Working for Change
August 2, 2005


By David Sirota

A friend of mine today regurgitated one of the saddest, most devious,
yet most oft-repeated arguments for corporate-written trade deals:
they lower prices for goods in America. He said "the fact that we can
buy white cotton t-shirts 3 for $5 is a direct result of [free]
trade." Then, challenging opponents of these "free" trade deals, he
asked "Do people really want all of our prices to go up at the Wal-
Mart?" The problem is, that is a classic "when did you stop being a
criminal?" question, as the entire premise is dishonest.

Here is the truth: prices on many goods do go down because of
corporate-written trade deals, as the "free"-trade-pushing corporate
media is so happy to brag about. But so do wages, health care
benefits, union rights, pensions, environmental standards, and all the
rest of the economic standards that contribute to an ordinary
American's quality of life. When you pass trade deals that have no
labor/human rights/environmental protections, you force Americans to
compete with workers in other countries that have none of these
standards. That puts a downward pressure on Americans' quality of life
(wages, health care, pensions, etc.), as American sacrifice their
basic quality of life in an endless race to the bottom. No savings on
your next batch of t-shirts is going to make up for that. That's why
trying to make a debate over "free" trade into a debate over whether
we want or don't want lower prices is so dishonest: because it doesn't
tell the whole story.

The reason, of course, that Corporate America tries to distort the
"free" trade debate in this way is because it avoids the side of
"free" trade Corporate America doesn't want to talk about. And the
tactics often work, because lower prices are more tangible to the
public than the other bigger and more important consequences of "free"

It is much easier to envision the benefits of cheaper t-shirts at Wal-
Mart than it is to imagine the downside of getting paid less
wages/benefits for the next 40 years, especially when you consider
citizens understandable two-pronged defense mechanism of denial: we
don't want to admit the lower wages/benefits will come with lower
prices (too-good-to-be-true denial) and we'd like to believe lower
wages/benefits in general won't mean lower wages/benefits for us in
specific (it-won't-happen-to-me denial).

But all you have to do is look at how Americans' wages have
stagnated, health care/pension benefits have been cut, and how many
previously better-paid Wal-Mart workers are on low-income government
assistance to know that the denial is not rooted in reality.
Likewise, all it takes is a little guts to make this case effectively
because really, Americans know deep down that it's true -- they are
just waiting for someone to speak truth to economic power.

Thus, when we debate trade and economic policy in general, let's
reject the silly argument that it is a debate between low prices on
one side and high prices on the other. The actual choice is between
lower prices on one side, and lower wages, health care benefits,
pensions, and environmental standards on the other side. It is a
debate about saving $2 on t-shirts at Wal-Mart vs. some combination of
making thousands of dollars less per year, maybe losing your job,
seeing your health care/retirements benefits eliminated or reduced,
and watching your community get polluted.

That is honest debate that Corporate America and its "free" trade
apologists in the political establishment don't want to have -- because
it is a debate they will lose every time. And that's why we need to
be so forceful in making sure that these trade debates are more
honest: because only then can we embolden already strong public
opposition to selling out America with corporate written trade pacts.