just a couple of months thousands of environmentalists, steel workers,
longshoremen, AIDS activists, farmers, and others will descend upon Seattle in a
"mobilization against globalization." They will hold marches,
protests, teach-ins, and conferences.
occasion? The World Trade Organization is holding a meeting of ministers from
its 134 member countries, to talk about launching a new round of trade talks.
opposition’s plans have already attracted more press attention than the official
meeting. This suggests there is something big at stake here. There is.
fact, something big happened more than four and a half years ago, when the WTO
came into existence, and our own membership was ratified by the United States
Congress. But the consequences of this action are only now beginning to be
understood outside of narrow policy circles.
new bureaucracy of the WTO was given the authority to determine whether national
laws on such matters as environmental protection and food safety violate
international trade rules.
other words, the burden of proof has shifted: for example, if our Environmental
Protection Agency wants to regulate the content of gasoline in order to reduce
pollution, it must be careful not to infringe upon the rights of foreign
principle was actually tested when Venezuela, on behalf of its gasoline
producers, challenged EPA regulations on gasoline quality at the WTO. In 1997
the WTO ruled in their favor. The EPA subsequently changed its regulations,
weakening its ability to enforce federal air quality standards.
WTO ruling last year undermined our Endangered Species Act. We have attempted to
protect endangered sea turtles from extinction by requiring that shrimp fishing
boats install devices that allow the turtles to escape the nets. The law applied
to all shrimp sold in the United States, but the WTO ruled that this was unfair
to other countries.
is a good example of how the trade principles embodied in the WTO erode
environmental standards. We have these standards because the public has decided
that certain protections of our natural environment are important. We are
willing to pay a higher price for certain consumer goods, for example, in order
to achieve these goals. But what happens when other countries– and very often
this means our own corporations producing in other countries– do not make the
same choice? If we cannot apply our standards to foreign-produced goods that are
sold in the United States, these goods will simply drive American-made goods out
of the market, and defeat the purpose of the environmental legislation.
WTO’s critics argue that it is time to stop and assess the record of the last
four and a half years, before creating any new rules. But the Clinton
administration is having none of this: it’s full speed ahead, not a moment to
Administration might have an argument if it could be shown that we risk missing
out on some great windfall. But the gains to the United States from the last
round of the GATT (the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the WTO’s
predecessor) have been estimated at less than $700 million a year. This is less
than one-third the cost of one B-2 bomber.
these meager gains we must consider the impact of trade on the distribution of
income. As trade has expanded over the last quarter-century, the median real
wage in the United States has actually fallen. There is no longer any doubt
among economists that these two trends– increasing trade and falling real
wages– are related. It’s not hard to see why: without any standards for labor
or human rights, increasing trade creates a "race to the bottom" for
wages and working conditions in the same way that it undermines environmental
broad-based challenge to the WTO reflects a growing awareness that the decisions
of these powerful institutions– including the International Monetary Fund, the
World Bank, and others– have a considerable impact on our lives and
livelihoods. And unlike national governments, they don’t have to care what any
angry voters might think.
don’t need a conspiracy theory to see that this unaccountability is deliberate.
All the more reason to stop and look at what the WTO has done, before expanding
Weisbrot is Research Director at the Preamble Center, in Washington, D.C.