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Commentary: Free trade costs too much

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 30, 2010 - If news reports can be trusted, it seems the Democrats have finally realized why voters put them in office. Unfortunately for their prospects in the looming off-year elections, it appears that they made this discovery in the same way the captain of the Titanic learned about the iceberg: a bit too late to avoid disaster.

Consecutive sweeps at the polls in '06 and '08 must have been more than their bleeding hearts could bear. Suddenly empowered, they mistook voter discontent with the endless warfare and economic devastation of the Bush years as a mandate to change -- among other things -- the definition of marriage, the immigration status of foreign nationals, the manner in which the college football championship is determined, ultra-violet radiation exposure levels in tanning beds, steroid use in baseball, the fat content of fast food and the weather.

Of course, they most famously invested their new-found political capital in the passage of semi-universal health care, managing to cram a 2,500+ page unread insurance bill down the throat of a highly distrustful body politic. There is rich irony in this relentless commitment to bring medical relief to the majority of people who didn't think they were sick because the most glaring deficiency in the then-young Obama administration was the lack of a triage nurse.

By the time Doc Barack was sworn in, his patient -- the American economy -- was prostrate on the sidewalk, writhing in the throes of full cardiac arrest. The president and his team of visionary experts advised the victim to eat more oat bran and take up jogging. In short, they addressed long-term risk factors that may have contributed to the present crisis, but neglected to furnish the radical interventions necessary to deal with the situation at hand.

A triage nurse could have prioritized treatment protocols. He or she might have pointed out that 70 percent of the U.S. economy consists of consumer spending and would have probably noted that people weren't buying anything at the moment. Absent demand for goods and services, employers trimmed the work forces that supply them, thus inflating unemployment rolls.

With more and more people either unemployed or marginally employed, demand for products was further reduced, resulting in even less demand for labor. When the supply of labor is high and the demand for it is low, the wage scale necessarily constricts, leaving even less money available for discretionary spending.

To the extent that Democrats failed to generate decent paying jobs -- the only known mechanism to create sustainable consumer demand -- it was inevitable that their agenda would generate backlashes. This being the Age of Aquarius, it's not surprising that the foremost of these involved a social gathering.

The so-called Tea Party movement began as a zany expression of democracy, then quickly metastasized into a dangerous self-parody that has taken control of the Republican Party. Its adherents started out to recapture the rebellious spirit of Samuel Adams and wound up creating a phenomenon more reminiscent of the Mad Hatter.

The latest celebrity to emerge from the tea pot is Christine O'Donnell. She recently managed to upset nine-term U.S. representative and former governor, Mike Castle, in the Republican senatorial primary in Delaware. Not surprisingly, she enjoyed the endorsement of Senior Grizzly Mother Sarah Palin.

O'Donnell's core ideology appears to be mainstream right-wing whacko: get rid of the intrusive, over-reaching federal government so that widows and orphans can better fend for themselves. Once a regular guest on Bill Maher's "Politically Incorrect," she's on-record as having dabbled in witchcraft, confessing that an early high school date culminated on a satanic altar. Supporters dismiss that experience as a harmless expression of youthful exuberance. Really?

She's also a Darwin skeptic and a now-born again Christian who has publically condemned the practice of masturbation -- which, if you think about it, is a somewhat contradictory position for a candidate who extols the virtues of self-reliance.

So while Democrats have failed to deliver on desperately needed jobs, they do have one advantage in that they get to run against equally clueless Republicans. The original Boston Tea Party, you'll remember, was a protest against import duties on tea shipments to the colonies. Trying to emulate that gesture to spur job growth is paradoxical in the extreme because so-called "free trade" is exactly what landed us in the mess we're in.

Once labor became a global commodity, it naturally flowed to the markets where it's cheapest. Ross Perot's "giant sucking sound" was created by the rush of jobs leaving the country.

Now, American workers are asked to compete with their Chinese counterparts who live in concentration camp-style barracks and earn an average of 64 cents an hour, much of which they rebate back to their employers to pay for room and board. Is this your vision of a workers' paradise?

Admittedly, free trade brings cheap imports but it does so at a terrible price. For business, labor is a commodity; but for the nation-state, it's the backbone of the social structure. We are currently suffering from an economic broken back.

Free-trade enthusiasts originally envisioned high-tech jobs replacing the old-school manufacturing base we'd lost. In the event, this phenomenon has not materialized at anywhere near the rate needed to maintain widespread prosperity.

Less than half of students in the St. Louis public schools manage to complete high school. And a degree from these unaccredited inner-city institutions is hardly a springboard to Harvard. How are these people supposed to earn a living in this brave new world?

Our present economic woes are not the result of a temporary recession in the business cycle. Rather, they are the by-products of a fundamental readjustment to a decidedly changed reality.

The only conceivable way to revitalize the American middle class -- the little engine of consumption that pulls the global economy -- is to impose labor tariffs on imported goods, making their cost comparable to those manufactured here.

Such radical action would require elected representatives with the political courage to stand up to the influence of corporate money on behalf of the common good. While we're waiting for that to happen, would anyone care for a cup of tea?

M.W.Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon.