What's good for corporations is not always good for America in 2018

What's good for corporations is not always good for America in 2018
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Over 60 years ago, the CEO of General Motors, “Engine Charlie” Wilson, said that “what was good for GM was good for America.”  His offhand remark sparked an ideological debate that continues to this day.

Pundits claimed that among other things, Engine Charlie’s belief ignores the issues of democratic representation, worker-management relations and how profits are distributed.


Still, underlying his remark is a straightforward argument that many Americans find compelling: Economic policies that help GM will cause GM to prosper, enabling GM to hire more American workers, thus boosting worker incomes, strengthening communities and supporting a better life for Americans. Similarly, trade policies that benefit GM will necessarily benefit America.


Seven decades later, Engine Charlie’s argument apparently endures as the basis for the structure of the U.S. government’s official trade policy advisory bodies.

Created in the early 1970s as part of the legal framework for ensuring that U.S. trade policy and trade negotiating objectives reflect U.S. interests, the advisory committee system is managed by the U.S. Trade Representative in cooperation with other economic policy agencies, such as Commerce and the Department of Agriculture.

There are 28 subject- or sector-specific advisory committees with a total membership of around 700 citizen advisors. Although most Americans are unaware of its existence, this advisory committee system forms a key component of how U.S. trade policy is shaped and how goals and priorities are determined.

The interests of the appointed committee members are likely to be afforded priority consideration in the development of our trade policy.

Despite some important moves toward reform, from their founding to the current day, the trade policy advisory committee system remains dominated by U.S. corporate interests.

The most important change in recent decades has been the establishment of specialized committees to advise on trade-related labor and environmental concerns, reflecting the desire that U.S. trade policy take due account of the importance of not allowing trade to come at the expense of worker rights or protection of the environment.

But the enduring corporate dominance of the broader advisory committees can be seen in the composition of the flagship Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations (ACTPN). Of the 21 individuals currently listed as ACTPN members, more than three-quarters are representatives of U.S. business.

The remainder — less than one-fourth of the total — are representatives of labor unions or environmental groups. Presumably, Engine Charlie and kindred spirits would see no problem with this arrangement given their belief that the advisory committee’s promotion of corporate interests will result in the promotion of larger American interests as well. 

When these advisory committees were conceived in the early 1970s, global trade as a percentage of the U.S. economy was no more than 10 percent and issues such as the employment impact of global supply chains was the stuff of futurologists.

Today, global trade accounts for around 30 percent of our economy, and its many and mixed effects on the American workforce have been felt in communities across America.

One lesson we can draw from the 2016 election is that an Engine Charlie-esque trade policy advisory structure that implicitly identifies the interests of corporate America with all of America is now wildly out of touch with the realities of the reach and disparate effects of international trade on American society.

What we need is an advisory structure more in keeping with the complex realities of the 2018 American economy and society. What is currently lacking is a sense of democratic representation and proportion.

We need representatives who can champion the benefits of globalization, but we also need representatives who can represent the many Americans who feel left out the globalization boom — those Americans who flocked to Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden adds to vote margin over Trump after Milwaukee County recount Krebs says allegations of foreign interference in 2020 election 'farcical'  Republicans ready to become deficit hawks again under a President Biden MORE’s anti-globalization message.

There are many knowledgeable private-sector researchers who could be recruited, along with many local community organizations that have first-hand experience in dealing with the challenges cities and towns across America brought about by globalization.

Another possibility is to have a number of open, or rotating membership seats that could be utilized for advisory committee meetings in communities across America in which local representatives are deputized and invited to provide their views.

Broadening the advisory committee representation to incorporate currently underrepresented, disaffected groups and moving some of the process outside the Beltway would go a long way toward rebuilding a consensus on trade, addressing the current democratic deficit in these advisory committees and making them what they ought to be: of the people, by the people and for the people.  

Michael J. Delaney is a trade policy consultant for TransNational Strategy Group, a commercial, economic/political and policy consultancy providing services to private sector and sovereign government clients. Previously, Delaney worked as a State Department foreign service economic/commercial officer and at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) as assistant USTR for South and Central Asia and Iraq.