Free Trade Matters

Monday, November 24th, 2008

It’s a couple years old, but the video below got some attention on Reddit today, and it’s worth reposting.  It’s a wonderful lecture.  Dr. Rosling doesn’t come right out and say so explicitly, but the theme that emerges over and over again throughout the lecture is the importance of neoliberal economic policies, and, specifically, of free trade.

We’re going to hear a lot about “fair trade” and making future and possibly even past trade agreements contingent on labor and environmental standards—standards determined by Western labor and environmental advocacy groups.  Cheap labor and a less burdensome regulatory environment is often all poorer countries have to offer.  This to me is scariest thing about an Obama presidency.  Reversing the global move toward freer trade would be devastating.

Free trade and access to world markets have unquestionably bettered the human condition.  The total number of people living in absolute poverty has actually been in decline for several years now, despite a continuously growing global population.  Proportionately, the global number living in absolutely poverty has halved. These are trends unprecedented in human history.  And globalization is why.  You see it over and over in the Gapfinder animations—countries that have shut themselves off to the world (the Islamic Middle East and much of sub-Saharan Africa) have remained mired in poverty.  The countries that have opened themselves up (China, Southeast Asia, parts of Eastern Europe) have made leaps in their collective standard of living.

The U.S., Europe, and Japan could and should do a lot more to accelerate that process by pulling down trade barriers and ending wasteful farm subsidies.  And true free trade would obviously preferable to negotiated pacts that include protections and concessions to favored industries.  But there’s no question that freer trade, even if only a next- or third-best option, has been a net benefit.  It would be tragically backward-thinking and destructive for Obama to take us back to shallow, protectionist-minded policies (and destructive not just to the developing world, but to us).

Incidentally, Google has since bought the rights to Dr. Rosling’s amazing Gapfinder software.  You can play around with it here.

One other thing.  According to Wikipedia, Rosling is an accomplished sword swallower.

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10 Responses to “Free Trade Matters”

  1. #1 |  kmr | 

    I love TED talks, and Rosling’s are among my favorites. Regarding sword swallowing, be sure to take a look at the end of his other talk:

  2. #2 |  jwh | 

    “We’re going to hear a lot about “fair trade” and making future and possibly even past trade agreements contingent on labor and environmental standards”

    If BO wants to go back and renegotiate past treaties, hey, that’s at least going to distract his administration from some of the more damaging changes to domestic matters to which he might engage….and he’ll probably be unsuccessful. Just because BO wants to change a treaty doesn’t mean the other countries will want to change the treaty…….all he can do is, possibly, nullify them……..and is that foreign policy change that we voted for? hmmmmmmmm

  3. #3 |  Ben (the other one) | 

    It’s an interesting video, but I think it’s not even implicitly making a Friedmanesque argument for free trade. Perhaps the prime example is Rosling’s mention of Mao’s bringing health to China and Deng’s bringing money there. Deng Xiao-Ping’s reign was not exactly the Chinese Enlightenment.

    This post really begs the question– what is the purpose of American policy? Is it to maximize the health and welfare of all humans, or just Americans? Is it to preserve the environment in the US or everywhere?

    The problem with free trade as practiced over the last four presidential terms is pretty much precisely what Rosling laments: that it ignored the complexity of the situation (inherent in the data he wants to unleash) because of the belief in a single ideology.

    I agree with fair traders that it makes little sense to open up free trade with a country whose policies fundamentally disregard environmental and labor protections we have collectively come to see as necessary. No doubt, that opinion would impose our judgment on a foreign country, but no more so than would their desire to impose their values (or lack thereof) on us in the form of goods made under their system.

    Let the thumbs-down commence!

  4. #4 |  Lee | 

    We don’t have free trade, we have Managed Trade. Think about it… conditions on EVERYTHING: environmental, economic, etc. and if you don’t meet the standards, you don’t get to participate in the Managed Trade.

  5. #5 |  scats | 

    and neoliberalism has no connection to the current global financial crisis? the rise of neoconservatism? the encroaching police state? the war? the expansion of the prison-industrial complex and militarist immigration policy?

    is there really no question that the neoliberal version of free-trade has been a net benefit?

  6. #6 |  Jason | 

    Trade issues are clearly beyond the grasp of our leaders. Obama is no exception.

  7. #7 |  Dude | 

    Heh. Sword swallower.

  8. #8 |  hexag1 | 

    i think you mean Gapminder.

  9. #9 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    Nice post, Ben (the other one). I fully support Free Trade, not Fair Trade. Poor people can’t fight their oppressive governments (and it is THEIR fight, not ours…other than using our pens). Free Trade is the fastest way to make the poor less poor by fully valuing their labor and local economies. Fair Trade quickly gets warped by politics and ends up looking more like bad trade policy with lipstick. Let Americans vote on labor/environmental concerns by either buying these products or not. Too important to leave to politically motivated elite to determine.

    If I could change one of your sentences:
    “The problem with free trade as practiced over the last four presidential terms is…” that it was NOT free trade.

    American trade policy has as much to do with free trade as Carrot Top has to do with super colliders. Saying “HEY! I’m running a marathon!” while sitting on the coach does not make it so.

  10. #10 |  Andrew Williams | 

    “One other thing. According to Wikipedia, Rosling is an accomplished sword swallower.”

    That’s what *he* said.