Posts tagged with: free trade

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, March 10, 2009

No, not that Friedman. In a wide-ranging lecture for the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Policy earlier this year, George Friedman touched on American policy with regard to trade. He says of the United States,

it has the potential to reshape patterns of international trade if it chooses. The United States throughout the 20th century, the second half in particular, has operated under the principle of a free-trade regime in which its Navy was primarily used to facilitate international trade. It did not seek to develop any special advantage from that, save those sanctions and blockades that we occasionally imposed for immediate political purpose.

He concludes, however, “there is no reason to believe, with that enormous power, in the 21st century that the United States won’t choose to reshape international trade if it finds itself under extreme economic or political pressure.”

In pointing out the possibility for the United States to pursue trade policy that is at odds with “the principle of a free-trade regime,” Friedman also notes the definition of so-called “soft” power: “Power that isn’t exercised.”

As a side note, one way of construing this definition of soft power correlates quite nicely with the reception of the traditional scholastic distinction between absolute and ordained power, potentia absoluta et ordinata. With regard to God’s power, the older, traditional view of the distinction held that the absolute power of God referred to the contingency of the created order, insofar as God could have created, willed, and concurred in things differently (i.e. a different world order). Things could have been different based on a different divine ordering or decree.

This older view did not hold that the absolute power of God was an active reality in this created order but rather a hypothetical possibility standing behind the creation of this world. But in the high to late middle ages another version of the distinction arose, which argued that the absolute power of God exists as an active possibility residing in and with the current created order. This “operationalized” view of the absolute power of God held that God not only could have made things differently, but also that he has an active power that can overrule or act outside of what he has ordained. (We should note that this “absolute power,” when applied to magistrates, is that to which Lord Acton refers in his famous quote appearing as the subhead of this blog.)

A brief illustration might serve to communicate the difference in these two views of absolute power. Under the former conception, the “absolute power” of the United States government would refer to those powers that could have been granted by the Constitution but for whatever reason were not. Bracketing the possibility of changing the Constitution, these powers are no longer real possibilities. Under the revisionist and operationalized conception, the Constitution would describe the way things normally or ordinarily work, but the President or Congress could act “absolutely” without regard to the constraints of the Constitutional order.

We might also note that this definition of soft power is one that defines “power” essentially as coercion, with the “softness” of the power being the implied threat rather than the “hardness” of actual use. Friedman’s kind of soft power is that which gives nuclear deterrence its only viability. As American ethicist Paul Ramsey has written,

The actuality of deterrence depends upon a credible belief, mutually shared, that one might use a nuclear weapon. If the government of one of the great powers were persuaded by the churches never to be willing to use any nuclear weapon under any circumstances, and this were known, there would be instantly no deterrence and therefore no practical problem of finding a way out. Likewise, the morality of deterrence depends upon it not being wholly immoral for a government ever to use an atomic weapon under any circumstances.

(Towards the end of the video a questioner rightly challenges Friedman’s definition of soft power, noting in its original context it didn’t necessarily depend on the implied threat of coercive force.)

Friedman notes that soft power, “what you could do that you don’t do,” doesn’t corrupt, but instead “gives you the opportunity to be gracious, friendly, and pleasant.” For Friedman, America’s gracious continuation of free-trade policy represents a clear case of soft power.

There’s a real sense in which he’s right, but only to the extent that America would suffer relatively less economically than other nations through the pursuit of isolationist policies. As Spengler notes in the context of the current global crisis, “Although Russia has taken on water in the crisis, its position relative to its former satellites has actually strengthened.” Friedman’s assumptions about the trump card that America holds in the possibility of reversing free-trade policies assumes that the economic power of the United States would in a similar way be relatively strengthened, and that the economic consequences will disproportionately affect America’s trading partners. But has America’s relative economic strength actually improved already in the midst of the global economic crisis?

In a recent STRATFOR report Lauren Goodrich and Peter Zeihan concludes that

while Russia’s financial sector may be getting torn apart, the state does not really count on that sector for domestic cohesion or stability, or for projecting power abroad. Russia knows it lacks a good track record financially, so it depends on — and has shored up where it can — six other pillars to maintain its (self-proclaimed) place as a major international player. The current financial crisis would crush the last five pillars for any other state, but in Russia, it has only served to strengthen these bases. Over the past few years, there was a certain window of opportunity for Russia to resurge while Washington was preoccupied with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This window has been kept open longer by the West’s lack of worry over the Russian resurgence given the financial crisis. But others closer to the Russian border understand that Moscow has many tools more potent than finance with which to continue reasserting itself.

