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Stan Sorscher Headshot

Korea-U.S. Deal Undercuts Civil Society

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I am 100% in favor of trade policies that raise our standard of living.

I oppose trade policies that deindustrialize America, erode the middle class and compromise long-term prosperity. Case in point: I oppose the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement.

For some reason, trade debates start with the false choice between free trade and protectionism. In fact, no country in the world is pure free trade or pure protectionism. We are free to choose from any number of trade policies -- some better, some worse than what we have now. Free trade has had its day. It failed.

By the same token, every country has an industrial policy. South Korea's industrial policy raised their standard of living from below that of Ghana in 1960 to first world levels by the 80s or 90s. That accomplishment featured well-designed trade policies that had nothing to do with free trade.

America prospered for generations with industrial policies that had nothing to do with free trade. China's extraordinary growth is heavily trade-dependent, but has nothing to do with free trade.

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman once said that he favors any trade agreement -- sight unseen -- that has the two words "Free Trade" in the title. In a betrayal of Friedman's faith, free trade policies have caused profound strategic damage that we see today, where millions of middle class workers struggle to find jobs and the recession lingers for years. Imports continue to rise faster than exports. Most Americans sense that we are on a disturbing path to a Lesser America.

Free trade contains a fatal flaw. By design, free trade agreements emphasize rights of global investors. Multinational business interests are placed first, while interests of civil society are diminished.

Civil society worries about environmental rights, labor and human rights, public health and long-term prosperity. Free trade agreements sweep those interests aside, and create a global economy where investors have no obligation to any country or any public interest.

America prospered for generations because we had a strong middle class and strong civil society. Workers wanted dignity and fair treatment in the workplace and that became our standard. We wanted good public schools and affordable college education as a path to better jobs. We provided basic income for seniors and retirees. We insisted on clean air and water, which we hope to pass on to our children as a legacy. We honored the American dream, which said anyone could work hard and achieve economic security. The skewed priorities in free trade agreements would never work in our domestic economy.

Like America, South Korea has an active civil society. South Korea's industrial policies aligned with the public interest, because of Korean cultural values and the political power of their civil society. Today, public interest groups in South Korea oppose the Korea-US fair trade agreement because they understand the dangers of granting more authority to global investors and eroding policies that serve the public interest.

The Korea-US agreement will weaken legitimate and prudent financial controls that South Korea introduced after their damaging currency crisis in 1997. The agreement will also weaken South Korea's carbon emissions standards, and it will create a conduit through Korea to the US for goods from low-wage countries. Inadequate labor rights provisions fail to address basic issues.

Free trade has been exceptionally successful for the top 1% of the population in America, and for global investors and business executives in high-income brackets in other countries. Free trade works for the top levels in each country, because it creates rules that favor global business over workers, the environment, human rights and public health.

The issue is not workers in one country opposing or fearing workers in other countries. Workers in South Korea, America, Mexico and Canada all see the same dangers in free trade policies that reduce the influence of civil society and give more power to multinational business. The Korea-US free trade agreement will make business succeed, while promising trickle-down gains to everyone else.

Free trade is not the only game in town. We should stop blessing it with the presumption of unique value. To start with, we should walk away from the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement.

Alternative policies are not hard to find. The TRADE Act, introduced in the last two sessions of Congress, is a good first step. We've used alternative policies in the past, and we can take lessons from other countries.

Trade advocates promise mutual gain. I will give 100% support to any future trade agreement that delivers on that promise of mutual gain.