New York Times reporter Timothy Williams’ article this morning did such a great job detailing the failings of a signature federal job training program that I almost hate to fault him for not mentioning the “bridge to the 21st century.” Nonetheless, it was a crucial omission, and the overwhelmingly false promise of such ballyhooed initiatives is impossible to understand fully without it.
The “bridge” was President Clinton’s phrase for the government policies he contended could meet the assorted challenges that would face the nation in the new millennium. But in the wake of still widespread anxiety over job loss from the new-ish NAFTA trade agreement and from ongoing import pressure from mercantilist Germany and especially Japan, it became best known for describing initiatives that would “help young people and adults to get the education and training they need…help Americans succeed at home and at work….”
The former president and close aides such as Robert Reich also touted the “bridge” concept repeatedly to convince liberal Democrats that Washington could pursue ever more trade expansion without devastating the middle and working class voters whose cause they long championed – and of course to sell trade liberalization to those voters themselves. In turn, most Congressional Republicans came to realize that they needed to back this and other so-called trade adjustment assistance programs to secure the Democratic votes to pass free trade agreements.
My 2001 book on globalization, The Race to the Bottom, presented a detailed debunking of these claims and hopes. In addition to summarizing the evidence showing that government job reeducation and retraining programs too rarely helped displaced workers get better jobs – when they got jobs at all – I pointed out that the United States wasn’t then (and isn’t now) the only country on earth understanding that workers need to be moved up education and skill ladders. Most other governments were seeking to give the same advantages to their own workers.
And since highly intelligent, trainable individuals exist everywhere on earth, and especially in the populous third world countries focused on by Clinton-era trade deals, the former president’s ambitious trade agenda was bound to expose even satisfactorily retrained Americans to competition from foreign counterparts who would long earn orders of magnitude less.
These and similar warnings are amply borne out in Williams’ report. Especially revealing is how none of the individual outrages he documents involves preparing workers for jobs in manufacturing – the highly paid sector where employment was hit hardest by Clinton era trade deals and their successors – and how the healthcare positions mainly advertised as adequate replacements generally pay so poorly that borrowers can’t even stay current on the loans typically needed to pay for classes.
But because the author neglected the full story of why programs like the Workforce Investment Act were developed and attracted bipartisan support to begin with, his readers can’t learn how fatally flawed they were from the start – and how they continue to be used cynically to help both Democrats and Republicans advance job-killing trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership sure to keep harming employment, wages, and the entire economy on net.