Trading hearts and minds

Free trade foes and fanatics face off in, of all places, the public schools.

THE CLASSROOM has historically been the greenhouse where adults plant their ideologies and pray that they grow. So, in anticipation of the controversial World Trade Organization's Seattle visit, November assignments for some high school kids consist of news articles about exporting hormone-laced meat to Europe or case studies of the Washington apple industry trying to crack open Asian markets. Both World Trade Organization proponents and naysayers are delivering rhetoric to very young minds. The proponents are getting a late start; the Seattle Host Organization, responsible for convincing us that the upcoming convention is a great thing, only last week released its curricula teaching students how dependent the state is on trade. Representatives from People For Fair Trade, a coalition of anti-WTO protesters, have been more on the ball, making presentations at schools since September. Both sides claim they're trying to be objective and not push one opinion or another on their young audience. But who really believes that?

As Fair Trader Lydia Cabasco is learning, some of the students are sensitive to the political agendas involved and are resisting pressure to take sides. Cabasco's sermon on the WTO's evils was not well-received at Nathan Hale High School, where she spoke to a 12th grade government class. After the presentation, students complained that Cabasco and her cospeaker, Stewart Wechsler, took a "pedantic tone" and accused them of "propagandizing." In the evaluations students filled out after the seminar they accused the Fair Traders of not knowing all the details. Several students had asked Cabasco if WTO does any good. Her response was pretty much no, but the kids weren't buying that. The lesson Cabasco took away from the experience is that "high school students are really conservative and reactionary." She adds, "I think Nathan Hale is a tough crowd."

At least some of the students who criticized her presentation say they don't think the WTO is a good thing. But they are suspicious of propaganda of any stripe. No doubt the Fair Traders are a conscientious and well-meaning group; their over-the-top rhetoric did not endear them to the Nathan Hale students, however. One student asked who decided to impose tariffs on European cheese and other products when Europe refused to import American hormone-injected beef. Wechsler answered that he assumed it was the Kraft corporation's stockholders. (Actually it was the US government.) Another student asked who chooses the WTO tribunal. US trade representative Charlene Barshefsky makes that decision, but "I suspect that [Barshefsky] is in the pocket of big corporations," was Wechsler's reply. Perhaps his speculations are correct. Isn't it a bit much, though, to expect that a diverse group of 17-year-olds would readily adopt his views?

The class also got a presentation from Barbara Hazzard of the Washington Council on International Trade. Hazzard didn't conceal that she is pro-WTO, but she won the students over by conceding that it needs improvement. The rhetoric flew at this presentation as well, of course. One student expressed nervousness that WTO decisions are made without much room for public input. Hazzard agreed that this practice doesn't jive with the American view of democracy but explained it with a "We can't dictate that [to other WTO member nations]" assertion. Reality check: Since when was Washington hesitant to "dictate" whatever it wanted to?

All in all, though, Hazzard did seem far better prepared. She persuaded many students that some of the WTO criticisms that are most taken for granted are far off base. For example, many people worry that the US is importing dirty gasoline from Venezuela in light of a WTO ruling that appeared to attack our clean air standards. Hazzard says that's a distortion of what really happened. Before the WTO ruling, she says, the US had actually created two gasoline cleanliness standards. Domestic producers were able to choose which one to adopt, but the foreign producers had to adhere to the higher one. Hazzard claims it was the discrepancy between the standards for foreign producers and those for domestic ones, not the existence of the standards themselves, that led to the WTO ruling in Venezuela's favor. Unfortunately, she didn't reveal all the facts about this ruling. The new clean air standards said that domestic producers' gas had to be a certain percentage cleaner than it was in 1990. But there's no way to know how dirty foreign producers' gas was in 1990, so the US tried to set a separate standard for those companies to adopt. That was what was struck down, and we must now import gasoline that could be far dirtier than what's produced domestically.

Most important of all to these students was that Hazzard didn't appear to answer their questions with biased speculations. She admitted when she didn't know how to respond and encouraged them to get their own answers from the WTO and related Web sites.

The end product of these lectures is a group of better-informed students. But confusion about many things still persists. Some students wrongly perceive the Fair Traders as being against all trade, and that turns them off. But many students are also frightened by the power of the WTO; in both seminars, students expressed concern that WTO rulings might make our air dirtier or hurt domestic industries. Students said that they found Hazzard more likable even though they didn't necessarily agree with her views. One young woman noted wistfully that she was disappointed that the speaker she was less inclined to agree with, Hazzard, had a better presentation.

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