Publisher's Note — August 15, 2013, 1:13 pm

Thomas the Tank Engine

The foolish free-trade sophistry of Thomas Friedman

This column originally ran in the Providence Journal on August 15, 2013.

The day before Detroit declared bankruptcy, I found the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman up to his old tricks, extolling the North American Free Trade Agreement and “free trade” in general in a column so foolish and mendacious that his editors would have been well advised to spike it.

There’s no coincidence, I’m sure, that Detroit — the symbol and former center of American industrial power — officially threw in the towel so close to publication of Friedman’s claptrap. But the timing is worth noting as President Obama is now about to give away big chunks of the remaining U.S. manufacturing base to Japan and Vietnam, among other Pacific Rim countries, through a proposed free-trade agreement called the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

For decades, Friedman has been one of the principal cheerleaders for a tariff-free world in which only good things happen to workers while unregulated, speculative money races around the globe in search of the highest rate of return. Obama, though not a true believer like Friedman, is a political cynic about trade policy. During his 2008 primary race, he bludgeoned Hillary Clinton for Bill’s sponsorship of NAFTA, saying that “one million jobs have been lost because of NAFTA, including 50,000 jobs here in Ohio.” His pledge to “renegotiate” the pact evaporated, however, once he entered the White House and appointed free trader Larry Summers as his chief economic adviser.

Essentially, Obama and Friedman are comrades in arms, advancing an economic theory that should have been discredited long ago, but that continues to speed the exit of tens of thousands of decent-paying jobs to cheap-labor regions where there is little or no worker protection and only a façade of environmental regulation.

How does Friedman get away with it? Sometimes he likes to play reporter, such as the time he traveled to Sri Lanka to describe the allegedly wonderful working conditions in a Victoria’s Secret factory. At other times he is more high-brow: In his July 17 column, headlined “If Churchill Could See Us Now,” for instance, he blasted the Republicans for holding up Obama’s immigration-reform bill, but his twisted logic somehow turned the issue of legalizing long-term Latino residents into an advertisement for “free trade.”

Republican House members, it seems, are responding to the “fears” of addled “older white people” who think that illegally implanted foreigners are stealing their jobs. This is a neat bit of sophistry by Friedman, since the illegals are mostly working for less than minimum wage, in jobs that couldn’t be filled by American citizens. The real fear among the oldsters is that the local factory will shut down and move to Mexico or China, leaving them unemployed or working in a Walmart for $9 an hour.

Older white people are obviously very shortsighted! Friedman instructs us that “we have already derived great economic benefit through [NAFTA]. . . . And, if we were thinking strategically, one of our top priorities would be to further integrate North America.” And how do we know this? Because the National Bureau of Economic Research tells us “that out of every $1 of Mexican exports to the United States, 40 cents comes from materials and parts made in the United States.

True or not, it’s useful to know that NBER is funded by the likes of Bank of America, Dupont Capital Management, Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan Chase, and Morgan Stanley, all promoters and beneficiaries of globalization, cheap labor and low tariffs. According to Friedman, it’s not the relocation from New York to Mexico and then China of Swingline Staplers, nor the move of Autolite sparkplugs from Fostoria, Ohio, to Mexico that should worry Americans.

Nor should we be troubled by the recent Associated Press investigation that found this startling statistic: “Four out of five U.S. adults struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on welfare for at least part of their lives” because of “an increasingly globalized economy, the widening gap between rich and poor, and the loss of good-paying manufacturing jobs.”

Friedman, though, says we need to go farther down the shining path of deregulation and “integration” in order “to enhance such a win-win growth strategy that would incentivize more Mexicans to stay home.”

That’s more sophistry, since the free-trader Obama is already “incentivizing” such stay-at-home behavior by deporting illegal-alien Mexicans and their U.S.-born children at a record rate. Even the deeply muddled Friedman must know that many of these illegals are desperate former field hands driven off small Mexican corn farms that can’t compete with industrialized American ones. Thanks to NAFTA, corn-producing behemoths in Nebraska no longer have to pay any tariffs at all on their exports south of the border.

