Op-Alt: Trade agreements exacerbate inequality, a root cause of unrest in Baltimore

Op-Alt: Trade agreements exacerbate inequality, a root cause of unrest in Baltimore

By Christopher Croft
City Paper, May 5

In the smoke and debris of last Monday’s riots, Baltimore local news is desperately calling for strategies to address the root causes of poverty and economic disenfranchisement of Baltimore’s residents, especially our youth. Meanwhile, the front page above the fold of the Tuesday, April 28 Wall Street Journal reads “Violence Erupts in Baltimore,” and next to it “Obama Presses Case for Trade Pact.” While the Obama administration and primarily Republican members of Congress are promoting an ominous bill, which was introduced and reported out of committees in both houses of Congress, Baltimore’s angry youth wonder where their opportunities went and how things got so bad.

As a city university professor and active participant in a coalition of civil society, environmental justice, community wealth building, and “buy local” organizations in Baltimore, I am most urgently concerned about the impact of the pending Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) in Washington, D.C. on our ability to promote “Buy American” and “Buy Baltimore” products and services, thereby benefiting local businesses which would in turn empower Baltimore residents with related jobs. Further, the combination of environmental sustainability and community wealth building is a powerful opportunity for local revitalization and the improvement of Baltimore’s economic health as long as it is not undermined by the likes of the TPA.

The economic hollowing-out of Charm City is in part the result of trade agreements that destroy job opportunities. In Baltimore, as in other U.S. cities, our last option to rebuild our economy is to do so locally, from the ground up. This could put money in the hands (and keep it there) of Baltimoreans, not corporate elites. The result of this bill’s passage will keep the details of the secret trade pact in the shadows until it is too late—after approval by Congress.

Under pending trade agreements, if a corporation, foreign or U.S., were to file a grievance (with a secret tribunal of faceless corporate lawyers), and it was ruled that actual and expected profits were lost by said corporations because of the “buy local” movement, U.S. taxpayers, including Baltimore residents, would pick up the tab for millions in lost revenue. In fact, there are already several pending disputes under existing trade agreements.

The downward trajectory of Baltimore’s working class and predominantly white middle class, along with the further erosion of Baltimore’s impoverished, was set in motion in the 1990s with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The TPA may facilitate the ease with which U.S. corporations can offshore jobs to low-wage countries and speed up the “race to the bottom” set in motion by NAFTA. The TPA will likely further increase downward wage pressure on U.S. workers and heighten racial tensions throughout our city. As the details are kept secret, we know little about the actual agreement. From what has been leaked, the mechanism of this process includes many of the same incentives used in earlier agreements, namely special investor rights that reduce risks associated with corporations relocating to low-wage countries.

Somewhere around five million U.S. manufacturing jobs have already been lost since the kickoff of NAFTA and the World Trade Organization. In total, nearly 60,000 U.S. manufacturing facilities have gone dark; the expanded TPA will only increase the hardship throughout our nation and Baltimore, which is already hard hit with industrial vacancies.

I am further concerned that some of the good work of the Baltimore City Council may fall victim to the TPA, especially regarding land use, zoning, and building codes, if it interferes with corporate profits. Unfortunately, we know precious few details of this secretly negotiated agreement. And we know those only thanks to WikiLeaks.

I urge the Baltimore City Council and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to lead and join with other cities around the country, such as Seattle, in introducing and supporting a resolution that states Baltimore’s determination to maintain its charm by protecting its present and future residents by opposing this undemocratic fast-track authority.

I have personally contacted the offices of U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings as well as city councilmembers Helen Holton and Nick Mosby, but in the heat of this week’s unrest they have been unresponsive. If the TPA is signed into law I doubt the youth of tomorrow will better understand the forces unleashed upon them by this seemingly obscure act, but it will further tilt the economic playing filed against them. Combining the TPA’s elimination of jobs with economic inequality, which is already supercharged by budget-slashing austerity for the poor and middle class on the one hand and entitlements granted to the wealthy on the other, will no doubt be the tinder for tomorrow’s urban infernos.

Christopher Croft is an adjunct Professor of Sustainable Communities and Global
Environmental Policy at the University of Baltimore and President of the nonprofit Environmental Solutions International.