Besides the US, Friedman opines that Japan, Turkey, and Poland (because it “faces Russia”) will be the major players in the 21st century. But with regard to the fallout of the economic crisis, Spengler summarizes convincingly, “There are no winners, but losing the least is the next best thing to winning. If America turns inward, even an economically damaged Russia will loom larger in the world.”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, February 27, 2009

Free trade seems to get all the blame when things go wrong and none of the credit when things go right. It’s the Rodney Dangerfield of global economics: it gets no respect. Certainly in this worldwide economic downturn globalism is going to take its bumps and bruises. And as trouble abroad comes to roost at home (and vice versa) more then ever the lesson is going to be how truly interdependent we all are.

In the short term there will certainly be increased popular sentiment that’s antagonistic toward expansion of liberalized trade policies. A recent Gallup poll shows that Americans showed that 47% view trade as a “threat to the economy from foreign imports” while 44% held that it is “an opportunity for economic growth through increased U.S. exports.” These numbers closely resemble the figures from the poll during the last major recession in 1992 (48% and 44% respectively).

ForeignTrade2009

While globalism will be in retreat for the short term, the beneficiary won’t necessarily be the localism so beloved by “crunchy” conservatives. The move will instead be toward a greater “regionalism,” of the kind fostered by continental and geographic “free trade zones.” In addition to the free trade deal announced today between Oceanic and Southeast Asian nations, you can expect NAFTA to get a close review in coming months.

But in the long term, the prospects for continued globalization are as good as ever. The Internet in particular has created a kind of “grassroots” globalism, that connects people in all kinds of social, economic, and cultural ways that were not possible a decade ago. More than ever we’ve come to know that our “neighbor” is not just the one we live in proximity to spatially, but those to whom we are connected virtually and spiritually.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Last week presidential candidate John McCain distanced himself from economic adviser Phil Gramm, after Gramm’s comments that America had become a “nation of whiners” and that the current concerns over a lagging economy amounted to a “mental recession” rather than any real phenomena.

The press and political reaction was swift and quizzical. What could Phil Gramm possibly mean? Why would an adviser to a presidential candidate publicly broadside the American electorate? As one editorial page wondered, “we can’t fathom the target of his ‘nation of whiners’ zinger.”

Sen. Obama himself seemed a bit (mockingly) incredulous. “Then he deemed the United States, and I quote, ‘A nation of whiners.’ Whoa,” Mr. Obama said. “A nation of whiners?” After his remarks were published, Gramm would later clarify that he was talking about “American leaders who whine instead of lead.”

But Obama’s reading of Gramm’s original remarks seem to be the most natural. “It isn’t whining to ask government to step in and give families some relief,” said Obama.

Well, maybe it is whining, but that’s precisely the sort of family-friendly rhetoric that makes Gramm’s remarks seem unduly harsh by comparison. But does it matter if there is truth to the substance of Gramm’s assertions? A day after Gramm’s statements appeared in the Washington Times, the Washington Post published an article highlighting the findings of a study that characterized the baby boomers as a generation of…”whiners.”

The study by the Pew Research Center found that

More than older or younger generations, boomers — born from 1946 to 1964 — worry that their income won’t keep up with rising costs of living. They say it’s harder to get ahead today than it was 10 years ago. They are more likely to say that their standard of living is lower than their folks’ but that things don’t look too good for their kids either (67 percent of younger generations, meanwhile, feel they have it better than their parents).

This despite the fact that boomers, dubbed here the “gloomiest” generation, have had it objectively better for a longer period of time than any other generation before or since. Anecdotally I had a “boomer” relative tell me the other day that the movie Cinderella Man resonated with her because it happened during a time of economic duress, the Great Depression, that so closely resembles the problems of today. Talk about a lack of correspondence between perception and historical reality!

The real problem with Gramm’s remarks was that they displayed a lack of connection to the perceptions of many Americans, even if his comments corresponded better with reality than many popular perceptions. Part of what makes a successful politician is the ability to understand and sympathize with his or her constituency, beyond the clarity of vision simply to see what the objective truth is. Gramm’s comments were more than just “bootstraps” rhetoric. Perhaps they were meant to be prophetic, in a way that gives people a kick in the rear and forces them to readjust their frame of reference.

And, again, the substance of the remarks didn’t differ much from what the “straight talking” McCain campaign has been saying all along. Last April McCain marched into Ohio, a part of the country hardest hit by globalization of industry, and said, “a person learns along the way that if you hold on — if you don’t quit no matter what the odds — sometimes life will surprise you. Sometimes you get a second chance, and opportunity turns back your way. And when it does, we are stronger and readier because of all that we had to overcome.” This sort of approach takes seriously the realities of both global trade and the plight of displaced workers.

