Why American Nationalism Is Dangerous for Workers

President Trump’s new “Buy American, Hire American” executive order signals a return to his economic nationalist agenda. Such ideology as economic nationalism — a system stressing domestic control of labor, the economy and capital even at the expense of high restriction of finance, goods and work — is a problem because our global economy is more interconnected and integrated today. Moreover, global developmental priorities led to labor markets being deregulated, national industries privatized and opened to global competition and the trade, investment and education sectors are more liberalized and open as global trade volumes continue to grow.

In today’s world, we have likened nearly every aspect of society to a struggle between good vs. evil, action vs. inaction, us vs. them and the global vs. the national, much as then-President Bush did in his 2001 remarks in which he declared that either we are for or against the efforts of his administration. The nexus of the global versus local is at the heart of economic nationalism and movement towards the rolling back of knowledge-based economy ushered in by global free trade.

In the late 20th century, the knowledge-based economy, with its emphasis on harnessing knowledge and information, displaced manufacturing and physical labor as the primary drivers of productivity and economic growth. The shift towards developing workers for the knowledge-based economy fell upon national educational systems that were told that they needed to ensure that students had 21st century skills and competencies (creativity, critical thinking, collaborating and communicating) so that they could find jobs. Thus, students need to be taught how to be flexible, adaptable, creative and innovative, since they have to be ready for jobs that do not yet exist.

Closely linked to the ideas of developing 21st century competencies, and unbeknownst to many, is the global rule of trade between nations that is regulated by the World Trade Organization (WTO), established in 1995. Back when the WTO was created, the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), multilateral rules regulating the international trade in services, established the movement of natural persons, thereby making services as a tradable commodity and thus allowing it to be supplied internationally. GATS has Four Modes of Supply consisting of:

1.) cross-border supply, i.e. distance education programs;

2.) consumption abroad, i.e the ability to provide or use services in another country, such as students exchange programs;

3.) commercial presence, i.e. capacity to develop offshore services, such as using local affiliates or subsidiary; and

4.) the presence of natural persons, i.e. the provision of external services, such as a consulting.

While the major benefactors of Mode 4 of GATS, on the surface, have been American universities who have developed large branch campuses and American companies with thousands of local offices and subsidiaries, the average person does not think of Mode 4. However, we are all benefiting from the trade in services, given the interconnected world in which we live.

In my recent academic text, my colleagues and I highlight that with the rise of the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution, that blends the physical with the cyber-physical systems, knowledge-based economic systems of globalization are not being driven by innovation and disruption within core industries and sectors, such as education, health and business. In responding to these changes, we argue that global educational priorities, such as the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals, are shifting their development practices to accommodate new business models (public-private partnerships), disruption of incumbents (arrival of non-state actors), and new educational delivery services and modes (in the form of open educational resources i.e., open sources, open practices, open courses and open access). This shift is a consequence not only of the interconnectivity brought about by globalization and economic capitalism, but by the fact that provision of educational services and the education market have become a global industry. Global Silicon Valley, a merchant bank, has estimated the education market to be valued at close to $5 trillion in 2015, and projects the market to reach $6.3 trillion in 2020.

So when Americans are told by the president that coal jobs are coming back to the US or that new jobs will be created through the use of American raw materials for projects, such as the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, we need to ask if the 21-century skills that today’s Midwest worker has cultivated are going to be wasted since previous administrations and companies have never prioritized nor expanded vocational training and school-to-work programs. In fact, we have been cutting spending on vocational education and instead investing and promoting vouchers, choice and charter schools. If President Trump was truly serious about his commitment to “making America great” through domestic manufacturing, he would not have selected a pro-privatizer such as Betsy DeVos, but instead would have looked to the heartland or rustbelt for a titan of manufacturing to lead the Department of Education.

Trade is a complex subject that needs to be considered carefully and should not be subjected the whims and fantasies of Twitter. Rather than renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and hitching free trade to nationalism and populism, it would be in greater American interest to rethink the US-led trade rules of the WTO and global trade politics. In reworking the grand bargain of free trade, the current administration may want to advocate for more protections for workers rather than walking back trade. As commander and negotiator-in-chief, perhaps the president can lead the globe in negotiating better labor policies for all workers rather that pushing nationalism. Such policies might advocate for global labor to be more competitive, portable and multinational.

As educators, we know we must unlock the potential of students through the use of neural networks, deep learning and artificial intelligence since we can now train computers much faster than we can train teachers and students.

Today in the golden age of labor mobility, protectionist policies and economic nationalism have no place in the fourth industrial revolution.