University of Chicago, Northwestern and Stanford estimate that tariffs and trade squabbles cut investment in U.S. manufacturing by 4.2 percent last year.

NBER notes that Trump’s tariff hikes “are unprecedented in the post-World War II era in terms of breadth, magnitude and the sizes of the countries involved.” They haven’t worked in the most basic sense. The overall trade deficit in goods, which he promised to eliminate, hit a record high last year, and the imbalance with China.

To the surprise of no economist, his policy of blocking trade, and threatening to do so, turns out to be bad for consumers, producers and the economy. So how are Democrats running for president handling the issue? By offering their own version of protectionism.

On Monday, Bernie Sanders attacked Joe Biden by saying, “I helped lead the fight against NAFTA; he voted for NAFTA.” Like Sanders, Elizabeth Warren opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a mammoth free trade deal among the United States and 11 Pacific Rim nations. Both also oppose the administration’s modest revision of NAFTA, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement.

The positions of Sanders and Warren, write Gary Clyde Hufbauer and Euijin Jung of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, “do not differ greatly from President Trump.” Among the other Democratic presidential candidates who opposed the TPP are Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Amy Klobuchar.

From all this you might forget that the Pacific free trade deal was the proud achievement of Barack Obama — and was described as “the gold standard in trade agreements” by Hillary Clinton. The idea, by the way, originated with Bill Clinton when he was in the White House. You might also forget that it was Clinton who signed NAFTA and Obama who preserved it.

Biden is so far holding firm. In response to Sanders’ broadside, he said he didn’t regret voting for NAFTA. He’s a lonely voice. With the exception of Beto O’Rourke, the other Democrats who lean toward free trade, including Julian Castro, Jay Inslee, and John Hickenlooper, are relative unknowns.

But if the presidential candidates would like to move toward protectionism, their voters are not going with them. A Pew Research Center poll last year found that among Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters, 67 percent think free trade agreements have been a good thing. Only 19 percent take an unfavorable view.

By contrast, Trump has managed to convince a large share of Republicans to abandon their historic allegiance to open global commerce. Pew found that 43 percent endorse free trade deals — down from 57 percent a decade ago. A plurality of Republican and Republican-leaning voters, 46 percent, now regard free trade as a bad thing.

Among the electorate as a whole, however, 56 percent favor free trade and 30 percent oppose it. With his belligerent and destructive trade war, Trump has actually dried up support for protectionism, except in his own party.

Why are so many Democratic candidates advocating policies that are a loser not only with the public in general but with their own party faithful? The harm done by Trump’s import barriers ought to work to the advantage of the opposition. But Democrats may end up with a nominee who, on the topic of trade, is largely indistinguishable from Trump.

At best, a Sanders, Warren, or Klobuchar would be giving him a pass on one of his big vulnerabilities. At worst, they could force many moderate, independent voters to decide that on economic matters, Trump is the lesser of two evils.

Free trade should be a good fit for a party that favors liberal immigration policies, friendly relations with our neighbors, and constructive engagement with the world. Trump has done his best to hand Democrats a winning issue for 2020 and beyond. But that doesn’t mean they’ll take it.

 

The NAFTA Report That Could Do More Damage Than Mueller

With all the coverage of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigaiton and still-confidential report, President Donald Trump’s political future does not appear to be closely tied to the Russia investigation. Without ground-shaking conclusions that completely reframed his presidency for the Republican Party and is leadership, there’s never been much chance that the report could lead to him being removed from office.

But there’s another forthcoming report that really could do serious damage to the president, even if there’s been almost no coverage of it so far. It’s a report from the International Trade Commission on the future effects of Trump renegotiated version of NAFTA, which the president calls the USMCA

As the Toronto Star’s Daniel Dale reported, the ITC report is set to come out on April 19. And few expect it to show much of an upside for the United States or Trump.

Dale wrote:

At best, experts say, the ITC report expected by April 19 is likely to show a very small positive impact.

‘“He’s been touting this as moving from the worst trade agreement ever to the biggest, best agreement, and there is no way the results of the USITC can be spun to say that the USMCA is anything other than a small change from the status quo,” said Jennifer Hillman, a Georgetown Law professor and a former senior official with the U.S. trade representative’s office.

“The debate in Congress is whether that small change is still worth doing

A negative or mediocre conclusion from the ITC could make it harder to convince skeptical Democrats that it is worth taking the political risk of voting for a top Trump priority. Such a conclusion could give members “cover” if they are already predisposed to vote no, said Robert Fisher, a U.S. negotiator for the original NAFTA and now managing director of Hills and Co.