So McCain’s dismissal of Gramm should be understood as having as more to do with rejecting the tone and style of Gramm’s message than the substance. McCain may have learned something from the resonance of Mike Huckabee’s message to blue collar evangelicals that trade needs to be “free and fair.” But for many economic conservatives, reactions to that message were as negative as reactions were to Gramm’s message. Free and fair? Free is fair, right? Maybe it is, but it doesn’t always seem to be so. And simply repeating “free is fair” isn’t going to work rhetorically.

The ideological inability of many economic conservatives to frame their message in a way that resonates with mainstream Americans is what is reflected in Phil Gramm’s comments and the corresponding rejection and derision of Mike Huckabee by many in the GOP (the positive reception of Gramm’s remarks among many economic conservatives underscores this). In politics, communicating the truth effectively is just as important as perceiving it. McCain might be on a steeper learning curve on that score than many of his fellow Republicans.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, February 7, 2008

In any period of economic transition there are upheavals at various levels, and winners and losers (at least in the short term). We live in just such an age today in North America, as we move from an industrial to a post-industrial information and service economy, from isolationism to increased globalization. There’s no doubt that there have been some industries and regions that have been more directly affected than others (both positively and negatively).

Michigan, for example, has been one of the most manufacturing-rich states in the nation for the last century, and has been running record unemployment numbers for the last decade or so, as manufacturers move to more friendly economic environments, both within the US and without. Not least of these factors contributing to Michigan’s competitive disadvantage is the high labor costs associated with a labor union-laden state.

The perception that manufacturing workers are simply being left behind in the new economy is pervasive, such that popular opinion is shifting away from free trade. As Fortune magazine reports, “A large majority – 68% – of those surveyed in a new Fortune poll says America’s trading partners are benefiting the most from free trade, not the U.S. That sense of victimhood is changing America’s attitude about doing business with the world.”

As an aside, this is a perception that doesn’t quite match up with the typical caricature of globalization. After all, how can both America (as the “imperial” dominator) and the developing world (as the exploited poor) both be made worse off by international trade?

If it were truly the case that global trade weren’t mutually beneficial, that would be one thing. What’s visible on news reports everyday are the layoffs, buyouts, and unemployment levels in the US. What isn’t always so visible is the extent to which Americans depend on the low prices associated with many imported goods. One group you might think should know better than the average American about such complexities are professional economists. (more…)

The Council on Foreign Relations is hosting an online debate (in blog form!): “Policy for the Next President: Fair Trade or Free Trade” (HT).

From the introduction: “Jonathan Jacoby, associate director of international economic policy at the Center for American Progress and Robert Lane Greene, an international correspondent for the Economist, debate the shape of trade policy for the next U.S. administration and whether new trade deals should come with strings attached.”

The first two entries by each party are posted.

Costa Rica’s voters ratified the Central American Free Trade Agreement, a sign of hope against a rising tide of populist, anti-trade sentiment in Latin America — and the United States. “In short, this is not the time for Latin America to abandon free trade agendas,” Gregg says.

Read the full commentary here.

Related to Sam Gregg’s Acton Commentary today, “Free Trade: Latin America’s Last Hope?” I pass along this ENI news item: “Growing rich-poor gap is new ‘slavery’, say Protestant leaders.”

Globalization and free trade are the causes of a new class of worldwide slavery, say the ecumenical officials. Citing the foundational 2004 Accra Confession, Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, the president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, says that “an even more pernicious form of human enslavement is being wrought on millions through the process of neoliberal globalisation that is driving a dramatic and growing wedge between the rich and the poor.”

These statements come at a critical time in the history of the Reformed ecumenical movement. The Reformed Ecumenical Council and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches have joined this week to become one organization:

Reformed church groupings agree to create new global body

Port of Spain (ENI). The World Alliance of Reformed Churches has agreed to unite with the Reformed Ecumenical Council to create a new “global entity” that will group 80 million Reformed Christians. “This is a truly, truly important moment,” said WARC president the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick after the alliance’s executive committee, meeting in Trinidad, voted unanimously on 22 October to unite with the REC, whose executive committee had agreed to the proposal in March. The Geneva-based WARC has 75 million members in 214 churches in 107 countries, while the Grand Rapids, Michigan-headquartered REC has 12 million members belonging to 39 churches in 25 countries. Of the REC’s member churches, 27 also belong to WARC. [ENI-07-0815]

It’s not clear at this time if the conditions laid out in 2005 are those under which the union has taken place. This merger is significant in many ways, not least of which is the requirement of the Church Order of the Christian Reformed Church that its Synod “shall send delegates to Reformed ecumenical synods in which the Christian Reformed Church cooperates with other denominations which confess and maintain the Reformed faith” (Article 50). Citing Calvin once in awhile and promulgating platitudes about the sovereignty of God doesn’t mean you are Reformed.

