In getting ready for the big National Press Club event tomorrow to discuss the politics of “free” trade – and Washington’s refusal to back off selling out Americans – I came across this positively shocking piece in the Wall Street Journal. The broad strokes are simple: the Bush administration and both parties in Congress are considering signing a "free" trade pact with South Korea that would cover a special project in North Korea that allows Big Money interests to exploit the enslaved people there.
This proposed deal goes beyond the other awful trade deals that we've watched the Bush administration and Congress consider recently - it goes beyond the job-destroying Central American Free Trade Agreement and even beyond the proposed trade pact with Malaysia, a country that prohibits a minimum wage. This trade pact "would be the U.S.'s largest pact since the North American Free Trade Agreement passed Congress more than a decade ago."
The Journal story, of course, is filled with hedging. No one wants to come out and say this is what the trade negotiations are all about, or that they really want this North Korea piece - even though its obvious Big Money is salivating for it. What they want is the issue to go back into the background and get quietly passed without anyone noticing. They would rather the public ignore the effort to validate the "joint-venture Kaesong industrial complex in North Korea" that "combines South Korean capital with North Korean labor" (read: combines multinational corporate cash with exploitable slaves). By the time the complex is in full operation in 2012, "it could employ more than 750,000 North Koreans" – again, North Koreans who are literally enslaved and barred from leaving their prison.
Geopolitically, this is like the Dubai Ports controversy on steroids. During that controversy, the Bush administration ignored its own military officials’ warnings and tried to allow a foreign government to purchase our critical infrastructure – effectively going on record as saying our international trade policy prioritizes profits over national security. Now, we have a U.S. administration publicly considering economically rewarding a country that is test firing missiles, developing nuclear weapons, and threatening our allies - rewarding this global threat with a trade pact that validates that aggressor’s enslavement of its population.
But even beyond the geopolitical implications are the implications for American workers – and workers all over the globe. Even considering this atrocious pact lays bare what our government sees our "free" trade as: a vehicle for driving wages, workplace standards, environmental protections and standards of living into the ground in order to pad Big Money's bottom line. Such a deal would force the world’s workers to compete with slave labor. It would rewarding a dictator like Kim Jong Il in that it would create a premium for corporations to exploit his enslaved population. The fact that this is even being talked about as a legitimate consideration inside our governemnt tells you everything you need to know about the hostile takeover of our government by Big Money interests.
In my new book Hostile Takeover, I referred to North Korea as an extreme example to illustrate where our “free” trade policy really is going. Here is the excerpt:
"It begs the simple question: where does it all end? When Americans’ wages rose, during the early and mid-twentieth century, 'free' trade deals like NAFTA, the China pact and CAFTA forced us to choose either lower wages or the elimination of our jobs. As Latin Americans’ wages rise, their jobs are now getting shipped off to China. If Chinese wages eventually rise because workers there start demanding a better life, where’s next? Will we suddenly see a 'free' trade agreement with North Korea – a country whose dictator has quite literally enslaved his population? Forget about 'low-wage' labor – Big Business would have access to 'no-wage' labor. Are our politicians going to suddenly start telling us that’s a good thing that America’s trade policy should encourage and reward? If you think this is hyperbole, remember: Corporate America has admitted this downward spiral is precisely its goal. As GE CEO Jack Welch has said, Big Business's objective is 'ideally [to] have every plant you own on a barge.' Exactly – with U.S. government trade policy encouraging that barge to move away from whatever country’s workers demand better wages."
Sadly, the North Korea example seems not that far off from reality. Undoubtedly, Big Money interests will trot out politicians from both parties to once again tell us this is all good for American workers, even as wages continue to stagnate, pensions get cut, and health care benefits eliminated. We see the outlines of the upcoming propaganda campaign already, as the Journal says a "business coalition including U.S. auto makers, financial-services firms and drug manufacturers sees important market-access gains to be had." The term "market-access" as we have seen over the last decade of "free" trade, is a euphemism for job outsourcing, and downward wage/benefit pressure at home as Americans are forced to compete with oppressed workers.
Similarly, pundits like Tom Friedman and David Brooks will likely travel to the Four Seasons in Seoul, look out their window at a breakfast with a couple of American CEOs and then tell us that those who want this trade policy reformed are crazy, that rewarding dictators who oppress their people is a utopian dream - and then blurt out a nonsequitur that "the world is flat" (whatever the hell that nonsensical term actually means).
Clearly, though, it is the bought off, the dishonest and the immoral who would continue justifying a trade policy that deliberately eliminates all wage, workplace, environmental and human rights protections. It is these elitists who would sit by while our government openly debates whether to reward a country like North Korea for its horrific treatment of its people.
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