Progressives and Trade Policy

We still don’t know whom Obama will choose for US Trade Representative, although most people have identified Representative Xavier Becerra as the prime candidate. (For the bean-counters among you, Ken Salazar’s appointment to Interior might indicate that it won’t be Becerra, because Obama is putting other Latinos in the Cabinet.).

Predictably, some right-wingers are upset.

“It’s troubling; to oppose Nafta is in many ways to lash out symbolically against trade,” without understanding the benefits of that agreement says Philip Levy, a former Bush administration trade official now with the American Enterprise Institute. “You want the chief person who has to make the case to the American public for trade to recognize what those agreements did.”

In addition to the obvious point that no one should pay any attention to anything that comes out of AEI (with a few exceptions), there are two and a half important points to be made on progressives and trade.

1) The Bush/Rove Administration pursued the most relentless partisan warfare in the postwar period. It’s standard line was that Democrats are effeminate social deviants who want to turn the US into Islamistan. In trade, the Administration excluded Democrats from the domestic negotiations altogether. In that context, Democrats were well within their rights to refuse to make a tough vote on trade. My Congressman, Howard Berman, who is very pro-free trade, voted against CAFTA. Many Democrats who supported trade during either the Clinton or Bush I administrations were not prepared to do the White House a favor on this one.

2) The evolving progressive position that many (including myself) support is the notion of the “grand bargain” in which further international trade liberalization is accompanied by stronger domestic protections for American workers (whether through labor law or health care). In other words, trade deals are not so much opposed but used as bargaining chips. The Bush Administration, of course, refused to do this, and thus the Democrats balked. That doesn’t reflect a protectionist position as much as it demonstrates tactical opposition.

3) This is the half point. IIRC, many observers argued that CAFTA and the Administration’s other bilateral deals were somehow worse than previous trade deals, because of provisions that specifically weakened labor protections (i.e. no union-busting in other countries) and environmental side agreements. One particular provision that rankled were, for example, CAFTA’s intellectual property provisions, which were not part of NAFTA. It is not clear that this was, in fact, true, particularly by the end of the process, but if so, it would explain a great deal of opposition that once again was tactical, not general.

The point here is to look past generalities about “free trade” and “protectionism” and look carefully at political and legal context. Trade politics always involve clashes between different constituencies, and the President is usually more free trade than Congress. It is not a partisan issue, and if handled well, it doesn’t have to be.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.