Every time politicians look to pass a new free trade agreement like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), they reassure the American people that this time around, workers will be protected.
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But my research on and experiences in a small industrial town in Illinois—not to mention even a cursory glance at the broader data on the impact of such deals—reveals that “free trade” has been a nightmare for most of the American people. And Galesburg, Illinois—which, oddly enough, has a long-standing history with President Obama—is a poster child for why free trade deals are a problem rather than a solution to the precarious reality experienced by most working- and middle-class Americans.
In 1994, President Bill Clinton worked largely with Republicans in Congress to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that drastically reduced tariffs and other “trade barriers” intended to spur greater cross-border trade and investment. However, as billionaire-turned-presidential candidate Ross Perot famously said at the time, “If this agreement is signed as it is currently drafted, the next thing you will hear will be a giant sucking sound as the remainder of our manufacturing jobs—what’s left after the two million that went to Asia in the 1980s—get pulled across our southern border.”
Sadly for American workers, Perot—and the Democratic Congressional majority who voted against the treaty—were right. Even President Obama has admitted that NAFTA resulted in massive job losses for American workers when corporations made the economically rational choice and moved production to Mexico, where the wages were much lower and governmental regulation of industry (think clean air and water) much less stringent.
Now, for the past few years and almost entirely in secret, the Obama Administration has been negotiating with a dozen other Pacific Rim nations to create a mammoth new “free trade” zone, named the TPP. The Administration asserts that the TPP will “expand opportunity for American workers, farmers, ranchers, and businesses.” According to this “logic,” further lowering trade barriers (already much lower than before the 1990s) will increase American exports and, hence, American jobs.
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