My rabbi told this joke on Yom Kippur: At the front of the lunch line at a parochial school was a bowl of apples with a sign reading: "Take only one. God is watching." At the end of the lunch line was a bowl of cookies, where a student had put up a sign: "Take all you want. God is watching the apples."
Somehow that joke reminds me of the debate about free trade in America today. Right now, with the Republicans in charge, free trade is secure. Yet while everyone is watching the front of the line, out back in the country an erosion of support for free trade is under way. The "Doha" trade talks have stalled, because of opposition by U.S. farmers, and the White House's "fast-track" authority to negotiate free trade pacts expires soon. With protectionist Democrats likely to take the House or Senate, any new free-trade accords will probably stall.
I hope Democrats won't go this route. I've always believed in free trade, accompanied by better pension and health care safety nets. But I'm not a free trader anymore. I'm a radical free trader. Because in this new era of globalization, so many people now have the communication and innovation tools to compete, connect and collaborate from anywhere. As a result, business rule No. 1 today is: Whatever can be done will be done by someone, somewhere. The only question is whether it will be done by you or to you.
In such a world, the way our society flourishes is by being as educated, open and flexible as possible, so more of our people can do whatever can be done first.
"That society which has the least resistance to the uninterrupted flow of ideas, diversity, concepts and competitive signals wins," says Nandan Nilekani, CEO of the Indian tech giant Infosys.
The old left thinks free trade helps only multinationals. In fact, it is critical for small businesses and individuals, who can now act multinationally and create good jobs.
Last week, I was in Nebraska, where I met Doug Palmer. He, a partner and 28 employees make insulated concrete forms for buildings. The old way to insulate concrete with foam is to make the foam and truck it around the country to building sites to be attached to concrete. Palmer's company, Lite-Form, found a Korean machine that, when combined with devices added by his firm, can make the foam and concrete together on site, saving big dollars in trucking. Today, his South Sioux City company imports these machines from Korea, attaches its devices and exports them to Kuwait. His company has an Arabic brochure that tells Kuwaitis how to use the device. The brochure was produced by a local ad agency owned by the Winnebago Indian tribe of Nebraska.
"Protectionism scares me," said Palmer. "If we put up a moat and keep doing what we're doing, thinking we're the smartest in the world, we're going to die. We have to have that flexibility to barter and trade."
The way you keep good jobs in America is not by building big walls, but by attracting people with big ideas - and then giving them the freedom to do whatever can be done with anyone, anywhere, anytime.
2006, New York Times News Service