If this is right, it could deal a significant blow to Trump’s support and become a drag on him in the run-up to the 2016 election.

It may seem a distant memory now, but trade was a major theme of Trump’s 2016 campaign. He insisted that the country was getting ripped off in its trade deals — none of which were worse than NAFTA, in his view. And this wasn’t a mere throw-away line at rallies. His central message was that American leaders had been stupid and reckless in agreeing to these deals, and that he was the only brilliant dealmaker who could storm into office and fix the problem.

How much this message really helped lead Trump to victory in 2016 is up for debate, but he clearly thought it was important, and it may have been key to his winning the crucial midwestern swing states that gave him an electoral college majority.

But if the pending report shows that Trump’s attempt to renegotiate NAFTA was a dud, he could likewise pay for it in 2020. The deal, already facing headwinds in the House of Representatives, will likely never be approved by Congress if the report is negative. Were the report to show the deal would be a resounding win for the United States and Congress rejected it anyway, Trump might be able to turn this to his advantaged. But if Democrats can rightly say that the most comprehensive report suggests the deal would be a loser for the United States, Trump’s support could take a hit where he can least afford to fall behind.

Dale noted that some observers are critical of the methodology the USITC is expected to use in crafting the report, arguing that it doesn’t necessarily account for all the agreement’s benefits. But these details may not matter much if Trump’s main goal is looking like a winner.

One sign that Trump’s allies are nervous about the issue is that supporters of the deal are already downplaying the report.

“It’s just a report,” Rick Dearborn, executive director of the Pass USMCA Coalitiontold Dale.

Can Liberals Learn To Love The Trump Voter?

Reprinted with permission from The Washington Spectator.

For leftists beginning the work of opposing and resisting a Trump presidency, one of the most pressing questions is how to understand and address those who supported him. Even ignoring the predictably bad takes from the centrists who pass as progressive—like Jonathan Weisman implying the Democratic National Committee shouldn’t have a “black Muslim” like Keith Ellison at its head, as it might alienate (presumably white) rust belt voters, and Mark Lilla blaming Hillary Clinton’s loss on an “identity politics” too focused on diversity—the question has become a fault line.

On one side, there are left-liberals like Jamelle Bouie, who declared “there is no such thing as a good Trump voter.” Rejecting calls to empathize with them, Bouie argued that we must focus instead on the marginalized groups who will be hurt most by Trumpism. “If any group demands our support and sympathy,” he wrote, “it’s these people, not the Americans who backed Trump and his threat of state-sanctioned violence against Hispanic immigrants and Muslim Americans. All the solicitude, outrage, and moral telepathy being deployed in defense of Trump supporters—who voted for a racist who promised racist outcomes—is perverse, bordering on abhorrent.”

On the other side are socialists who argue that we must embrace a political strategy that will appeal to many of the groups that Trump won, undermining his sham populism by advancing an authentic left populism. As five members of the Jacobin editorial board argued:

Blaming the American public for Trump’s victory only deepens the elitism that rallied his voters in the first place. It’s unquestionable that racism and sexism played a crucial role in Trump’s rise. And it’s horrifying to contemplate the ways that his triumph will serve to strengthen the cruelest and most bigoted forces in American society.

Still, a response to Trump that begins and ends with horror is not a political response—it is a form of paralysis, a politics of hiding under the bed. And a response to American bigotry that begins and ends with moral denunciation is not a politics at all—it is the opposite of politics. It is surrender.

In truth, the distance between Bouie and Jacobin (on this issue, anyway) isn’t so great. It is possible—and necessary—to loudly and unequivocally condemn the racism essential to Trump’s rise, the racism his voters articulated and countenanced, while simultaneously building a broad political movement that targets if not those very voters, then ones very much like them who stayed home on election day. However, doing so requires abandoning the most comforting liberal narratives about the right and its supporters.

Too often, the tropes liberals use to describe right-wing voters collapse the distinction between the problems those voters face and the policies and politicians they support. In condemning the latter, liberals deny that the former exist at all. Not only does that create the conditions Trumpism thrives in and the political blindness that made Hillary Clinton seem unbeatable, it obscures insights that are fundamental to a progressive political program and posits a false choice between moral condemnation and political power.

The This American Life episode “Seriously,” which aired in late October, provides a telling example. The title alone summarizes the bewilderment and exhausted disdain with which the show treats Trumpism. And while that disdain is earned—it’s only natural to want to throw up your hands when Ira Glass rolls tape of Trump claiming that Clinton started birtherism and he finished it, that she was on drugs during one of the debates, that she “meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty”—it’s a mistake to assume that every one of these absurd tales is totally baseless.

