Trading Ideals: A review of Edward Gresser’s Freedom From Want

January 28, 2008 | 1 book mentioned 3 min read

coverWith the prospect of a Democrat in the White House, paired with a continued Democratic majority in Congress, many old and new ideas on the liberal agenda are poised to come to fruition in 2009. One item likely to be on the to-do list is the future of international trade.

In Freedom From Want: American Liberalism and the Global Economy, author Edward Gresser says progressive politicians must return to their liberal roots and recognize the benefits, both foreign and domestic, afforded by reduced tariffs and greater participation in the world economy. In short, knocking down trade barriers will create peace and prosperity for all.

Gresser, director of the Trade and Global Markets Project at the Progressive Policy Institute, argues that modern-day liberals have betrayed the Democratic party’s former pro-trade policies – initiated by Grover Cleveland, advanced by Woodrow Wilson and solidified by Franklin D. Roosevelt – by flirting with protectionist measures once trumpeted by Republicans such as William McKinley and Herbert Hoover.

Over the past 30 years, he says, labor unions and environmental groups have brought about an ideological shift that now has many Democrats pushing for a kind of economic isolationism fortified by high tariffs to protect against global competitors such as China.

Sadly, the matter of free-trade agreements is dismissed summarily by Gresser, who calls them “a bad combination of large controversy and small consequence.” Seeing as how the United States has free-trade deals pending with Colombia, Panama and South Korea – all likely to cause a political showdown on Capitol Hill – it’s unfortunate the pacts aren’t considered discussion worthy.

But before addressing contemporary issues such as the rise of China and the influence of the WTO, the book offers an historical perspective – nearly half of the book’s 230 pages – on the impact of various trade policies on the United States and the world at large. Though he often belabors the point that trade benefits economies, the timeline is an informative and entertaining read offering a colorful account of how societies have valued certain goods over the years and the ingenious methods employed by entrepreneurs to transport those items.

The book does an impressive job of reconstructing the political atmospheres that caused the ebb and flow of protectionism in the United States over the years. But while the text adequately explains why liberals began to abandon Roosevelt’s trade policies, little attention is given to how this ideological about-face played out. Was there a serious debate among party leaders?

Eventually, the discussion turns to today’s trade structure, at which point the experience of one garment worker in Cambodia is used to let the reader know all is well in the factories of the developing world. Despite numerous reports detailing abysmal working conditions in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, accusations of worker exploitation are discarded en masse by pointing to the experience of this one woman, as well as a few others in China who speak highly of factory conditions. While it seems fair to say workers’ conditions vary by factory or country in the developing world, the scenario presented here leads one to believe that calls for enforceable labor standards are unnecessary, and unions that push for regulations and threaten tariffs are essentially the economic isolationists reminiscent of the early 20th century.

But not all trade critics are proponents of protectionism. Instead, many seek to strengthen or establish labor and environmental standards – objectives Gresser says are unreasonable demands to place on large countries like China or poor countries like Papua New Guinea – for the sake of foreign workers and the ecosystem as a whole.

Yet Gresser is not unsympathetic to the victims of established trade policies, and he acknowledges the system needs fixing. He rightly points out that the lower class in the United States bears the brunt of the tariff system; essential goods such as food and clothing carry disproportionately higher tariffs than luxury items.

However, on several occasions the author is guilty of the sin of omission, particularly when it comes to using statistics. For example, when describing the increase in U.S. exports to China, it’s noted that by 2006 they had risen from $13 billion to $50 billion. In one year? Over the course of five years? There is also no mention of the trade deficit between the two countries, which, for better or for worse, is a number often cited by trade critics.

Similarly, some facts and figures go unreferenced. For example, a lengthy quote from Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni about the trade obstacles facing developing countries receives no citation. Did the author conduct the interview? Did Museveni make those remarks in front of the U.N. General Assembly? The reader should not have to ask such questions.

Perhaps most disappointing, though, is how the book is filled with literally dozens of grammatical errors, typos and inconsistencies. At one point we read that the “hopes and worries of the 21th century are not new.” Other times it’s not even clear what century is being referenced: “The -century liberals who designed this system were far-sighted, optimistic, rational, and right.”

It’s unfortunate that a book with a provocative premise struggles to articulate its assertions.

is a writer living in Washington, DC.

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