Tuesday, February 12, 2008

This I believe

National Public Radio resurrected a segment recently called “This I believe.” People from all walks of life recite essays in which they articulate—in a clear, strong and decisive voice—exactly what they have come to know of the world. The first time I heard the broadcast, I was overwhelmed with envy. It was well into the night, and I was driving aimlessly in my car with my two long suffering (but ever-forgiving) daschunds in search of a firm set of beliefs about my project. At the time, I was researching the implications of U.S. national security measures on trade in developing countries. I couldn’t figure out what my position should be: On the one hand, I recognized the need for greater security in the wake of September 11. On the other, I was troubled by the knee-jerk reaction of the Bush Administration that typically separated the world into rich/poor only to privilege the former. The NPR commentator droned on while I listened in awe at the absolute conviction with which she spoke.
It seems I am in a perpetual search for certainty in my life. There was the time in college when I joined a cult. Ok, my friends called it a cult because the members smiled vacuously, lived and prayed together (constantly), and went to church all day on Wednesdays and Sundays—which, for a lapsed Catholic like me, was probably the most onerous requirement. I wasn’t interested in drinking the Kool-Aid, but boy did I want their conviction! While I struggled to make sense of how I felt about the feminism/race divide (are black women first women or black?) and fought both the peace loving exhortations of Dr. King and the defiant militancy of Brother Malcolm, those folks had answers. They knew, for example, that if you do not belong to the one TRUE church, you are going to hell. They were certain that if you don’t accept Jesus Christ as your Personal Lord and Savior, the devil would leave the lights on for you. I admired their firmness, their constancy, their smugness. And I wanted a bit of that just for myself. I lasted all of one week—well, five days if you don’t include the two they spent trying to bring me back into the fold before realizing the sad truth: There was nothing to be done. I was going straight to hell.
I feel the same sometimes when I talk to the various camps about free trade: There is something of a Baptist Revival spirit to their beliefs. Most people seem rather single minded in their stance, utterly convicted as to the truth of their position while I stagger around in an unending search for meaning. My hairdresser is certain that trade is the root of all evil. She lost a job to NAFTA once (exactly how she knows this, I dared not ask) and now curls her lips at the slightest mention of trade agreements. They are tools of the rich to subjugate the poor. Unbeknown to her, she shares the view of the Soviets who negotiated GATT in the 1940s; they proclaimed non-discrimination—the hallmark of free trade—“a device of the devil to ensnare and enslave small countries.” Equally adamant are my economist-type friends who think any disparagement of trade is the result of a kindergarten-level IQ. Now that WTO members have liberalized the services trade and their jobs too are ripe for outsourcing, their opinion may shift slightly. What I admire about these two camps of course is their certainty. I’d really like to join them, but I am challenged. I am challenged by that uneasy sense of “yeah, but . . .” I get every time I try to corral my slippery sense of certainty. I decided to put together this post as an exercise in hope: Could I come up with a set of beliefs to which I too could swear allegiance? Well, I did manage to come up with something. True to form absolute conviction escapes me, but I decided to lay out my credo anyway. This I believe: There is much good to come from free trade. Where would the world be without Belgian chocolates, Rwandan coffee beans or the Italian Lamborghini? Seriously, the great economist Amartya Sen tells us that development is about far more than producing wealth or income; it is truly about freedom. Well, trade is a part of that equation. Trade is not really about producing the cheapest toy or all the Ramen noodles you can eat for a dollar. The end goal is to grant us freedom. Freedom from what? From scarcity, from want, from the tedium of our own limited potential. Trade allows us to produce the best we are able, and in a dance of mutual reciprocity, exchange that for the cultivated achievement of another. We are not all consigned to producing the basics for survival. We can focus on growing cotton in exchange for fluffy white t-shirts, towels, and those heavenly 600 thread count bed sheets. Let others produce the grapes while we give the world a rich merlot or the lusciousness of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Those who are so inclined can invent computers, software and social network sites, but when they need a place to rest, Fiji’s tourism trade might be just what the doctor ordered.
But here’s the rub: What happens when your very best—your “comparative advantage” in trade parlance—consigns you to the world’s raw materials supplier? What happens when opening up to trade leads to large-scale trade deficits that bring an avalanche of “significant economic dislocations”? Developing countries deal with the former question every day, while rich countries like the United States utter quarterly gasps at their rising trade deficits. Interestingly, both respond to the challenge in the same way—with a call to curb the “negatives” of trade. Are they wrong for employing the breaks to free trade by imposing measures like safeguards, quotas, high tariff walls, protection for infant industries, and balance of payment provisions, to name just a few? Economists call many of these tools “protectionist,” but aren’t governments supposed to do exactly that—protect us from certain preventable harms?
The virulently nationalistic Lou Dobbs once said “free trade has been the most expensive trade policy this nation has ever pursued.” While I can hardly watch one of his broadcasts without throwing my shoe at the (imported) television set, I must agree that free trade comes at great cost. We have to manage those costs, and if that means occasionally straying from the path of absolute openness, than so be it. Of course “the devil is in the details.” When do we adopt such protections and how (and what is our response when others employ the same tools) are difficult questions that politicians and trade officials have routinely bungled. Protecting an inefficient steel industry because it is a significant campaign contributor, for example, would not be a permissible reason to close the door to free trade. My point, though, is that free trade is not a religion. We do not get into heaven based on the purity of our adherence to dogma. Trade is a tool we must manage in pursuit of the ultimate aim of freedom.

What if I’m wrong? Well, then I guess I’m going to hell.

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