You’d think that there would be a professional politician smarter than Ross Perot, and more sophisticated than a Tea Partier, who could have a field day with the self-defeating contradictions and downright cruelty of the Friedman–Obama axis. I had hopes for Senator Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio), but this usually clearheaded critic of the free-trade theocracy has lately been wavering. In June he voted to confirm Obama’s new trade representative, Michael Froman, a disciple of the ultra trade deregulator Robert Rubin and a former executive at Citigroup. Maybe Brown, like Obama before him, yearns to be president and frets about how much it will cost to run. If he starts raising big money from Wall Street, I hope he realizes that there’s no turning back.

Share
Single Page
is the publisher of Harper’s Magazine.

More from John R. MacArthur:

Publisher's Note December 10, 2018, 3:23 pm

A New Day?

“The Democratic Party is best understood as an assemblage of baronies, the three most important of which—California, New York, and Illinois—dole out the most patronage and political favors in return for filling the party’s coffers and guaranteeing the reelection of its most cherished adherents.”

Publisher's Note November 3, 2018, 12:02 am

All Bets Are Off

“I recommend neither the assertions of journalists and pollsters nor big headlines about terror attacks, murders, or caravans of desperate people as a basis for predicting the outcome of the midterm elections.”

Publisher's Note October 9, 2018, 11:53 am

Trading on Resentment

“The ‘free trade’ policies championed by US leaders from Reagan to Obama, most definitely including the Clintons, have produced many victims.”

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

January 2019

Machine Politics

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Polar Light

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Donald Trump Is a Good President

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Resistances

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Long Shot

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Machine Politics·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip,” Ronald Reagan said in 1989. He was speaking to a thousand British notables in London’s historic Guildhall, several months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Reagan proclaimed that the world was on the precipice of “a new era in human history,” one that would bring “peace and freedom for all.” Communism was crumbling, just as fascism had before it. Liberal democracies would soon encircle the globe, thanks to the innovations of Silicon Valley. “I believe,” he said, “that more than armies, more than diplomacy, more than the best intentions of democratic nations, the communications revolution will be the greatest force for the advancement of human freedom the world has ever seen.”

At the time, most everyone thought Reagan was right. The twentieth century had been dominated by media that delivered the same material to millions of people at the same time—radio and newspapers, movies and television. These were the kinds of one-to-many, top-down mass media that Orwell’s Big Brother had used to stay in power. Now, however, Americans were catching sight of the internet. They believed that it would do what earlier media could not: it would allow people to speak for themselves, directly to one another, around the world. “True personalization is now upon us,” wrote MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte in his 1995 bestseller Being Digital. Corporations, industries, and even whole nations would soon be transformed as centralized authorities were demolished. Hierarchies would dissolve and peer-to-peer collaborations would take their place. “Like a force of nature,” wrote Negroponte, “the digital age cannot be denied or stopped.”

Illustration (detail) by Lincoln Agnew
Article
Long Shot·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Ihave had many names, but as a sniper I went by Azad, which means “free” or “freedom” in Kurdish. I had been fighting for sixteen months in Kurdish territory in northern Syria when in April 2015 I was asked to leave my position on the eastern front, close to the Turkish border, and join an advance on our southwestern one. Eight months earlier, we had been down to our last few hundred yards, and, outnumbered five to one, had made a last stand in Kobanî. In January, after more than four months of fighting street-to-street and room-by-room, we recaptured the town and reversed what was, until then, an unstoppable jihadi tide. In the battles since, we had pushed ­ISIS far enough in every direction that crossing our territory was no longer a short dash through the streets but a five-hour drive across open country. As we set out to the north, I could make out the snowy peaks in southern Turkey where they say Noah once beached his ark. Below them, rolling toward us, were the wide, grassy valleys and pine forests of Mesopotamia, the land between the Euphrates and the Tigris where our people have lived for twelve thousand years.

The story of my people is filled with bitter ironies. The Kurds are one of the world’s oldest peoples and, as pioneers of agriculture, were once among its most advanced. Though the rest of the world now largely overlooks that it was Kurds who were among the first to create a civilization, the evidence is there. In 1995, German archaeologists began excavating a temple at Göbekli Tepe in northern Kurdistan. They found a structure flanked by stone pillars carved with bulls, foxes, and cranes, which they dated to around 10,000 bce. At the end of the last Ice Age, and seven thousand years before the erection of Stonehenge or the pyramids at Giza, my ancestors were living together as shamans, artists, farmers, and engineers.

