Shafted: The Other Side of Free Trade

I think J.S. Mill was right when he said, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” And so I try to familiarize myself with the case being laid out by those who hold the prevailing ideology of power.

When it comes to trade policy – something that affects our daily lives in ways far more important than any Yankees-Red Sox game – it’s hard not to be familiar with the glorious praises of trade liberalization offered up to the money gods by investors, CEO’s, and corporate-sponsored think-tank egg heads who seem to be the only ones with access to a microphone, thanks to the “liberal” media.

We’re all told by the “experts” that “free trade” is part of a fair and self-correcting economic process of nature – a process that we have no control over. And you know what they call someone who tries to control nature, rather than work with it, right? Why, an “anti-globalization” protester, of course.

There’s a new book out called “Shafted: Free Trade and America’s Working Poor” (see www.foodfirst.org).

It’s a collection of personal testimonies from those most affected but least heard from when it comes to “free trade.”

It chronicles the voices of family farmers, farmworkers, and industrial workers from across the country, telling their stories of how they’ve been impacted by so-called free trade, which, by the way, may be one of the most loaded terms in the English language. I mean, whose against freedom?

“Shafted” introduces the reader not just to real working people but to eye-opening facts in the context of a more broader concern for human rights.

Keith J. Dittrich, a corn and soybean farmer from Tilden, Nebraska and president of the American Corn Growers Association (ACGA), writes a chapter in the book that explodes the myth that trade liberalization benefits American farmers, unless you’re talking about multinational grain processing and exporting companies.

“The United States has continued to liberalize trade and radically adjust farm programs, which has led to the devastation of rural America…The infrastructure has either degraded or stagnated since these trade agreements have passed. Our local community has also seen a large influx of foreign workers now employed in meat-packing plants who have come because of lack of jobs and opportunity in their home countries. Some of them are farmers who have been displaced by the same trade agreements that were supposed to improve their lives,” Dittrich writes.

Lori Wallach of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch also has a chapter in the book that worth reading. “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Our current globalization policy is totally stark raving mad,” she writes.

Strong words. But not without merit. She cites the 1999 UN Human Development report, which found that in the wealthiest nations, job creation has lagged behind the growth of trade and investment volumes.

In the U.S., from 1946 to 1973, there was an 80 percent gain in median wages. From 1972 to 2000, median wages were almost flat, even though international trade represented two times the share of U.S. economic activity than it did during the previous period, the report said.

And then there’s this gem: The U.S. lost 38,310 small farms between 1995 and 2002. NAFTA and the WTO require participating countries to eliminate the programs that protect small farmers against predatory commodity traders and bad weather.

As a result, Wallach points out, “the six grain trading giants who now control three-quarters of all world grain trade have been able to manipulate supply and prices…At the same time, the consumer price index for food in the U.S. rose by 19.8 percent between 1993 and 2000.”

Currently, U.S. policy-makers are pushing for more trade liberalization with the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) initiative. We shouldn’t allow it to move forward without at least hearing from those who will be most affected by these policies. We can do that by demanding congressional hearings and by letting news organizations know you want to learn more about this.

And it wouldn’t hurt to pick up a copy of “Shafted” to ensure you’re familiar with more than just one side of the case.

ZNet commentator Sean Gonsalves is also a Cape Cod Times reporter and syndicated columnist. E-mail him at sgonsalves@capecodonline.com.

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