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The Ignorance of Journalists

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A version of this column originally ran in the Providence Journal on July 16, 2015.

There are many sad aspects of Barack Obama’s successful push for fast-track trade negotiating authority— i.e., his ultimate betrayal of the American working class—but the saddest of all was the downright ignorance of journalists who believe not only that the president was acting in good faith, but that his own party was determined to stop him. This lack of insight may have more to do with declining standards in journalism than with the true state of the Democratic Party. But whatever blinded the media, Americans were denied a genuine understanding of the future Trans-Pacific Partnership and the real intentions of Obama and the Democratic congressional leadership.

Take David Brooks, the pro-“free trade” columnist at The New York Times, who exaggerated the amplitude of the Democratic revolt in the House against fast-track. In his June 16 column (“The Democratic Tea Party”), Brooks lamented the initial blocking of the bill and regurgitated a host of clichés and falsehoods about the consequences of past trade agreements: for instance, that the North American Free Trade Agreement “probably didn’t affect the American economy too much” and that “the Mexican economy has taken off,” thus making “Mexican workers feel less need to sneak into the U.S.” That Brooks takes his evidence about Mexico from a journalist who represents the last word in conventional wisdom, Fareed Zakaria, is depressing enough. But worse was Brooks’s citing of a survey, by the University of Chicago’s business school, that found that 83 percent of “the nation’s leading economists” say that trade deals have benefited “most Americans.”

They would say that, wouldn’t they? Tenure in the economics departments of the nation’s leading universities requires dogmatic adherence to the bromides in the economist David Ricardo’s utopian theories about a perfect world with no tariffs. However, to give “leading economists” their due, the ones I know— all supporters of free-trade theory—classify NAFTA as a “preferential” trade agreement, not a “free trade” agreement at all.

Of course, NAFTA is mainly an investment agreement to protect U.S. businesses against expropriation in Mexico and other forms of “taking” that might involve environmental regulation considered excessive by American businessmen. Nevertheless, there is an important free-trade element in NAFTA—the elimination of Mexican tariffs on imported American corn—that has driven hundreds of thousands of small farmers and agricultural laborers off their land. Unable to compete with mass-produced corn from Nebraska, many of these Mexicans head north to find low-paying factory work on the border. When they tire of making $2.50 an hour over a 48-hour week, large numbers of them jump the border so they can make $3 or $4 an hour illegally in the United States.

I don’t expect “leading economists” to do any reporting in Matamoros, Mexico, or Fostoria, Ohio, but Brooks writes for a newspaper. And even if he can’t rouse himself to travel or phone in a southerly or westerly direction, a Google search alone would have yielded essential history. Such as Obama attacking Hillary Clinton during the 2008 Ohio primary for supporting NAFTA: “Senator Clinton has been going to great lengths … to distance herself from NAFTA … One million jobs have been lost because of NAFTA, including nearly 50,000 here in Ohio. And yet, 10 years after NAFTA passed, Senator Clinton said it was good for America. Well, I don’t think NAFTA has been good for America—and I never have.”

Well, Obama is not a leading economist, so I guess his opinion doesn’t count. Yet Brooks had nothing to fear. The Democratic revolt in the House on June 12 was undermined by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s prevarications and tepid opposition to fast-track, and she clearly released just enough members of her caucus (28) to save face for the president. Fast-track, after all, passed on the first try 219-211 (a tactical no vote by a coalition of right-wing Republicans and angry Democrats against Trade Adjustment Assistance— designed to help the victims of trade agreements—is all that slowed down the inevitable).

The fix was in from the beginning, despite the revolt. Fast-track authority was never in danger, as the Obama apologist John Nichols claimed in The Nation: “America is moving beyond the point where a politics of partisanship or personality is sufficient to secure support for ‘free trade.’” No, America isn’t. And nobody in journalism, left or right, seems to have understood anything.

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