The congressional vote on normalizing trade relations with China is
being cursed and celebrated. Is the trade deal good for the American
economy? Yes. Economic strength is improved by trading with countries
all over the world. Is the trade deal good for the American worker? The
argument can be made (and many have made it) that anything that helps
the American economy overall benefits the U.S. worker. However, the
argument can also be made (and many have made it) that greater access to
world markets includes greater access to cheaper labor, which in turn
costs the American worker.
No one knows which outcome will dominate and it's likely that things
will pretty much stay on the course they're already on -- one which
improves the economy yet erodes the living standards of average
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President Clinton's campaign for normal trade relations with China,
did not, however, focus on the economic side of the debate. His emphasis
was on the political side of the debate -- the extent to which advancing
a global market economy advances democracy in repressive societies.
What's notable about this political debate is that it focuses
exclusively on how the introduction and expansion of market economies
accelerates the growth of democracy in underdeveloped authoritarian
countries, while ignoring that democratic process is on the decline in
the United States.
It's true that in absolute terms America is significantly more
democratic than China. But while free trade may have put democratization
on an upward curve in the People's Republic, it is on a downward curve
in America. Democracy is declining here, where over half the electorate
doesn't vote, the incumbency return rate for elected officials is higher
than in the Chinese Politburo, public policy debate is heavily
controlled by the two parties and special interest money runs the show.
It's probably the case that early stages of a market economy do
produce greater democracy. When market forces come to bear in an
oppressive society, it gives ordinary citizens more involvement in
decision making because they are participating in the market. But in
more economically developed societies with more democratic traditions
there comes a point when the oligarchy -- whatever form that happens to
take -- starts to constrain democracy because it wants to restrict the
extent to which competing forces in the society can make corporate
America accountable to the people.
Right now, Bill Clinton and Tom DeLay -- not to mention Al Gore and
George Bush -- can have it both ways. They can fight for democracy in
China while they repress it in the United States. For liberals, leftists
and labor -- most of whom are in the Democratic Party -- this should be
a hard pill to swallow. They, after all, spent twenty years accusing
Ronald Reagan of being a veritable storm trooper for unbridled
capitalism, only to find out that capitalism's greatest hero is their
own Bill Clinton.
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Harlem Congressman Charles Rangel -- who had opposed the White House
on NAFTA -- voted with the Clinton administration on China and took six
other members of the congressional Black Caucus with him. Rangel now
describes himself as "a New York guy going national," according to the
Wall Street Journal. I am a friend and supporter of Charlie Rangel and
he has come to my aid on more than one occasion, but in my community
"going national" is often interpreted as "going white" -- becoming more
pragmatic and accepting of a corporate agenda.
Rangel believes in pragmatism -- the need to "play ball" with the big
money interests -- and he's right, if you're going to play the pragmatic
politics game. I, for one, don't like that game. That's why I am an
independent and why I think Black people should get their butts out of
the Democratic Party. We lose by playing that game -- just as Americans
lose overall by playing the two party special interest game. That's why
so many Americans are becoming independents.
Organized labor seems to be paying more attention to the fact that it
has been abandoned by the Democratic Party than Black America is. There
is talk about defections -- by the United Auto Workers and the Teamsters
-- to support independent presidential candidates Ralph Nader or Pat
Buchanan. This is a healthy thing, though I am one of those people who
believe the Democratic Party sold out the labor movement -- not last
Thursday -- but in 1947 when Taft-Hartley was enacted, restricting the
right to organize and to strike.
The Left, meanwhile, is in a heightened state of agony over whether
or not to support the Democrats. The left-wing New Republic's John Judis
accused Green Party candidate Ralph Nader -- who is focusing his attacks
on Al Gore -- of talking like a leftist. I thought that was a good
thing! My problem is when leftists talk like Democratic Party hacks,
which they often do.
I personally think it's positive that the U.S. government normalized
trade relations with China. The much tougher issue is whether it's going
to normalize -- i.e., democratize -- political relations with all of us.
That fight -- the battle for political reform of our own electoral and
governmental process -- is something that the people of this republic
are going to have to do for ourselves.