Fighters of the YJA-STAR, the women’s force in the PKK, Sinjar, Iraq, November 2015 (detail)
Article
Polar Light·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

To get oriented here is difficult. The light is flat because the sky is overcast. The sun’s weak rays create only a few anemic shadows by which to judge scale and distance. Far-off objects like mountain peaks have crisp edges because the atmosphere itself is as transparent as first-water diamonds, but the mountains are not nearly as close as they seem. It’s about negative-twelve degrees Fahrenheit, but the wind is relatively calm, moving over the snow distractedly, like an animal scampering.

[caption id="attachment_271890" align="aligncenter" width="690"]True-color satellite image of Earth centered on the South Pole during winter solstice © Planet Observer/Universal Images Group/Getty Images. True-color satellite image of Earth centered on the South Pole during winter solstice © Planet Observer/Universal Images Group/Getty Images.[/caption]

Four of the six people living here are in their tents now, next to their cookstoves, two by two, warming up and preparing their suppers. I’m the fifth of the group, almost motionless at the moment, a hundred yards south of the tent cluster, kneeling on a patch of bluish ice in the midst of a great expanse of white. I’m trying to discern a small object entombed there a few inches below the surface. Against the porcelain whites of this gently sloping landscape, I must appear starkly apparent in my cobalt blue parka and wind pants. I shift slowly right and left, lean slightly forward, then settle back, trying to get the fluxless sunlight to reveal more of the shape and texture of the object.

A multiple-exposure photograph (detail) taken every hour from 1:30 pm on December 8, 1965, to 10:10 am on December 9, 1965, showing the sun in its orbit above the South Pole, Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station © Georg Gerster/Panos Pictures
Article
Donald Trump Is a Good President·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In all sincerity, I like Americans a lot; I’ve met many lovely people in the United States, and I empathize with the shame many Americans (and not only “New York intellectuals”) feel at having such an appalling clown for a leader.

However, I have to ask—and I know what I’m requesting isn’t easy for you—that you consider things for a moment from a non-American point of view. I don’t mean “from a French point of view,” which would be asking too much; let’s say, “from the point of view of the rest of the world.”On the numerous occasions when I’ve been questioned about Donald Trump’s election, I’ve replied that I don’t give a shit. France isn’t Wyoming or Arkansas. France is an independent country, more or less, and will become totally independent once again when the European Union is dissolved (the sooner, the better).

Illustration (detail) by Ricardo Martínez
Article
Resistances·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The prepositions you’re most likely to encounter after the title of a poem are “for” or “to” and sometimes “after”—“for my daughter”; “to Bobby”; “after Pound”; etc. They signify dedication, address, homage, imitation. In the recent poems of Fred Moten, we encounter “with,” a preposition that denotes accompaniment. The little difference makes a big difference, emphasizing collaboration over the economy of the gift, suggesting that the poet and his company are fellow travelers, in the same time zone, alongside each other in the present tense of composition. (Given Moten’s acclaimed critical work on jazz, the “with” is immediately evocative of musical performance, e.g., “Miles Davis with Sonny Rollins.”) Not all “withs” are the same—there is a different intimacy in the poem “fifty little springs,” which is “with aviva,” Moten’s wife’s Hebrew name (which means springtime), than there is in “resistances,” which is “with” a critic and an artist, interlocutors of Moten’s. (The poem “13. southern pear trees” has no preposition after the title, but is excerpted from another responding to the work of Zoe Leonard, and so is still a work of fellowship.) The scale of that “with” can be small (“with aviva, as if we were all alone”) or vast (“with everybody we don’t know”), but either way the poem becomes an instance of alongsidedness instead of belatedness; the poems request, with that subtle prepositional shift, that we think of ourselves as participants in the production of meaning and not mere recipients of someone else’s eloquence.

“Untitled,” 1989, by Zoe Leonard © Zoe Leonard (detail)

Estimated number of times in the Fall of 1990 that George Bush told a joke about his dog asking for a wine list with her Alpo:

10

French researchers reported that 52 percent of young women exposed to Francis Cabrel’s ballad “Je l’aime à mourir” gave their phone numbers to an average-looking young man who hit on them, whereas only 28 percent of those exposed to Vincent Delerm’s “L’heure du thé” did so.

Migrant children were teargassed; carbon dioxide levels have reached three to five million year high; missionary killed by remote tribe

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today