Projecting The Status Quo

By: Charles Blum

So, President Obama thinks that anyone who questions the opaque Trans-Pacific Partnership is in effect arguing for perpetuating the “status quo.” Recently, the Washington Post quotes the president:

“Those who oppose these trade deals ironically are accepting a status quo that is more damaging to American workers,” Obama said at the Business Roundtable. “There are folks in my own party and in my own constituency that have legitimate complaints about some of the trend lines of inequality, but are barking up the wrong tree when it comes to opposing TPP, and I’m going to have to make that argument.”

A while back, he charged critics of the TPP and its baby sister the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with complaining about issues that in his judgment had been settled twenty-five years ago.

Projection is a common psychological defense mechanism:  attribute to others what you want to deny about yourself.  In this case, the administration and its big business allies are the ones who are perpetuating the status quo.  The special interests for which trade agreements are designed to work often benefit from their intricately crafted provisions.   However,  those provisions have little to do with either “free trade” or the national interest.

Whereas Adam Smith argued that a nation as a whole (hence The Wealth of Nations) would be better off by ending perpetually unbalanced trade – the essence of mercantilism.  He surely would see through the unexamined assumption of modern day “free traders” who argue in effect that anything that leaves them better off serves the national interest.

Yet this blind spot is not peculiar to the current administration.  For decades the United States has failed to:

  • Counteract the spread of mercantilist practices that now distort 40 percent of the world economy, creating immense imbalances that threaten the continuation of the post-World War II economic system
  • Address the growing discrepancy between the US and foreign tax regimes, handing to more than 150 countries a built-in two-way advantage in trade with this country
  • Neutralize the rise of state-owned enterprises in international trade and finance, allowing those who have virtual immunity from market forces to gain a huge competitive advantage over our companies and our workers
  • Offset the massive subsidies paid to induce American firms to offshore their headquarters, research facilities, production facilities, and components suppliers
  • Develop a coherent energy policy that capitalizes on home-grown supply and technology, leaving us dependent on foreign supply, complicating our national security calculations, and inexorably adding to our foreign debt.

For a generation, those issues have been ignored by our trade negotiators and our economic policymakers.  While successive administrations have hyped the benefits from China’s accession to the World Trade Organization and our “free trade” agreements with 26 other countries, here’s what’s been happening to the US economy:

  • Trade deficits continue at historically high levels. Since our last annual surplus in 1975, we have incurred an unbroken string of 39 consecutive deficits totaling about $10 trillion dollars.  Seventy percent of that has occurred in just the past 13 years, just when expanded trade was supposed to be improving our trade performance and living standards!
  • Median household incomes have been falling as American workers have lost well paying jobs and benefits to foreign competitors. Despite impressive productivity gains, the typical American worker is worse off today both in wage earnings and benefits.
  • Median household net worth has also suffered as falling incomes and rising cost of housing, medical care and education have curtailed the average family’s ability to save and invest. Today half of American households have accumulated over their lifetimes a net worth of $81,000 or less – smaller than the annual bonus of some law associates or rookies at Wall Street financial companies.
  • Foreign debt, largely driven by the accumulation of annual trade deficits, has risen year by year to almost $17 trillion – about one year’s output for the entire American economy.

Each dollar of foreign debt is a claim on what Americans own or can squeeze out of our shrunken production base.  When the inevitable day of reckoning arrives, inflation will make up for any shortfall in available assets, goods and services.  Literally, our perennial trade deficits are not only a drain on our economy at present but also a threat to our prosperity, sovereignty and way of life in the future.

So, the status quo is the problem, but more of the same sort of trade agreements cannot be the solution.  We need a government able and willing to confront the problems that have burdened us for a long time.  The good news is that most of them can be addressed effectively and legally by actions within our control.  Then – and only then – broad regional trade agreements might make a lot more sense and might enjoy a lot more political support than they do now.  Instead of complaining about critics, those in power would be better advised to act in a determined, comprehensive way on the perennial problems that have gutted the prospects for prosperity for half the nation.

For more than 28 years served as a diplomat, trade negotiator and Washington consultant.  As a Foreign Service officer in the US Department of State from 1971 to 1980, he served as a political officer, labor attaché, refugee officer, and trade economist.  From 1980 to 1988, he directed work on industrial trade and multilateral negotiations as an Assistant US Trade Representative in the Executive Office of President Reagan. 

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