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November 14, 2003

Teach-In spotlights free trade

Students, professors, and experts in the field of trade policy met for a Free Trade of the Americas Teach-In last Wednesday in Kent 120.

 

Unlike international trade negotiations, there was no rioting, no police with clubs, shields, and gas. Rather, there were only people sitting down to talk about the merits of creating a free-trade zone spanning both western continents, from Patagonia to Alaska.

The event was co-sponsored by Students Organized and United With Labor (SOUL), the Organization of Latin American Students (OLAS), Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (MECHA), the Center for Latin American Studies, the Chicano Society, Student Government, and the Human Rights Program.

Emilio Kouri, a professor of Latin American History at the University, served as a moderator. Featured speakers included Saskia Sassen, a professor from the sociology department; Sean Durkin, a professor from the Harris School of Public Policy; Larry Sjaastad, a professor from the Economics department; and Bill Corey from the United Steel Workers of America.

The Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA) is a proposal to create a free trade zone across the two American Continents by lowering tariffs, establishing investment rules and rights, and homogenizing intellectual property rights. The teach-in discussed whether the FTAA was a positive international influence and attempted to discern the chief beneficiaries of such a policy.

Many topics from the World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in Cancun last September spilled over into discussion of the FTAA, including the future of agricultural subsidies in the U.S. and anti-dumping rules. These issues will be hotly debated in Miami next week during negotiations over the FTAA.

Wednesday's event was an attempt to give students a chance to become familiar with the issues.

Each of the panelists expressed their views on the proposed agreement. Sassen spoke first, arguing that, unlike 50 years ago, there is evidence of the effects of free trade zones. Sassen maintained that the problems created by opening nations to greater international trade were not easily discernable using just economic analysis.

According to Sassen, the externalities involved with free trade are very often only seen in the social and political spheres. She believes that the FTAA and similar agreements must be analyzed using more than just economics.

Sjaastad spoke after Sassen, and he seemed to agree with her comments on the FTAA. Though an advocate of free trade, Sjaastad did not believe that the current FTAA member countries have political atmospheres conducive to drawing significant benefits from the agreement.

Durkin and Corey, a steel union representative, were the last two speakers. Durkin stressed the importance of identifying the real source of social, economic, and political problems.

"Public policy majors are taught to address problems directly," Durkin said, arguing that they are less prone to going after a problem's symptoms rather than its source.

His comments seemed to be aimed at those in the audience who might believe that trade, as opposed to insufficient regulation and law, is the source of a nation's ills. "Restricting trade can never be optimal policy," Durkin said.

Corey contended that the United States gives up an undue amount of its sovereignty by adhering to agreements like the FTAA.

"There are two ideas as to what trade is: theory and reality," Corey said. "Agreements like the FTAA take away a nation's right to have its own laws.

Tariffs allow industries to stabilize themselves, instead of allowing capital to race to the bottom, looking for the best deal."

During a brief question and answer period that followed the speakers' formal comments, most audience members seemed to express sentiments against the FTAA, though no instances of heckling were evident against pro-policy panel members.

Kouri, the event's moderator, was pleased with the event, saying that it raised several interesting issues, all of which deserve more attention. "It was very suggestive," he said. "It would have been interesting, for the sake of debate, to hear a more forceful advocate for the agreement."

Alex Goldenberg, one of the event organizers and a second-year in the College, was excited by the evening's turnout. "There are so many important issues, but it's good that we touched on the ones that we did," he said.

Keith Budner, a first-year in the College, attended the event because he wanted to know more about the issue. Though he thought the event was interesting, it did not sway his views. "I came as a supporter of free trade and pretty much still am," he said.

Aytek Erdil, a graduate student in the mathematics department, shared Budner's sentiment. "To be honest, I have read a lot on this stuff, and I don't think I learned much more," Erdil said.

SOUL will sponsor a speaker series in the winter entitled "10 Years after NAFTA: Rethinking Trade Liberalization."