In response to concerns from member churches from the global North that the Accra Confession is not sufficiently doctrinal, Rev. Setri Nyomi responds, “The Reformed family recognises the sovereignty of God … We do not separate whether God is sovereign in the mundane and in the spiritual realm. Therefore our stance on social issues is consistent with the doctrinal claim of sovereignty.”

Quite frankly the WARC leaderships rhetoric about income and wealth disparity as a “more pernicious form of human enslavement” is offensive on a number of levels besides its doctrinal spuriousness. It’s offensive to those who actually are slaves today (sex trafficking is a huge global issue). And it’s insulting to those whose historical legacy involves victimization by the practice of chattel slavery.

WARC is more than happy to talk about “slavery” in material terms, identifying anything other than complete egalitarianism with injustice and bondage. But the one kind of slavery you won’t hear WARC discuss is the sense in which it is put forward most prominently in the Scriptures: bondage to corruption and sin in a personally and individually relevant way.

When Christ said, “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed,” he didn’t have globalization in mind.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, October 17, 2007

In answer to the query in the headline of this week’s Acton Commentary, “Who’s Afraid of Free Trade?”, I submit the following: the ecumenical movement. Note the following news item from Ecumenical News International:

Church groups mount week of action to transform global trade

Geneva (ENI). Faith groups have joined activists around the globe in calling for fair, equitable and just trade policies while urging churches to join a Trade Week of Action that seeks to promote alternatives to the global system of commerce. “During this week, the churches and other organizations will tell the world that enforced free trade is causing poverty and that there are viable alternatives,” said Linda Hartke, coordinator of the Geneva-based Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, which has organized the 14-21 October Trade Week of Action. “When the systems we have created to buy, sell and share goods cause hunger and suffering then these systems are wrong. Every voice counts, and every action makes a difference,” Hartke told Ecumenical News International. [ENI-07-0798]

Blog author: jspalink
posted by on Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Society is changing as economic freedom and diversification gradually creep into the Middle East. Dr. Samuel Gregg, director of research at the Acton Institute, explores the effects of free trade on nations including Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates and, in turn, the effect those nations are having on their neighbors.

The diversification of economies, notably the development of new products and services for export, allows nations to grow out of reliance on oil production as the main source of capital. The emerging economies create an entrepreneurial atmosphere open to all and encourages foreign investment. The result is a rise out of poverty and more open foreign relations.

Read the full commentary here.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, October 4, 2007

The Free Exchange blog at Economist.com (HT) concludes a long and thoughtful post on fair trade, specifically in response to this recent NYT article, “Fair Trade in Bloom,” by wondering:

And how does this affect coffee supply? If a premium is available for fair-trade coffee, shouldn’t other growers enter the market to take advantage of it until the price of coffee is bid down to market levels, leaving total producer take–baseline coffee price plus premium–where it stood before? Such a scenario would also raise distributional questions. If higher coffee prices attract market entrants, then coffee-growing nations will shift resources into that sector, which might be good for grower incomes, but could potentially inhibit the development of other economic activities.

Not to take anything away from the stated goals of the fair-trade movement or the well-meaning consumers who wish to do better by farmers in poor countries. Still, in any economic process, it’s often difficult to foresee the second- and third-order effects of a decision. It will be interesting to observe how growth in fair-trade products changes the structure of markets for targeted commodities.

These sorts of questions and concerns are at the heart of my past criticisms of the fair trade movement.

To the extent that fair trade certifiers are simply acting as agents to inform consumers and guarantee certain practices, to which coffee buyers can freely respond either affirmatively or negatively, there’s no real complaint. Fair trade becomes a boutique item that has to compete in the free marketplace.

But to the extent that the fair trade movement reflects a more thoroughgoing critique of market forces and the “fairness” or justice of market prices, it becomes more problematic. It becomes an entirely different paradigmatic alternative to a system of free trade.

You’ve essentially replaced market prices with arbitrarily determined prices, which are subjectively determined to be “fair.” Compare this with the traditional and classic scholastic understanding of a “just” price as the market value in the absence of any and all fraud and conspiracy.

The Free Exchange blog piece points out all sorts of negative consequences of the change from “just” to “fair” prices, not least of which is the increasing saturation of an already saturated market because of artificial subsidization of a particular commodity. Furthermore, it’s hard to see how it makes good economic and environmental stewardship to subsidize and promote the growth and production of a commodity of which we already have too much.

For more on the disconnect between the intentions and the consequences of the fair trade movement, check out this study, “Does Fair Trade Coffee Help the Poor?”