James K. Galbraith is an advisor to the Obama campaign, a University of Texas professor of economics, and son of famous JFK advisor John Galbraith. He has a new book out called "The Predator State," and it is well worth a read.
The primary goal of the book is not to talk politics, but to talk ideas. Like a lot of books over the last few years, "The Predator State" dissects the work of neo-liberals. Their packet of ideas, in Galbraith's reading, was to cut taxes, end inflation, and free the markets. While the original Reagan acolytes came to power on the appeal of ideas like "freedom", latter day Bushites have largely abandoned any serious commitment to them. Now, it is only so-called "liberals" who largely accept these ideas as the starting point for discussion.
Galbraith's criticisms of supply-side economics are many. How can we believe that markets are perfect, and also believe that there's insufficient savings? If we believe government should not intervene in markets, why is there such widespread support for the independence of the Federal Reserve, a government entity that sets prices? Why do we attribute many ideas to Adam Smith and David Ricardo that they never uttered? Are markets really that perfect if they reward failed capitalists at Enron and elsewhere? Small bore ideas from universal pre-K to job training receive targeted criticism: this is much too little for Galbraith, who wants liberals to - in the wake of Katrina and climate chaos - embrace his big ideas of economic planning.
The book's engaging, but it has some blind spots. Galbraith, an
institutional economist, doesn't have a very institutionally-complex
analysis of labor and other social movements, how they work, how they
make decisions, and how they look at strategic usage of issues. To me
at least, these questions are at least as interesting as the ideas
Instead, he spends dozens of pages in the book critiquing the fair trade movement. Why do fair traders blame trade agreements for job loss when it's really about national competitiveness? Why do fair traders yammer on about the trade deficit when it's really about finance? Why do fair traders waste so much time talking about labor standards in trade agreements rather than addressing labor standards writ large? Why do some criticize China when they should be embracing its industrial policies as our own? Why do we associate trade with inequality when Denmark has a lot of the former and not much of the latter?
I don't think he would find much opposition on these points from the more serious strategists and thinkers of the global justice movement. Like any other movement, we have our dilettantes, our ideologists, our lazy thinkers. If he scratched a little below the congressional press release level, he'd find many advocates talking directly about how the primary problem with trade pacts is not that they cost jobs, but that they shrink policy space, and pursue de-regulation by other means. He'd also find a lot of foundations, writers and large groups that guard their own institutional turf by not talking about the real issues.
Galbraith, in debates with Jeff Faux last year at the American Prospect that he turned into several chapters of the book, sought to deemphasize the politics of the trade issue. Hopefully the presidential campaigns are not doing the same. Nevertheless, this is a valuable read for many fair trade activists, who may not have many opportunities to read something by someone this left who happens to think their work is premised on fairy tales.
(Disclosure: Global Trade Watch has no preference among the candidates.)