Freedom from Want: American Liberalism and the Global Economy Edward Gresser Brooklyn, N.Y.: Soft Skull Press, 2007, 230 pp.
Trade policy has become a partisan affair in Washington. Major trade bills in Congress typically pit pro-trade Republicans backed by big business against trade-skeptic Democrats 'aligned with labor unions. And as the two major parties arm themselves for the 2008 general election, trade policy promises to provide one of the sharper contrasts between them.
Throwing a welcome curve ball into the debate is Edward Gresser, trade policy director of the Progressive Policy Institute, a Democratic think tank in Washington, D.C. Gresser is a pro-trade liberal who has worked for such prominent Democrats as Sen. Max Baucus of Montana and Charlene Barshefsky, former U.S. trade representative for Bill Clinton. Gresser has written an important new book, Freedom from Want: American Liberalism and the Global Economy, that should be on the nightstand of every Washington Democrat who cares about the party's heritage and its best ideals.
Freedom from Want stands out among current books on trade because of its rich historical perspective and its very human look at how U.S. trade policies are affecting poor people in our own country and obscure corners of the world. Gresser could be described as a "New Democrat," but he is really of the "old" liberal school committed to global peace and cooperation and a universal concern for the lot of the poor wherever they live.
The book opens from the engaging perspective of a young 23-year-old woman in Cambodia named Srei who works at a garment factory" in the capital, Phnom Penh. Cresset reports firsthand how Srei and 5,000 other young women begin work each day at the factory, a lightly air-conditioned building resembling an oversized, metal barn. Her pay is low by American standards, but with overtime she earns twice the average per capita GDP of her countrymen. Her earnings allow her to save and to help support her family left behind in a rural village.
With just the right amount of detail, the book describes how the shirts made by Srei move from the factory to a truck that rolls for six hours over a bumpy road to the port at Sihanoukville, then by container ship through Singapore and across the Pacific to the Port of Long Beach, Calif., there to waiting trucks that carry the shirts to Gap, Wal-Mart and JC Penney stores across the country, and finally into our homes. This in microcosm is the system that American liberals of the past century made possible and that too many American liberals in this century deem to be a threat.
Although it is easy to forget today as Democratic candidates rail against NAFTA and globalization, for decades it was the Democratic Party that championed lower tariffs. Democrats opposed the high tariff wall maintained by Republicans from the Civil War to World War I, arguing that tariffs benefited big business at the expense of poor consumers. Under President Woodrow Wilson, Congress drastically lowered tariffs in 1913 and replaced the revenue with an income tax, only to see Republicans raise tariffs again in the 1920s, culminating in the Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930 and the Great Depression that followed.
In a central chapter titled "'Liberal Internationalism and the Trading System," Gresser recounts how President Franklin Roosevelt and his successors led America out of the protectionist wilderness. FDR embraced trade liberalization not only as a tool of economic growth but 'also of foreign policy. His visionary Secretary of State Cordell Hull negotiated a number of bilateral trade agreements to lower tariffs under the Reciprocal Trade Agreement Act passed by Congress in 1934. A recipient of the Nobel Peace Price in 1945, Hull argued in his memoirs, "In so far as we make it easier for ourselves and everyone else to live, we diminish the pressure on any country to seek economic betterment through war. …