Thursday, July 24, 2008

Selling the Colombia Trade Pact

by Janine Jackson
FAIR Extra!
July/August 2008 issue

In an April 10 editorial headlined “Drop Dead, Colombia,” the Washington Post excoriated House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for holding up passage of a proposed trade promotion deal with Colombia. With the hyperbole the paper seems to reserve for this issue, the Post declared, “The year 2008 may enter history as the time when the Democratic Party lost its way on trade.”

Refusing to wave the deal through without challenge is an error of historic proportion, the Post declared, because “economically, it should be a no-brainer—especially at a time of rising U.S. joblessness.” Perhaps more significantly, the deal deserves support as “a reward to a friendly, democratic government that has made tremendous strides on human rights, despite harassment from Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez.”

The Post thus hit on the key points that seemed to recur in corporate media editorials on the Colombia trade pact: that the deal will indisputably create U.S. jobs while also being good for Colombia—which is doing just fine on human rights—as well as having the added benefit of being an affront to favored media target Chávez (Extra!, 11–12/06).

It might be hard to understand how any deal with an economy the size of Colombia’s—which is about 1/36th as big as the U.S.’s—could really create jobs in the U.S. on any appreciable scale, much less how turning one down would be “damaging the U.S. economy” (L.A. Times, 4/8/08). But such grandiose promotional claims dominate discussion of trade deals in elite media outlets, along with often vitriolic dismissals of anyone who raises concerns.

So the Colombia deal, eliminating most tariffs on U.S. exports to the country, would be a “win/win for the United States” (L.A. Times, 4/8/08), “good for all Americans” (Orlando Sentinel, 5/12/08) and “produce clear benefits for American businesses and their workers” (New York Times, 4/12/08). Memorably, for the Las Vegas Review-Journal (4/9/08), “This is about feeding the world, and getting paid for it.”

The deal’s opponents are “Democrats [who] pander to Big Labor, flirt with return to protectionism” (USA Today, 4/9/08) and “spit NAFTA out of their mouths as if the acronym were a synonym for the Antichrist” (Philadelphia Inquirer, 4/8/08). Their concerns amount to “anti-trade fervor” (Washington Post, 4/8/08) and betray their “intellectual poverty” (Washington Post, 4/20/08).

Perspectives that would complicate that picture are disappeared; in this case, that includes Colombians, many of whom have serious concerns about the deal. In 2006, a group of local Afro-Colombian groups, largely subsistence farmers, sent a letter to the U.S. Congress declaring what the deal meant to them: “Our families will have to compete with heavily subsidized agricultural products from the United States, pushing us toward economic and cultural extinction.” AFRODES, an organization representing such groups, asserts they were not even consulted in pact negotiations, in violation of Colombian law (CounterPunch, 5/3/08).

Key to elite editorializing on the Colombia deal is the presumption that NAFTA (on which subsequent regional deals have been modeled) has been an unequivocal success. “There is no compelling reason to reopen NAFTA, or to think that the United States could do any better on second effort,” USA Today declared flatly (4/9/08), while the Washington Post (4/8/08) demanded of Senators Obama and Clinton, who were critical of the Colombia deal, “Are they each unaware of the real statistics on NAFTA’s effects?” No need to cite any of those statistics; by questioning the wondrous glory that is NAFTA, the candidates proved themselves either “misguided” or “insincere.”

Economists, as opposed to editorial writers, don’t see things that way. Even a generally positive report from the Council on Foreign Relations (“NAFTA’s Economic Impact,” 3/21/08) begins by acknowledging, “It is difficult to quantify NAFTA’s effect very precisely, given the complexities involved in assigning direct causality between NAFTA’s implementation and economic shifts.”

The obvious truth is that trade deals affect different people differently, making claims that they are “good for all Americans” specious on their face. An inclusive assessment would note that if it is true that the U.S. GDP has grown slightly, it is also true that the benefits of those gains have gone overwhelmingly to corporate profits, with (particularly non-college-educated) workers’ share of productivity gains actually declining. Whether you see that as acceptable or not depends entirely on your perspective; overwhelming majorities of Americans have said they do not. When the Washington Post declares the Colombia deal to be “manifestly in America’s interest” (4/10/08), the question being avoided is: Whose America?

But corporate media editorialists can’t afford too clear-eyed an assessment of NAFTA’s record, lest they be forced to acknowledge that their own confident claims about the pact, such as the Washington Post’s promise (5/11/93) that it would “create twice as many jobs in this country as it will threaten,” have proved wildly off-base.

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