Q: As an econ professor and Democrat I’m still having trouble with the protectionist talk of the two candidates. Do you think Obama is handling trade issues properly or should he be more pro-free trade?
A: While it makes sense to argue in favor of labor and environmental standards in trade deals (so long as they’re on a sliding scale, and poorer nations don’t have to reach the same standard as richer nations), I don’t think the candidates should feed the current frenzy against free trade.
I think Reich’s answer is a good one. I agree there needs to be some sort of labor standards and at the very least people who purchase products in the U.S. need to able to figure out the labor standards under which the products were produced. I have not given much thought to international monitoring. However, I came across a good article written by a former factory inspector.* Not surprisingly it is a tough job, and factory owners work hard to hide poor conditions.
As the article’s writer says “Monitoring by itself is meaningless. It only works when the company that's commissioning it has a sincere interest in improving the situation.” If that is the case , then without some government intervention there will be not motivation for companies to monitor their abroad factories.
I’m not sure where the balance lies between labor and environmental trade standards, but it is important to have a view of the situation as a whole, and part of that is the difficulty of actually enforcing any law.
* I came across this article through Brijit, a new web service that summarizes articles for many publications in 100 words or less. H/t to Megan Macardle for pointing to this service as an idea generator for blogs.