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In Perspective: The case for free trade and investing in ourselves

Seventy years ago, when Franklin Roosevelt was dictating his “four freedoms” speech about the American interest in promoting liberty “everywhere in the world,” his aide Harry Hopkins interrupted him.

“That covers an awful lot of territory, Mr. President,” Hopkins said, “I don’t know how interested Americans are going to be in the people of Java.”

FDR shot right back. “I’m afraid they’ll have to be someday, Harry. The world is getting so small that even the people in Java are getting to be our neighbors now.”

On this, as on so many other things, FDR had it right.  A globalized world is by now a familiar fact of life.  Building walls or moats may sound appealing, but the future belongs to those who tend to their people and then boldly engage the rest of the world, near and far. That’s why I think NAFTA, whatever its faults, is of a piece with the American tradition of engaging the universe beyond our borders. There are, as we are often told, winners and losers in the global economy, and right now too many Americans are suffering. Far too many.

The answer to their plight — which is our plight, really, if you believe a democracy is the sum of its parts — lies not in isolationism but in the obvious need for renewed and relentless domestic investment in the lives of our people. To issue trade sanctions or lament global agreements misses the larger and more enduring problem. To compete we must be strong, and to be strong we must be healthy, educated and inspired to thrive.

We have been most prosperous when we have invested heavily in education at all levels, which is why a domestic Marshall plan is way overdue. We have been most prosperous when the public and private sectors cooperated to build things from interstates to the Internet. We have been most prosperous when leaders like FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson argued that the American story is one that is forever unfolding, not one that has already unfolded.

The real way to address issues of inequality is to begin at the beginning, at home, investing in ourselves. Then we can again compete and win, as FDR might say, everywhere in the world.

Watch the rest of the segments from this episode.

  • thumb
    Main Street: Findlay, Ohio
    Need to Know travels to Ohio to assess how workers are faring after the loss of millions of manufacturing jobs over the past 35 years.
  • thumb
    Following the money: Tax breaks
    New CBO report echoes the findings of Need to Know's "A tale or four tax returns."
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      Certifiably employable
    Rick Karr recently visited Seattle to look at a program designed to give the unemployed the skills they need to find jobs in one of the country’s fastest-growing industries.


  • Anonymous

    41 of 46 Chinese dictatorship’s Fortune 500 companies are STATE OWNED. And contrary to neo-liberal dogma disseminated by PBS and others, corporations PREFER this system of government.

    “Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power.”

    Benito Mussolini

  • Anonymous

    Are those MASSIVE AGRICULTURE SUBSIDIES to force Mexicans to migrate to maquiladoras and American farms “free trade”?

    Are China’s State Owned Factories and corporate complicity in that dictatorship “free trade”?

    Read about PetroCaribe and U.S.A.I.D, et al  and what Bill Clinton has said about American involvement in Haiti.

    Read  how Monsanto, with U.S. government help, strong arms  countries all over the world

    Then you’ll begin to understand know how “free trade” REALLY works.

  • Gene

    Nice try, Jon. Try harder next time. 

    Seriously, you need to read more. But step outside the insanity-bubble that is the current state of western civilization to read something with a bigger perspective. I’ll name two: John Michael Greer, and Charles Eisenstein.

    A couple of points: Globalization is rapidly coming to an end, and not just for reasons of financial collapse. Read up on peak oil, Jon. We passed peak in 2005 as it appears now. From here oil gets evermore expensive. And since everything contains oil in one way or another, everything will get more expensive. That means prices go up for imports. This, disregarding increased wages in China, et al. Jobs are already starting to come home as costs of overseas production come to parity and beyond. Robots too, it should be noted, are increasingly being sent to the scrap pile. Read up on Toyota’s new Japanese plant. They are largely doing away with the ‘bots, as they have been deemed too expensive, etc.

    Globalization will end, because it must end. And further, it should end: for environmental reasons, for economic justice reasons, hell, for economic reasons. The list continues and is long, but I’ll leave it there.

    “To compete we must be strong….” Really, Jon? That’s so 1950s. Do people still fall for this nonsense? Firstly, the age of competition, at least as we currently define it, is also rapidly coming to a close. The natural order of the universe is an orientation towards cooperation, not competition. Competition is just a polite synonym for our particular brand of American bullying, inter- and intra-nationally. America prospers – to the degree it does – by strong arming the rest of the world, and even its own people! We (our corporations and our government) sign up the third world’s rich overclass to benefit at the expense of their poor. And of course the corrupt American government is completely bought and paid for by corporations and will screw over its own people for their benefit in a skinny minute.

    If you want to stick with that line, at least speak the literal truth and say that we should spend more on the military (and the police), the enforcement arm for the capitalist class. 

  • John_hepburn

    “but the future belongs to those who tend to their people and then boldly engage the rest of the world, near and far.” Yes good idea. No that isn’t how it was done, and that is why we are falling on our face.
    The rule of the day became, Maximum profit is the bottom line, The people are not my problem. The very companies that were born of the goose that laid the golden egg  are now killing her. It is insane to think we could compete with Mexico or China on wages, Insane. The cost of living in our economy would put us not only living in the streets but literally starving to death as well, not because we are soft and spoiled but lets see anybody support themselves on 200.00 a month here, even feed themselves on it. Impossible. So lets go back to the first part of that comment and think about it.
    “but the future belongs to those who tend to their people,,,, and then”