Monday, January 13, 2014

The Magnificently Moustached Craig Merrilees

The received wisdom is that free trade is good for all. At least, that is what most economists and policy makers believe. So, if you want to read or hear arguments against free trade as it is practiced now, you would have to scour carefully for sources. I dont watch any of the TV channels - so FOX, MSNBC, etc are useless to me. My sources are usually public talks and congressional hearings on these topics. Once in a while, you encounter the same person in multiple such talks and you realize that this person might have contributed in one way or another to  the debate on free trade. It is important to stress that these people are not necessarily critics of free trade as much as they are of trade policy.

One such person is Craig Merrilees and I got to know of him through his testimonies to the USTR and the House Agriculture Committee (chaired by Rep. De La Garza) during the NAFTA debate. Yes, from 1991. Sadly, when I tried to find if any of the newspapers had written about him or his testimonies, I found nothing, at least in the archives of New York Times. When I did a more extensive search on Factiva, which is owned by Dow Jones, I found few articles. It turns out that Craig Merrilees had been quite active in the environmental and labor movements. I'm not sure what it takes to be a spokesman for different causes, but Mr. Merrilees has been one for various organizations. In fact, before he became a spokesman for organizations interested in trade related issues, he was one for "Veterans Peace Convoy," an organization opposing the invasion of Nicaragua. You can find here an article related to a demonstration by the peace convoy at the White House. Since he was involved with opposing the invasion of Nicaragua, I wonder if Mr. Merrilees was a colleague of Mr. De Blasio, the current mayor of New York City.

A good article on the opposition to NAFTA in, what we would now call the mainstream press, is by Bob Davis ("Fighting NAFTA: Free-Trade Pact Spurs a Diverse Coalition of Grass Roots Foes." Wall Street Journal, December 23, 1992). Since this article is not available online, I post here some excerpts. 

"The anti-free-trade movement began to branch out from its labor-union roots in 1987 when a Minnesota farm activist named Mark Ritchie became fascinated with GATT. The 40-year-old organizer of food co-ops and the early-1980s Nestle infant-formula boycott (based on the Swiss company's pushing formula in the Third World) moved his family to Brussels for six months to study the workings of the intricate trade organization.
He hit on a little-known facet of the broad round of trade liberalization being negotiated: Under new GATT rules, foreign governments would have firmer ground for challenging U.S. environmental laws as barriers to trade. Returning home, Mr. Ritchie, a mesmerizing speaker, spread the alarm in meetings with environmentalists and foundations over the next three years. With family-farm groups, already fearful of Reagan administration efforts to slash farm subsidies, he preached that a free-trade pact would further reduce prices for farmers.
He hit pay dirt when Barbara Dudley, executive director of the Veatch Program, a Unitarian Church charity that bankrolls environmental causes, heard a talk at an Adirondack Mountain lodge in early 1990 and donated $50,000 to his cause. Mr. Ritchie hired Mr. Merrilees, a veteran environmental organizer, and they launched the Citizen Trade Campaign. "We weren't just talking about tariffs," Ms. Dudley says. "We were talking about threats to environmental, health and safety regulations." 

That is how Mr. Merrilees comes into the picture. In any case, Mr. Merrilees makes pretty powerful case for opposing Fast Track, or the Trade Promotion Authority. This video clip, in particular highlights all the points that opponents of Fast Track are now making. Basically, the reasons have not changed much. Just that the country has changed - its no longer Mexico. You'll see that he comes across as a passionate opponent to Fast Track.

Anyway, Mr. Merrilees is now a communications director for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). If you see the video clip, you'll see why the title of this post is right. He looks like a left-leaning version of John Stossel!

An update to this post: Bob Davis, whose article I referenced above still writes for WSJ. He mostly writes on business/economics in China. He is also the co-author with David Wessel of a book titled "Prosperity: The Coming Twenty-Year Boom and What It Means to You." Written in the throes of the tech boom, it would be an understatement to say that Bob and David did not foresee the future. I've not seen any interviews of Bob Davis but David Wessel, whenever he has to talk about this book, admits gracefully that he was way off target. 

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