I started Edward Gresser’s Freedom from Want: American Liberalism and the Global Economy. Gresser got the phrase “Freedom from Want” from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a strong advocate of free trade. That fits into a prominent theme in Gresser’s book: that free trade is an idea that liberals have historically promulgated, even though the Left today tends to be critical of the concept. (By free trade, I don’t mean the total absence of tariffs, but rather such agreements as NAFTA and GATT.)
I actually bought this book back when I was a conservative. There were liberals in my corner of academia who were critical of President George W. Bush’s support for free trade—-which (according to them) entailed the outsourcing of American jobs and the oppression of the Third World—-and I learned about this book while watching the Fox News program, The Beltway Boys, which had Fred Barnes and Mort Kondracke. I decided to buy this book in order to combat the liberal anti-Bush rhetoric that I was hearing and reading. But I haven’t gotten around to reading it until now!
In my reading of the book thus far, Gresser makes a variety of points, often as he focuses on a Cambodian garment worker named Srei. While Srei’s income is low by U.S. standards, Gresser argues, it is quite reasonable in Cambodia, when compared with how much other people there (a cop and a health clinic doctor) make and the cost of things in that country. Gresser also states that work at a Cambodian garment factory is better than other options for women in Cambodia, such as being a sex worker. For Gresser, free trade helps people in other countries, even poorer ones.
Gresser discusses the rationale for certain policies of the much maligned World Trade Organization. Why, for example, does GATT limit the United States’ tariff on cotton shirts to 16.5 per cent, whereas Cambodia can have a tariff of 25 percent? The reason that Cambodia’s tariff can be so high, Gresser maintains, is that a large influx of cheap imported cotton shirts would wipe out Cambodia’s only industry. Regarding the U.S., Gresser does not say a whole lot, but my opinion is that the WTO requires the U.S. to have a lower tariff because we are such a huge customer for foreign products: in a sense, “free trade” depends on us.
Gresser talks about other issues as well. For one, he notes that trade makes up a huge chunk of the world’s economy—-one-fifth of goods and services. Gresser is probably making this point to set the stage for his discussion on trade, but I think that there’s a sub-text here (though I can’t prove it): that trade is a significant part of our economy these days, and we cannot turn back from that without causing damage. Second, Gresser contends that trade between the nations is conducive to peace. I think that Gresser may be on to something here. China currently owns a lot of our debt, and I believe that the main reason that it has been nice to us is because we are dependable customers for its products. (Or we are unless Mitt Romney becomes President and decides to challenge China.)
I’ll close this post with something that Gresser says on page 22 about the impact of free trade on America’s economy, in response to the leftist claim that free trade has resulted in unemployment due to outsourcing, as well as environmental degradation and threats to the health of workers: “Since the 1970s—-even more so since the NAFTA—-jobs have grown easier to find. American businesses employ more people, and fewer Americans are out of work. American factories produce more than they did in the past, and at the same time the country is cleaner and workers are healthier.” Gresser says that he will provide more details about this picture later in the book.