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January 25, 2008

When will people get embarrassed about Colombia?

Nobody could accuse the Washington community of lawyers that is responsible for our trade policy of being overly concerned with social justice.

But, c'mon, give me a break. Usually when we have trade debates in this town, they center around making one-way streets into two-way streets, keeping the bicycle of trade moving forward, bashing protectionists and isolationists, engaging not retreating, etc.

Enter the debate around the Colombia FTA. Back in the 1990s, even some Clinton administration officials were cited in the Christian Science Monitor as thinking NAFTA expansion to Colombia was a bad idea - precisely because of the country's ongoing civil war and drug problem. Today, it's no secret that a majority of members of Congress and the entirety of the Democrats' base is utterly opposed to a Colombia FTA, both on the grounds that it's a NAFTA expansion and that it's the biggest unionist-murdering country in the world. In most popular discussions of the pact, this latter fact is THE talking points - people murdered. Thousands of them. With total impunity.

So when the advocates of the Colombia FTA take to the stage, they're rarely talking about bicycles or exports. Their main talking point is that UNION MURDERS HAVE GONE DOWN. Is there no shame?? Who cares if they're up or down... if you had to lead with that fact, you have a problem. In Europe, they have a whole host of social and developmental criteria before you can join the European Union. Not here. The bigger the freak social problems you have, the better.

A Republican at an event I was recently at put it bluntly: how many fewer murders do you want to see before you pass the FTA? What's the specific target? Some Dems in attendance had to respond that they would be glad to expand NAFTA to Colombia, but "more progress [on murder] needs to be made." It's like the saying about porn, I guess the Dems'll know sufficient murder reduction when they see it. Problem is, none of us'll know beforehand. Might it be time to get beyond the country-specific critique and blast the failed model instead?


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Todd makes a key point, but he doesn't hammer the nail down to the wood. Europe has consistently balanced social criteria with economics. Ireland wasn't admitted to the EU until considerable investment - from the richer European countries no less - brought Ireland close to parity. Italy was not admitted until its fiscal policy was stabilized. Turkey - not yet. Russia is not even close.

On the other hand, in 1994 we declared that Mexico was close enough, and NAFTA would solve our immigration problems. This blind assertion was made on the basis of pure orthodoxy, while Europe actively invested in target countries before admitting their partners into their economic union.

Todd's basic point is well taken about the glaring irony of bargaining over how many dead union organizers we would accept.

We should be emphasizing what we want - how our trade policy is inherently flawed, and what it would take to "fix it."

Some mechanisms must be in place to bring equivalent social and economic terms into trade. The EU has their version, which would be a good starting place. One key element is social parity. Another is balanced trade.

On his book tour, Joseph Stiglitz said we would need global social, environmental, and human rights institutions comparable to WTO, IMF an World Bank. Right. Domestically, I would add a national industrial policy. We could move on from there. Free trade pffftt.

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