Someone might want to tell President Barack Obama that you cannot put Harriet Tubman — a staunch 19th century abolitionist — onto the $20 bill and then tell the American people to use that money to buy goods made with de facto slave labor in Malaysia, Vietnam and elsewhere in the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact.
For, that is the choice now facing the American people and Congress — whether they care to admit it or not — as the TPP seeks to remove trade barriers with economies that still do not have sufficient protections against forced labor. The Obama State Department went as far as to pretend that Malaysia is no longer a slave state in order to qualify them to participate in the trade deal.
It is a slap in the face to Tubman’s memory — and that of the entire abolitionist movement.
The American people were faced with a very similar choice in the 1800s. The Constitution had included provision for Congress to regulate interstate commerce — a mechanism to eliminate tariffs and to create a free trade zone between the former colonies.
Only, because half of the states still used slave labor, this created perverse economic incentives not to abolish slavery — even in the free states of the North. Why?
In the 19th century, New England textile mills were big buyers of southern cotton, as noted by authors Anne Farrow, Joel Lang and Jennifer Frank in their book, “Complicity.” New York City merchants were largely responsible for moving the cotton produced in the South — it was the nation’s number one export — and profited from the lower prices that could be acquired when you don’t actually pay people for producing a commodity.
As noted by W. Chad Furrell in the “The American Economy: Essays and primary source documents,” after 1792 “[t]he widespread adoption of the cotton gin and expansionist land policies combined to stimulate both the cotton and slave trades. By 1820, cotton had eclipsed tobacco as the nation’s top export commodity. Exports rose dramatically from approximately 20 million pounds in 1800 to 128 million pounds in 1820, peaking at 1.8 billion pounds in 1860.”
As a result, cotton became a source of enormous wealth for the U.S.: “cotton comprised 42 percent of all American exports in 1820, rising to 67 percent of total exports in 1840. After 1840, manufactured products from the Northeast began to comprise a large share of total exports. Nonetheless, cotton remained he dominant export commodity until 1880.”
In 1860, the New York City Mayor Fernando Wood even proposed that the city secede with the Confederacy. Which, it turns out, was not surprising, write Farrow, Land and Frank: “Although many in the city’s intelligentsia rolled their eyes, and the mayor was slammed in much of the New York press, Wood’s proposal made a certain kind of sense.” Indeed, New York was profiting from the institution of slavery, so why abolish it?
But the point is clear enough to see for those who will admit it. The cheap labor pool in the South via slavery enhanced the profitability of the cotton trade and fueled U.S. exports worldwide — just as the cheap labor pool in Asia Pacific region today fuels the export economies over there. The only economic illiterates are those who avoid or ignore this obvious history — who to make their argument must turn a blind eye to one of history’s greatest evils.
Those are by no means the only advantages foreign economies share. Others include artificially cheaper currencies, lower taxation and weaker regulatory regimes. But, whether we choose to admit it or not, cheap labor still plays an important role today. It leads to certain economic advantages for those who employ it.
In that context, a recent study by the National Retail Federation (NRF) found the TPP will benefit U.S. retailers, who will profit from the cheaper goods resulting from the trade deal, and consumers, who save money on those goods.
Yes, it would, argued Americans for Limited Government President Rick Manning in a statement in response to the NRF, but “while it’s great that American retailers think that cheap goods built with slave wages are good for their business model, it is morally reprehensible.” After all, in the 1800s, Northern textile makers profited, and so too did consumers who got cheap clothes in return. It was no less evil then.
Just as reprehensible, then, would be the Obama administration, which proposes continuing these exploitive policies via the TPP while wrapping themselves in the history of Harriet Tubman, proposing to put her on the $20 — so we can pay the slavers in Malaysia for all their cheap goods. The irony would be laughable if it was not so disturbing to behold, whether we care to admit it or not. It’s a sick world we live in.
This is a guest post by Robert Romano senior editor of Americans for Limited Government.