Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 
Consumers Vs. the Outhouse Economy
By David G. Young 

WASHINGTON, September 23, 1997 --  

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, residents of Garrett Park, Maryland were so gripped with fear about economic change that they decided to do something drastic. In a futile attempt to protect the jobs of outhouse workers, the town voted to outlaw indoor plumbing. 

Ridiculous right? But, as laughably reactionary as this seems to contemporary eyes, future eyes will ridicule today's efforts to protect outdated professions. In the modern world, efforts to maintain obsolete jobs are entangled in the debate over expanding free trade. President Clinton opened the latest chapter in this debate two weeks ago when he announced plans to seek fast-track authority to help negotiate expansion of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Since then, the issue of jobs has dominated the debate. 

"[W]e already have a fast-track deal-the NAFTA deal we passed three and a half years ago," says the AFL-CIO's Stop Fast Track web site. "Ever since NAFTA, we've lost 420,000 jobs?" 

Not to be outmaneuvered on the jobs issue, the Vice President Al Gore was ready to promote NAFTA expansion as a job-creating enterprise. "[W]e have an opportunity to provide even more good high-paying jobs for Americans making products and services that can be sold into the world marketplace."  

Jobs, jobs, jobs. 

The national obsession on the issue of producer jobs has eliminated any discussion of the other group in a trading arrangement -- consumers. In every instance of trade, two parties come together to voluntarily exchange goods. The most popular arrangement in modern times is between a producer and a consumer. The focus of attention on the producer side of the equation distorts the true nature of the free trade issue. 

When the unions and corporate protectionists say that they are fighting to save jobs, they never tell the whole truth -- that they are fighting to save jobs on the backs of consumers. To be precise, they are fighting to prevent consumers from buying imported products at market prices. They don't want you to be able to go to Wal-Mart and buy a $75 Korean Microwave Oven. They don't want you to be able to go to the Gap and buy a $15 shirt made in Panama. The anti-trade producers know they can't compete with the more efficient foreign operations, so their only hope of survival is to get the government to tax consumers buying less expensive foreign products. 

That's the big secret about trade protectionism. It isn't foreign governments who pay import taxes on their products. It isn't foreign companies. It's you. That means you and I have to pay a lot more money to buy the shirts, microwaves and other items we want -- just to keep a few inefficient producers' heads above water 

Given the rise of consumer culture in America in the last 30 years, it is amazing that public awareness of this idea is so minuscule. The consumer class includes virtually all the 260 million people in the United States. The number of people working in at-risk industries is insignificant by comparison. If Americans were to vote on trade policy based exclusively on conscious self-interest, there would be no debate about free trade agreements at all. All import duties and restrictions would be immediately rescinded, regardless of the actions of U.S. trading partners. 

Unfortunately, however, this won't happen anytime soon. Corporate lobbyists and union bosses historically have been so successful at extorting their anti-consumer agenda that they have managed to draw large numbers of consumers into the enemy camp. Incredibly, these consumers are convinced to go against not only their own self-interests but the interests of society as a whole. The weapon used to capture these lost souls is a grab-bag of obsolescent Marxist dogma and xenophobia superimposed on feelings of economic insecurity. The result is that many consumers have been misled to believe that protectionist measures are needed to save American jobs. 

Jobs, jobs, jobs. 

There is no question that free trade costs American jobs. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a liar. But it is also true that free trade creates new American jobs -- and the new jobs are almost always better than the old ones. Take Garrrett Park, for example. When the town finally faced reality and allowed indoor plumbing, outhouse cleaners were undoubtedly put out of work. New jobs, however, were created for a brand new line of work: plumbers. Hey, I'll take a job as a plumber over one as an outhouse cleaner any day! 

As in the Garrett Park example, many American jobs at risk from foreign competition -- textile manufacturing and truck farming for instance -- are the modern equivalent of outhouse cleaning. They are either antiquated jobs made obsolete by modern technology, or low-tech jobs better suited to people living in developing countries. While elimination of these jobs undoubtedly causes distress to those who lose them, the re-direction of their efforts is an overall benefit to society. 

Although consumers are understandably sympathetic of people who lose their jobs, it is difficult to watch as they are terribly misled by leaders with a destructive agenda. Cries that the sky is falling on workers in at-risk industries obscure far more important cries of severe labor shortages in cutting-edge industries. The result is an unacceptably inefficient allocation of labor. We can no longer allow our increasingly high-tech economy to be held hostage by corporate lobbyists and union bosses peddling antiquated skills to uphold a nineteenth century system. 

Practicality and morality are absolutely in synch on this issue. Free trade should be viewed as a human right as inviolable as freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Trade between groups is an extremely fundamental element of human civilization -- a development that even predates agriculture. Its value to individuals and society is so universal that it is unconscionable that debate on the issue can exist tens of thousands of years after its invention. 

While the fast-track authority sought by President Clinton will never lead to such a fundamental reorientation of U.S. trade policy, it is at least a theoretical move in the right direction. The ultimate key to change, however, may be the continuing growth of consumer culture. Significant growth in consumer consciousness may yet deliver a much overdue death blow to the outhouse economy. 

1. AFL-CIO.ORG, September 23, 1997  

2. Washington Post, September 13, 1997