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Wednesday, December 15, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist

Five years later, WTO still ignites local passions

Two weeks ago, I was on KBCS-FM (91.3) radio to mark the fifth anniversary of the WTO chaos. I was invited as an advocate, to hold up the free-trade side. A fair-trader and I had the whole hour to go at it, and mostly talked past each other.

The ideologies were too different. Perhaps we should have abandoned our ideologies and debated the facts, but which facts? We disagreed about some facts — whether American workers gain from trade — but more about meanings. We may agree that a worker in a shoe factory in Vietnam makes $60 a month. But does it mean she is a victim of a "race to the bottom"? That was my opponent's view. Does it mean she is taking a step off the bottom? That was mine.

I remembered seeing women in Hue, Vietnam, standing in the Perfume River next to small boats loaded with gravel. They were washing baskets of dirty gravel in the river and piling it back in the boat as clean gravel. It was dull, backbreaking work in the glaring sun, and there was no "race to the bottom" in it. These workers were at the bottom, serving an entirely local market.

I thought of the Pakistanis I had met on the streets of Seattle Nov. 30, 1999, when we were all shut out of the WTO meetings by a skirmish line of leftists. These Pakistanis had their differences with the United States, but they were not sympathetic to its protesters. To them, they were rich Americans who wanted to stop other Americans from buying products made by workers in Pakistan.

In my radio debate, the moderator asked my opponent about workers in China. If you don't want to buy China's products, he said, what becomes of China's workers? My opponent's answer was that China's workers deserve better. "We have to work with them," he said. He seemed to think this was a meaningful answer. I didn't.

I am a free-trader. I assume that if A trades with B, the fairness of the trade is up to them. If a third party, C, doesn't like what A and B did, it's probably not his business. The fair-traders want to make the trades of A and B subject to the veto of C. They call this "democracy;" I call it other names. Buttinski comes to mind.

Labels are important. Much of this debate is over what to call things.

One of the questions thrown at me was about the closure of an asparagus packer in Dayton, in Eastern Washington, and the movement of the Washington asparagus industry to Peru. The question was, "Is that good for the state of Washington?"

I said it was bad for workers in the asparagus industry but mattered little to the state as a whole. Literally that was true, but it was a poor answer. In a debate, one should answer the question behind the question.

Which was, "How can you justify a system that allows the closure of the largest private employer in a little town in Eastern Washington?" The answer is that this state lives by production and trade. We produce wheat and apples, airplanes and software, for the world. In exchange, we are privileged to buy the products of the world.

It is not in our interest to limit ourselves to locally made goods — and it is not fair to our trading partners. If they open their markets to our software, we should be open to their asparagus.

That is what the WTO is about: governments agreeing among themselves to treat each other's products in an evenhanded way.

The call-in audience was not friendly to trade. Several callers out-radicaled my opponent. One declared it was wasteful and wrong to ship food across the ocean when we could grow everything we need, right here.

I thought, ocean shipping is so cheap that we send bales of hay, even bundles of recycled paper, across the Pacific Ocean. And our listener wants to shut down the movement of wheat, apples and frozen French fries?

I wondered if anyone listening worked for a steamship line, the ag industry or did international letters of credit. It didn't seem so. One man called to insist that we should not discuss the WTO without defining what it was: a vehicle for foisting corporate rule upon the world.

I replied that not one corporation was a member of it. Did it matter? Probably not. Probably he thought I was lying.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is bramsey@seattletimes.com. Look for more of his thoughts on the STOP blog, our editorial online journal at www.seattletimes.com/stop

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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