Paul Krugman discusses the recent trade deal and whether the inclusion of provisions such as labor standards will prove to be a substantial benefit to U.S. workers:
Divided Over Trade, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Nothing divides Democrats like international trade policy. That became clear last week, when the announcement of a deal on trade between Democratic leaders and the Bush administration caused many party activists to accuse the leadership of selling out.
The furor subsided a bit as details ... emerged... But the Democrats remain sharply divided between those who believe that globalization is driving down ... wages..., and those who believe that ... international is ... essential... What makes this divide so agonizing is that both sides are right.
Fears that low-wage competition is driving down U.S. wages have a real basis in both theory and fact. When we import labor-intensive manufactured goods..., the result is reduced demand for less-educated American workers, which leads ... to lower wages... And no, cheap consumer goods at Wal-Mart aren’t adequate compensation.
So imports from the third world, although they make the United States as a whole richer, make tens of millions of Americans poorer. How much poorer? In the mid-1990s ... economists, myself included, crunched the numbers and concluded that the ... effects ... on the wages of less-educated Americans were modest, not more than a few percent.
But... We’re buying a lot more from third-world countries today... Trade still isn’t the main source of rising economic inequality, but it’s a bigger factor than it was. So there is a dark side to globalization. The question, however, is what to do about it.
Should we go back to old-fashioned protectionism? That would have ugly consequences:... other wealthy countries would follow suit, closing off poor nations’ access to world markets.
Where would that leave Bangladesh, which is able to survive ... only because it can export clothing and other labor-intensive products? Where would it leave India ... if barriers to trade ... went back up?
And where would it leave Mexico? Whatever you think of Nafta, undoing the agreement could ... have disastrous economic and political consequences south of the border.
Because of these concerns, even trade skeptics tend to shy away from ... outright protectionism, and to look for softer measures, which mainly come down to trying to push up foreign wages. The key element of the new trade deal is its inclusion of “labor standards”: countries ... will have to allow union organizing, while abolishing child and slave labor.
The Bush administration, by the way, opposed labor standards, not ... to keep imports cheap, ... it was afraid that America would end up being forced to improve its own labor policies. So the inclusion of these standards ... represents a real victory for workers.
Realistically, however, labor standards won’t do all that much for American workers. No matter how free third-world workers are to organize, they’re still going to be paid very little, and trade will continue to place pressure on U.S. wages.
So what’s the answer? I don’t think there is one, as long as the discussion is restricted to trade policy: all-out protectionism isn’t acceptable, and labor standards in trade agreements will help only a little.
By all means, let’s have strong labor standards in our pending trade agreements... But if Democrats really want to help American workers, they’ll have to do it with a pro-labor policy that relies on better tools than trade policy. Universal health care, paid for by taxing the economy’s winners, would be a good place to start.