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Thoughts on GATT, retraining, corporate welfare, and Bosnia

Sorry to begin with an apologia, but one of the things I try not to do as a commentator is put in my two cents' worth when I don't have enough knowledge to back it up. When I venture into international affairs or international economic issues--not my native turf, to put it mildly--I have a tendency to overstudy for fear of looking like a fool.

Nick Von Hoffman claims that any literate person can learn economics by reading--and I'm here to add that any literate person can get mighty confused as hell by reading economists.

One of my nobler efforts was reading the entire North American Free Trade Agreement before I wrote about it--which Dee Simpson points out means that I was automatically unfit to comment, having been dumb enough to read the whole thing. So I have cleverly spared myself the effort on the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and am here to take a stand without having read a word of the thing.

I assume that all the macro-economists are right: free trade is good for us all in the long run. Except that's the same long run in which we'll all be dead. Even my main man, John Maynard Keynes, liked free trade, and if there's an argument to be made on the other side of free trade, it properly belongs to developing countries rather than industrialized countries like our own. In other words, if anyone's likely to get shafted by GATT, it ain't us.

Nevertheless, notwithstanding and on the other hand, you may recall that when Bill Clinton originally discussed the North American Free Trade Agreement--which for the purposes of this argument will be taken as a smaller version of GATT--he admitted that it would cause considerable "displacement." Displacement, both for the purposes of argument and in reality, means "thousands of people thrown out of work."

Before Clinton came to Washington and met the Republican buzz saw, he used to argue that we had an obligation to do something about these many thousands of displaced workers--to wit, provide them with training for jobs at a skilled level. By the time Clinton actually got NAFTA to Congress, he settled for the treaty without the job training, (a) because he's an incurable compromiser; and (b) because what did he need with one more bloody fight with Congress on his hands?

Robert Reich, the labor secretary who recently took on corporate welfare without even getting permission from the White House (way to go, Reich--keep it up), has suggested that we reduce corporate welfare--the direct subsidies and tax subsidies to industry--and use the money to retrain workers so we won't have these hundreds of thousands of unemployed people. Sound thinking.

I pause to point out that Clinton--before he got savagely mauled in Washington--and Reich were among the very few public figures talking seriously about how to get this country ready for the 21st century.

The Republicans cling to their quaint but poignant faith in a capital-gains tax cut as the cure for all evils. Now here rises an interesting knot for those of the liberal faith: most studies, including some done by Reich's Labor Department, indicate that government retraining programs for workers are not particularly effective. So-so at best.

We can claim the usual gamut of excuses--for example, the Job Corps starts with folks who are awfully far behind to begin with, so their chances of becoming computer programmers are rather dim. First, they have to learn to get up in the morning and then to read and write.

Even so, most studies I've seen show that the best worker-retraining programs are run by industries themselves. They know what they need, and they can afford good people to teach it.

So why not take Reich's idea about replacing corporate welfare with government-run worker training and instead use it to subsidize corporate-run worker training? Of course, it's another form of corporate subsidy. But it's a lot more socially useful than having the taxpayers pay for orange-juice advertising.

In fact, I'd love to see a simple quid pro quo: corporations can no longer deduct their expenses for lobbying, but they can get a subsidy for all their expenses for retraining workers.

Since the political debate in this country has shifted so dramatically to the right since Election Day (Orphanages! Workhouses! Hire temps for Congress!), I suppose I have to make the argument for why we have some obligation to retrain workers tossed out of jobs because of government policy. I could argue justice, fairness, right, mercy, compassion, and good sense, but let's cut to the chase. The guy who's about to lose his job is Bubba, and Bubba has guns in his pickup, and just exactly how much trouble do you want to buy here? 'Nuff said?

While I'm holding forth on subjects-on-which-I-am-not-an-expert (or even a learned amateur), let me point out that the mounting chorus of criticism of Clinton as Bosnia collapses before our eyes comes from a vast range of people who never had a better idea. Because there isn't one. Clinton tried, and he couldn't get any backup from Europe. It's like Haiti: no good choices, and we can't even send Jimmy Carter.

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