The following is an adapted version of a speech delivered at Netroots.
We used to make things here, and then came free trade and then China opened up, and we moved a lot of manufacturing there, especially electronics. We say Apple here, because Apple is the most obvious, and because the supposed values of Apple conflict dramatically with what we now know about the working conditions of the people who make their products. But we mean ALL OF THEM.
We used to think that China got so much business because labor was cheap. The elites, benefiting from that, said take advantage of the low prices, and our workers can move on to better, more productive pursuits.
Of course, intentionally undercutting the wages of our own workers was bad enough. And using that as a wedge to break unions was bad enough. But the story of our trade deal with China is much worse than that.
Not too long ago stories about the working conditions of Chinese electronics workers started to be heard. We started hearing about protests, strikes, and then about suicides at these factories.
The reports reached wide audiences from a New York Times report, How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work
This report hilighted Steve Jobs telling President Obama that these jobs are never coming back, and the reason was not the lower cost of labor. The reason was that in China they could make workers do things that they can’t make them do here. They can make them live in dorms where they wake them up at midnight to stand for hours on assembly lines, or use neurotoxins that let them clean many more screens in a day. They can dump horrible stuff into the environment. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Ask Chen Guangcheng, the blind lawyer who just arrived in the US, about how people are treated there.
The business advantage China offers is not low wages -- it is that in China the people do not have a say, and here people have a say.
When people have a say they say they want better pay, health care, retirement, vacations, sick pay, protections, worker safety, clean environment and taxes to support the country – things like that – the very things China offers to let our businesses escape from.
So what China offers is that China is “business-friendly.” Because people there do not have a say, so they can’t ask for the things people should have.
Corporate conservatives here say we should be more business friendly, we should lower wages, lower taxes, stop taking care of the environment, stop all those pesky health and safety and environmental inspections, stop telling businesses what they can and cannot do, and all the rest. They say we should be more like China.
What they are saying is that we should abandon the benefits that democracy brought to We, the People – the 99% in order to enrich a few people – the 1%.
When we opened up our borders to goods from China, and let this treatment of workers and the environment offer advantages to our elites, we made democracy a competitive disadvantage.
But wait, there’s more.
There is another difference to consider. Look what China offers our business leaders. China provides them with an exploited labor force at little cost. Beyond that China also subsidizes the manufacturing that is done there. They spend a great deal on manipulating their currency to keep prices of goods made there very low. They will build you a factory, pay for your electricity, and so much more.
China offers our business leaders an amazing deal – a deal that they can’t refuse. The owners and managers of our companies get really, really rich if they play along with China. Never mind if the companies go away later -- they’re rich.
China offers these things to our business leaders for a reason. This is the reason: China sees itself as a country, and we no longer do.
China competes with us as a country. But our businesses see themselves as GLOBALIZED, not as part of a country.
So since we – at least our businesses – no longer see themselves as part of a country we are not responding to this competition. We are not mobilizing to fight back.
In fact, China has essentially recruited our own business leaders to fight against our own government.
Look at the effects on our country since we entered into this deal with China.
They are luring our businesses to move our jobs, factories, industries and technologies there for the private gain of a few, at the expense of us as a country, and we let that happen.
The trade imbalance is bankrupting us as a country. It has already drained trillions from our economy, weakening us and strengthening them.
They are smart, they do this as a NATIONAL strategy, as a country competing with us as a country, and the result is that in a competition between countries we may have already lost.
There are many things we can do about this. China can still be a partner, and there are many things we can help lift the wages and open things up for working people there.
We can require American companies to behave in the interest of their own country and of our democratic system, for one thing.
We can immediately require that imports not exceed exports by issuing import licenses based on exports.
We can demand that China actually trade with us, using that huge accumulated trade surplus to buy goods and services made here. This is dramatically in their interest – imagine what would happen to our economy if China started actually trading with us, buying American-made goods. Then the thriving American economy would boost the purchases of Chinese goods in return! That they don’t do this, and instead use those resources against us, manipulating currency, subsidizing companies, tells us they are not playing an economic game, they are playing a nationalist game of strategic domination. As a country.
Unfortunately, as I said, China’s trade strategy has helped create a situation where many of our own elites are fighting against our government.