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Scheve and Slaughter move the trade debate forward

There's been some buzz about the recent piece by Kenneth Scheve and Matthew Slaughter in Foreign Affairs. Slaughter in particular served on Bush's Council of Economic Advisors, making his opinion particularly noteworthy. Among the highlights of their piece, which are major concessions to the fair trade side of the aisle:

  • "Less than four percent of workers were in educational groups that enjoyed increases in mean real money earnings from 2000 to 2005; mean real money earnings rose for workers with doctorates and professional graduate degrees and fell for all others. In contrast to in earlier decades, today it is not just those at the bottom of the skill ladder who are hurting. Even college graduates and workers with nonprofessional master's degrees saw their mean real money earnings decline. By some measures, inequality in the United States is greater today than at any time since the 1920s."
  • "The two most commonly proposed responses -- more investment in education and more trade adjustment assistance for dislocated workers -- are nowhere near adequate. Significant payoffs from educational investment will take decades to be realized, and trade adjustment assistance is too small and too narrowly targeted on specific industries to have much effect."

Mark and Dean have already gone through some of the few shortcomings of the piece at Huffington Post, worth a special read because of their recent work dissecting the productivity numbers (hint: even on productivity, the U.S. neoliberal economy is underperforming previous economic policy models). And we've already talked about how bogus the $500 billion trade benefit number is, which seems to serve as Scheve and Slaughter's primary evidence for maintaining much of the trade status quo.

But there are some other points worth making. Scheve/Slaughter want to save the current trade model, and they propose to do so by a massive boost and overhaul of the way we use the tax system to distribute income. It's true that there would probably be less anxiety about trade if we had European-style income redistribution mechanisms (i.e. strong unions, strong wage and labor market policies, socialized medicine, etc. - not that they're proposing these measures, they're talking about cutting taxes, which is a subject for a whole other post.) Not only that, but we'd probably be more competitive in international markets too.

But the real purpose of current trade policy is not necessarily to put downward pressure on U.S. wages, although that is a very important effect of trade that very much dominates the debate. The real purpose of current trade policy, in the words of the Bush administration's John Veroneau at a Washington think tank, is to serve as a "deregulatory tool," i.e. to compel the destruction of democratically-agreed policies and to chill the enactment of progressive policies in the future. So while progressives are thinking about what our big legislative fight is next week, corporations long ago started thinking about how they could put provisions in trade deals that could help them counter policies that a John Edwards administration - or an Evo Morales administration - might enact if progressives were ever able to catapult them into office.

Pielady It is that model that Scheve and Slaughter are out to save through the creation of income redistribution mechanisms that the elites can control from above, rather than waiting for discontent to bubble up into a democratic upheaval from below (that could demand not only a bigger share of the economic pie, but a bigger role in deciding what kind of pie we're going to be serving and how it's going to be baked.)

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