[THIS PIECE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE MAY/JUNE 2000 COLUMBIA JOURNALISM REVIEW.]
American journalists seem continually surprised by the strength of opposition to current global trade and financial policies, whether the opposition appears in the streets of Seattle or the halls of Congress.
By and large, this is because the media treat such questions not as a contest of competing ideas and interests, but as a simple-minded morality play. On one side are the “free traders” — high-minded business leaders and allied politicians and policy think tanks trying to bring the benefit of capitalism, and even democracy, to all the world’s people. On the other side are the “protectionists” — overpaid and selfish union workers and fringe environmental and human rights activists. The public’s persistent skepticism of the free-traders’ arguments are dismissed as a sad reflection of the average American’s ignorance of economics.
What the media do not seem to get is that the fundamental disagreements are not about international trade, per se. They are about the rules of that trade. “Free trade” is a misnomer. NAFTA, the WTO, and other so-called “free trade” agreements contain hundreds of pages of detailed U.S.-style protections for the property rights of international corporate investors, enforceable by heavy trade sanctions. But they contain no effective protections against the exploitation of labor and the abuse of the environment. It is not “protectionism” but the imbalance in who gets protected that is the source of the anger in the streets.
The mainstream press routinely reflects multinational businesses’ view that human rights and worker and environmental issues are “special interest” concerns, and that, in any case, they are overwhelmed by the benefits to all of expanded trade. Thus, statements from the administration that rising exports over the last decade have created growth and jobs are routinely reported as facts supporting the case for its trade policies. What the reader is routinely not told is that imports have risen much faster, generating a trade deficit that is now a record $300 billion — which has to be paid for by borrowing from overseas. Business reporters who provide readers only with export numbers are like baseball writers who provide only one team’s runs.
A reader does not have to be an expert to see that virtually none of the promises made by the political establishment to promote trade agreements in the 1990s have been fulfilled. NAFTA was supposed to stimulate an expanded trade surplus with Mexico, more U.S. jobs in autos and other high-wage industries, and rising wages in Mexico to provide a market for U.S. goods. (“Don’t your friends at the autoworkers’ union understand that NAFTA is going to be great for them?” one journalist asked me impatiently during the NAFTA debate.) NAFTA was also supposed to solidify a “reform” political faction in Mexico dedicated to clean government and democracy.
Instead: the trade surplus with Mexico turned into a trade deficit. Some 250,000 U.S. manufacturing jobs — many of them in the auto and auto parts industry — went south of the border. Wages for the typical Mexican worker have dropped 30 percent. And the reformers turned out to be even more corrupt than their predecessors.
Having once been burned, one would think that the media would be at least be a little wary next time around. Yet today the administration and its business allies use the same arguments to sell Congress on a trade agreement with China, with the press transmitting them to the public with virtually no reference to recent history.
Despite the undisputed fact that the Chinese reneged on agreements with the U.S. that were signed in 1992, the press accepts at face value the assertions of great benefits to come. For example, in an effort to garner congressional farm-state votes, the administration claims that China has agreed to import 7.3 million tons of wheat from the United States. But in an interview reported in the South China Morning Post in January, China’s chief negotiator vice-minister Long Yongtu said that it was a “complete misunderstanding” to expect the wheat to actually enter China. The agreement only represented a “theoretical opportunity” for the export of more grain. No mention of this interview appeared in our three top newspapers.
Despite the growing importance of the global economy in the lives of Americans, we have a long way to go to where media coverage of global economics rises to the objective standards of the sports pages.
Jeff Fauxis president of the Economic Policy Institute, in Washington, D.C., founded in 1986 “to broaden the discussion about economic policy to include the interests of low-and middle-income workers.” He has written and lectured widely on global economic issues, and his most recent book is The Party’s Not Over.