Of course many of Trump’s narratives are outlandish, brazen lies, and probably will continue to be throughout his presidency. And some of them truly are completely detached from reality. But the question we should ask ourselves is how those lies could ever seem true to his supporters, and to do that we must be willing to admit that some of the lies grow out of a grain of truth, no matter how disgusting their final form. Clinton is not plotting the destruction of U.S. sovereignty, but she most certainly is part of an elite with immense wealth and power that uses its influence to shape the global economy to its liking. So were her Republican corollaries who served as Trump’s earliest victims—let us not forget the fate of JEB!, after all.

But instead of taking into consideration what 62 million Trump voters might experience in their everyday lives that could make them believe his inane theories, Glass merely laments the growing “distrust [of] the fact-based media and fact-based journalists.” Instead of questioning what ignored truths might motivate Trump’s claims of a secret banker cabal—something plenty on the left are likely to believe as well—Glass merely contrasts the “post-truth politics” of Trumpism with the fair, objective understanding of the world offered by more respectable (and ostensibly liberal) commentators.

But what Glass and his guest, Planet Money’s Jacob Goldstein, offer in response is not objectivity. It’s technocratic elitism. While discussing why Trump (as well as Clinton and Bernie Sanders) oppose trade deals like NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Goldstein explains that “one of the reasons trade is so unpopular is, the pain is really concentrated and visible. And the benefits are really diffuse.” He cites a survey showing that zero economists—those consistent arbiters of truth—said NAFTA made Americans worse off. “The big picture with these trade deals,” Glass summarizes, “is, like, a small number of workers get bonked on the head, and then the rest of us get a bigger economy.” The problem with Trump voters, they seem to say, is they just don’t understand the data. If they did, they would realize that things are actually going pretty well for everyone, minus a forgettable few.

Of course, as anyone committed to a progressive politics should know, that brand of “fact-based journalism” fails to consider the role of growing inequality, and that even if GDP rises—as Goldstein explains it has—that increase in wealth is increasingly flowing into the pockets of a select few. In fact, according to research by Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman, the bottom 50 percent of the country hasn’t seen a real increase in income since the 1970s. Glass and Goldstein also ignore how corporations suppress union activity, one of the biggest deterrents to inequality, with threats of outsourcing, which these trade deals make viable, as well as the broader way in which the deals disclose the power the wealthy have over the global economy—you know, the power that allows them to bankrupt the world’s economy and erase millions of people’s retirement savings with impunity.

Trumpism obviously represents a dangerous politics based on bald lies, but that doesn’t mean anything opposed to it is true. Looking back on the election, we can see now just how mistaken it was to deny the kinds of economic issues Glass and Goldstein ignored. A Brookings Institute report by Mark Muro and Sifan Liu showed Trump won 2,584 counties compared to Clinton’s 471, yet the counties he won accounted for only 36 percent of the country’s GDP, a historically low number for a winning candidate. Telling those people, as Glass and Goldstein seem to do, that things are actually already good seems especially daft. It’s the same losing tactic Clinton adopted when she claimed “America never stopped being great”—something that was clearly false for many rust belt voters.

In a rush to deny Trump’s vile politics, these politicians and journalists deny the life experiences that lead people to Trump. They prove their ignorance of Trump voters’ lives while implying they are the only ones with facts and reason and truth. And that means Trump’s deplorable racist stereotypes and conspiracy theories carry much more weight—because they are the only narratives that explain the basic experiences of certain voters, even when they take the form of ridiculous conspiracy theories and easily proven lies.

A Trump voter, focusing on the cultural rather than the economic, seemed to explain that on another pre-election podcast, WYNC and The Nation’s The United States of Anxiety. In the show’s fourth episode, this woman was brought to tears during Trump’s convention speech. She, like many other Trump supporters, has a troubling obsession with political correctness and offers an admittedly baffling history tying it to Bill Clinton’s “it depends on what the definition of is is.” But when host Arun Venugopal pushes her to explain why she finds Trump’s comments on political correctness so moving, she, clearly emotional, says: “To hear someone say the things we’ve been saying for decades and not feeling we were heard. Nobody to speak up for us. It’s pretty amazing.”

“As you can hear,” Venugopal concludes in a voiceover, “this disgust for the Clintons is very deep.”

