Sherrod Brown: Covid Shows How Corporate ‘Free Trade’ Policies Threaten Public Health

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speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, July 13, 2017

Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown carries a pin a canary in a cage, reminiscent of the days when miners carried the birds underground to discover poisonous gases.

Brown spent three decades Warning Americans of the dangers of a trade policy where profits take precedence over workers and the public interest. He continues to stress the mistake of letting corporate interests and lithe politicians shape our trade and manufacturing policies, especially given the supply shortages that have made fighting the coronavirus pandemic so difficult. We talked about the need for policies that renew our sense of public goods and needs.

– John Nichols

JN: When Covid-19 hit we suddenly had a shortage – not enough ventilators or masks. Governors sign contracts to import personal protective equipment. Is this a consequence of wrong trade and tax policies?

SB: This has built up after 30, 35 years. We have created a business environment that is largely down to corporate lobbying, a very compliant congress that meets the desires, and the administration. The most profitable business plan for many manufacturing companies could be to stop manufacturing here – especially if it was a union – move it overseas, enjoy cheap labor and weak environmental and occupational safety rules, and sell the products back to the US . It became the business plan [for] manufacturing company by company by company…. Republican presidents, Democratic presidents share some guilt in the part of the trade regime. If you had administration after administration, congress after congress stratification [bad trade and tax policies] On the other hand, you faced, in a sense, our disarmament in relation to public health.

JN: Is this part of a more general failure in maintaining public health infrastructure?

SB: Until a decade ago we had a strong public health system. Then one of the Tea Party’s most vicious attacks on them was [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and on public health in general. This began the dissolution of our public health infrastructure. With [Donald] Trumps Burn From Timothy Ziemer, the admiral who led the White House pandemic surveillance operation, things became even more unraveled. The biggest lesson from this is that our public health system has been weakened. But you have to take into account the fact that manufacturing [of vital equipment] was moved.

JN: Other countries have industrial policies that aim to serve the public interest rather than simply being limited to corporations. Can the US find a better balance?

SB: I would start with anything that is “public” in front of it. What do you need for public transport? What do you need for public education? What do you need for public health? And this is where our trade policy should begin. Here, you want to make it a priority to remove the incentives to move overseas – and create incentives to continue production here.

When it comes to public transport, we should build public buses here, city buses here. When it comes to public education, we should make all kinds of school supplies here. When it comes to public health, this is where we should be doing what we need to. That doesn’t mean we will never do it [import] our pharmacological drugs. But we should think about how we can do what is needed in the US.

JN: If Democrats win in November, what needs to be done to make the kind of changes you are talking about?

SB: If the Democrats take over, you are sure to see some adjustments in tax law and corporate taxes due to the huge giveaways that Republican corporate interests have made three years ago. This is the beginning. But then you may also need a domestic peacetime defense manufacturing law. The Defense Production Act serves to defend the country in times of danger, in times of an attack on our national security in one way or another. It could be a war. It could too [be used to prepare for] a pandemic.

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