THE YEAR 2008 may enter history as the time when the Democratic Party lost its way on trade. Already, the party's presidential candidates have engaged in an unseemly contest to adopt the most protectionist posture, suggesting that, if elected, they might pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Economically, it should be a no-brainer -- especially at a time of rising U.S. joblessness. At the moment, Colombian exports to the United States already enjoy preferences. The trade agreement would make those permanent, but it would also give U.S. firms free access to Colombia for the first time, thus creating U.S. jobs. Politically, too, the agreement is in the American interest, as a reward to a friendly, democratic government that has made tremendous strides on human rights, despite harassment from Venezuela's Hugo Chávez.
Each of the points above may have some merit and deserve examination, but Congress really needs to learn from the cautionary tale of our past adventures in "free trade" and provide some plain language explanations to the American public on the effect such changes will have. While I freely acknowledge the desirable aspect of supporting other governments supportive of our nation, the trade aspects of the deal need further explanation.
First of all, specifically what types of exports are we discussing? If these are products, particularly agricultural goods, which could only be found in Columbia, that's fine. But one thing we clearly do not need is yet another source of goods and services which can already be produced in the United States flowing into our markets from areas where slave labor level wages can keep their prices artificially low. If we're talking about manufactured goods, what steps will be taken regarding the quality and safety of the products? Our experiences with other "partners" in these areas, particularly China and Mexico, should give us pause. Bargain basement priced goods prone to shoddy quality and, in some cases, dangerous lead levels and other health hazards have been are rewards thus far.
And what of these "U.S. jobs" to which they refer? We need to be very, very clear about the difference between jobs which are positions in an American owned company and jobs here in the United States. When corporations are offered the choice between hiring American workers here at home or manufacturing their products in other nations where they can pay wages measured in pennies (and be rewarded by the government for it) what option do you suppose they will choose? I continue to watch large American corporations such as IBM and Lockheed Martin issue dictates to their management to meet minimum numbers of "global assets" (read telecommuters in other nations) while their American employees wind up taking brand new "U.S. jobs" at Starbucks. What sort of jobs will this agreement create, and where will they be?
I'm not saying we couldn't eventually enter into a trade agreement with Columbia, but let's not rush into anything without clearly and carefully making the case to the public and answering these questions. Taking the Speaker to task for wanting to tread carefully is exactly the wrong message.