It seems undeniable that the woman’s motivations stem from feeling locked out of government, held powerless by Washington power brokers. The Clintons seem more synecdoche than villain. But in one sweeping statement, Venugopal dismisses all those concerns, writing them off as nothing more than a ridiculous grudge. Perhaps his response was understandable, given the pressing need to confront Trump’s exploitation of political correctness. But denying the reality of ordinary Americans shut out of government because they blame that fact on immigrants and racial minorities is completely unhelpful. As the show’s other host, Kai Wright, rightfully said, “Whatever you think of Donald Trump’s message, it’s not like it came out of thin air. Whatever he has tapped into, it has been with us and it will be with us until we confront it.”

The it here is neither the biased descriptions Trump supporters give of their problems nor the prescriptions Trump offers. It is the motivations behind all of that, the conditions people are living in. That’s what we must address and explain. And that’s exactly what these podcasts repeatedly deny in their rush to condemn Trumpism. The rest of the State of Anxiety episode, for instance, was devoted to a laundry list of harrowing clips from right-wing media: Rush Limbaugh commissioning racist songs and mocking the genocide of Native Americans, Donald Trump Jr. referencing gas chambers, Limbaugh and Glenn Beck claiming Obama planned on inciting race riots.

We should take the time to combat those vile arguments—but we should also note the intent of playing them all back to back to back on one segment, which seems to be delegitimizing everything else Trump supporters say. And while we should militantly condemn their support for racism, we must be clear that the things those voters use racism to explain—lack of good jobs, lack of political power, the decline of public institutions, even extended work hours and the simple emptiness of life under late capitalism—are very real. Rather than affirming our moral superiority, we must offer better narratives explaining the root cause of those issues.

That need is all the more pressing because Hillary Clinton’s approach, which built on the comforting liberal narratives on display in these episodes of This American Life and The United States of Anxiety, failed in much of the country. And it failed not just because she couldn’t attract the moderate Republicans she targeted, but because she couldn’t bring Democratic voters out to the polls in battleground states, as Konstantin Kilibarda and Daria Roithmayr explained in Slate. Her narrative not only failed to offer an alternative to Trump, but it failed to motivate her base, including people of color.

That’s because the problems Trump is offering a solution to, however hate-filled and false that solution is, bear strong similarities to the problems that working-class Democrats endure. Look at the practical issues in all working-class voters’ lives: health care and education costs are rising, people feel disconnected from their government, shut out of economic growth, public services are out of reach or inadequate. We should always be clear that people of color, LGBTQ individuals, immigrants, and other groups suffer immense additional injustices based on their identities and that there are real and important differences in how poverty and its symptoms appear in the lives of these different groups. But we should also be clear that there are overlapping experiences that can be used as a starting point for a new political movement. In doing so, we can bring together the groups Trump depended on for his improbable win and those targeted by his policies.

That’s the kind of class politics Jacobin rightly encourages. But that approach will also focus on addressing racism, sexism, Islamophobia, and other forms of oppression, as Bouie rightly argues is necessary. While many liberal commentators claim those policies would scare away Trump supporters, that’s the exact approach the Moral Mondays movement used in North Carolina to oust Republican governor Pat McCrory, one of the few Democratic victories of 2016.

Moral Mondays has targeted a wide array of regressive policies that have an outsized effect on black voters, especially voter suppression. But it has done so while agitating for progressive, universal, and class-based reforms, like more funding for public education and an increased minimum wage. In an interview with the American Prospect, Moral Mondays’ leader, the Rev. Dr. William Barber, described the diverse supporters the movement has attracted as its strength. “In the South, for the NAACP to be leading a moral movement and you see crowds that are 40 percent white and 30 percent young?” he said. “That’s what’s really concerning them, and why they’re calling us names.”

Yet McCrory barely lost and Trump won the state. Moral Mondays’ victory must be expanded, and to do that we need, to use Jane McAlevey’s terms, a politics focused not on “mobilizing,” bringing out those who already agree with you, but “organizing,” bringing out those who do not yet see themselves in your camp, including those who may have voted Trump. And to do that we must abandon longstanding liberal narratives that dismiss Trump’s base as ignorant, unredeemable fools. Doing so does not mean denying, as Nathan J. Robinson argued in Current Affairs, “that maybe it is racism that fueled their Trump votes,” but merely admitting “that racism is something that can be exacerbated by demagoguery.” And that means it’s something that can be suppressed by solidarity. Only on those lines will it be possible to put forward an explicitly antiracist, antisexist, egalitarian politics that can defeat Trumpism—as well as run-of-the-mill Republicans and corporate Democrats

Matt Hartman is a writer living in Durham, North Carolina.

IMAGE: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during his “Make America Great Again” rally at Orlando Melbourne International Airport in Melbourne, Florida, U.S. February 18, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque