On a recent episode of NBC-TV's White House drama, “The West Wing,” presidential counsel Josh Lyman agonized over a promise (being broken) that he and the president had made to U.S. union members to protect their jobs from being “outsourced” to overseas competitors.
That promise, of course, had run smack dab into the realities of “free trade” — less expensive goods for American consumers, thanks to cheap foreign labor; cheaper services for U.S. companies that can hire skilled engineers and technicians in India and elsewhere who are willing to work for half as much as their American counterparts; more opportunities (theoretically) for U.S. companies to make sales abroad to developing economies; and better, higher-paying jobs for Americans long term (again theoretically).
After a lot of hand-wringing over the more immediate and more traumatic impact of Americans thrown out of jobs because of outsourcing, and a dearth of the (theoretical) better, higher-paying jobs here and now, the TV episode ended with the president (who just happens to be a Nobel laureate in economics) paternally lecturing Lyman on the beauty of market forces and the unfortunate reality that those forces sometimes run roughshod over promises, political or otherwise.
The show, which takes many of its themes from current issues and hot button topics, made a reasonably fair representation of the dilemma that surrounds the emergence of the world market and the United States' role in it: A lot of present pain for the promise of future gain.
The pat answer of the economists and the bureaucrats, “Oh, we'll train all these displaced textile workers and telemarketers and software writers for better jobs,” rings somewhat hollow when those jobs are off in the future somewhere (theoretically) and the only thing that's available now is bagging groceries at the supermarket or greeting Wal-Mart shoppers flocking to buy all those cheap goods from overseas.
It's hard to feed families and send kids to school and make mortgage payments with economic theory. Car dealers want money, not promises (one envisions Al Capp's perennially out-of-work cartoon character, Wimpy, who pleads: “I will gladly pay you Tuesday, sir, if you will give me a hamburger today”).
And that may well be the crux of the free trade scenario — the lack of foresight by its advocates in having a clear, defined plan for dealing with the shorter-term ramifications of tossing entire sectors of the workforce on the employment scrap heap. Job training, as the West Wing episode noted, isn't worth much if one ends up going through a series of lower-paying jobs that offer little future and, often as not, no benefits.
The pros and cons aside, it is a distressing commentary that this country, built on the work ethic, skills, ingenuity, and accomplishments of a labor force unparalleled in world history, now is debasing thousands of its citizens to accommodate trade's Brave New World.
Free trade and global competition may well bode for a brighter, more prosperous America somewhere down the road, but in the interim we should be able to offer better treatment of those who have the misfortune to be caught in the avalanche of these global movements.