08/14/2006 12:40 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Where Economics Meets Religious Fundamentalism

Late last week, the San Francisco Chronicle published a major new op-ed of mine entitled "Where Economics Meets Religious Fundamentalism." The basic premise is that increasingly, "free" trade zealots are pushing their ideology without any facts whatsoever. Their advocacy is backed only by a huge pile of corporate cash and pure faith - not substance. And when you look at their rhetoric, you can see they are no longer even trying to substantively defend our current trade policy that undermines job security, wages, and health and pension benefits  - like religious fundamentalists, they are just telling people to believe in a higher power and wait through an indefinite number of Friedmans for the economic benefits that never come. I cite various specific examples, from Bush Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson to Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin to billionaire scion/columnist Tom Friedman, who recently admitted he advocates for "free" trade pacts even though he doesn't bother to read what's in them.

As I say in the piece, such faith-based fundamentalism is dangerous in all realms - whether in the national security sphere where we are fighting religious fundamentalist terrorists, or in the economic sphere where "free" trade is treated as a religion and its elitist proselytizers behave like wild-eyed fundamentalists, demanding that we submit to their faith-based preaching no matter how much economic damage is done. But increasingly, the "free" trade fundamentalists are being exposed as hypocrites, zealots or both. There is only a certain amount of selling out that the American public can take, especially when it comes to basic economic necessities like job security and the preservation of wages, health care benefits and retirement income. And as evidenced by various indicators - from polls about trade to Lou Dobbs' surging ratings - the public, fact-based outrage over this elite religious fundamentalism is seething.

And make no mistake about it - the more stories like this new one about drug importation appear, the more that outrage will forment. Why? Because stories about the U.S. government using Gestapo tactics to prevent ordinary citizens from purchasing lower-priced, FDA-approved medicines from Canada shine a bright light on the deliberate hypocrisy hardwired into "free" trade fundamentalism (which is why I put "free" in quotes). The same Republicans, DLC "Democrats" and elite lobbyists/opininmakers who tell us that we need "free" trade are the same people who push provisions into trade deals preventing American citizens from getting access to cheaper medicines. That is, the same people who claim "free" trade is designed to benefit consumers with lower prices crafts provisions in trade deals specifically meant to protect the pharmaceutical industry's ability to price gouge.

Talking about the real effects of "free" trade is an issue that tends to make some liberals - specifically neoliberals - uncomfortable, because they have been led to believe by both parties that our current "free" trade policies are designed to help ordinary people. They have also been led to believe that the debate over trade is between those who want trade and those who want no trade. But on both of these scores, reality is far different from rhetoric.

As I document in my book Hostile Takeover, "free" trade is one of the major factors behind stagnating wages, slashed pensions and increased health care costs for ordinary workers. If your trade pacts include no labor, wage, human rights or environmental standards, you force workers to compete in a race to the bottom with slave labor in the Third World. That competition puts a premium on companies that eviscerate the social contract America has worked so hard to achieve.

Similarly, the debate is not between those who want trade and those who want no trade. That false storyline is a fable created by the high priests of free trade's religious fundamentalist movement. The real debate is over whether in trade pacts we will insist on labor, wage, human rights, environmental and health care provisions that protect ordinary citizens as strenuously as the lobbyist-written provisions in these pacts already protect corporate executives' bottom line.

Go check out the op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle - I go into more detail there. But needless to say, this issue - as much as operatives in both political parties want it to go away - is here to stay, and the political party that gets ahead of the trade issue and rejects the "free" trade religious fundamentalists is the political party that will be in the majority for years to come.