Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Is "Free Trade" sustainable?

Minnesota's two senators were recently among the 45 who successfully opposed legislation that would have authorized "fast track" authority for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. Thank you, Senators! Minnesota has a long and strong tradition of support for fair trade. "Free trade" is too often something else altogether, and it's far from clear that "free trade," without also being fair trade, is sustainable. One of the long-standing debates, going back at least to the North American Free Trade Agreement, is whether America's efforts to support local labor and local sources of goods and services, as well as to protect its environment, can be successful under most free trade agreements. Some of us think not.

Minnesota's land was appropriated from Native Americans and "settled" by immigrants. In fact, each of these United States were similarly "settled." Many of those who came to Minnesota brought with them a "belief in the ideals of co-operation," captured clearly and poetically described in a book by Jim Johnson / Marlene Wisuri entitled The Co-op Label.

Johnson recently started his second term as poet laureate of Duluth. His poems capture the feelings, perspectives and attitudes of those from Finland, Sweden and Norway who came here to mine, lumber, farm and establish co-ops. Wisuri's photographs of the people and places are haunting.

I'd like to think that, due in large part thanks to my Better Half, I know a little about co-ops. Years ago she signed us up for, and we've continued, a membership in a local food cooperative. Over the years, we've joined several different community supported agriculture ventures. I once served a term on the board of directors of a progressive coop that's providing energy efficiency and renewable energy services. The way the United States has "progressed" for a number of years, we need more cooperatives, more fair trade than free trade and, perhaps most importantly, to put cooperation before profit if we're going to respond successfully to the challenges facing us. One of the characteristics of a sustainable organization or endeavor, including business, is that it be equitable. From what I've seen of "free trade" in my lifetime, whatever else it may be, equitable it isn't. Read The Co-op Label to get a better sense of what I mean. I don't think I'm the only one who would find it much easier to support "free trade" if it were "free and fair trade." What do you think?

[His father carved umbrella handles...]

By Charles Reznikoff 
His father carved umbrella handles, but when umbrella   
    handles were made by machinery, there was only one
    man for whom his father could work.
The pay was small, though it had once been a good trade.
They lived in the poorest part of the ghetto, near the lots
    where people dump ashes.
His father was anxious that his son should stay at school and
    get out of the mess he himself was in. “Learning is the
    best merchandise,” he would say.
His father died; there was his mother to be taken care of. He
    taught in a school in the ghetto.
Some pupils came at nine and stayed until three; others came
    after public school and stayed until evening; most of the
    pupils came in the evening.
The courses were crammed, lasting a few months, pupils and
    teachers anxious to be rid of the matter as soon as   
So he worked day and night, week-days and Sunday.

His mother was dead. It was cold in the street and windy. A
    dry snow had fallen and the feet of the walkers were
    turning it into brown sand.
He was forty.
Now he was free. To do what? He knew no one whom he
    cared to marry. And who would go into his poverty?
If he were to give up this work he knew so well, to what else
    could he turn?
He would just keep on. He had lost this world and knew there   
    was no other.

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