We may be about to shoot ourselves in the foot - or maybe the chest - on trade. In the name of "fair trade," we may punish our own exporters. In 2005, worldwide exports exceeded $10-trillion. Since 1980, they've more than tripled while the overall global economy doubled. Like it or not, massive international flows of goods and services (a.k.a. "globalization") underpin all modern economies. We can accept this reality and try to benefit from it. Or we can rail against it. We seem to be edging toward railing.
Just last week, Democratic congressional leaders signaled they might oppose new trade agreements with Colombia and Peru. Who, if anyone, would benefit is unclear. As the Washington Post reported, the agreements' darkened prospects have already led to layoffs in Colombia. In the United States, manufacturers believe the agreements would expand their exports.
We are dealing with something new here. It transcends traditional protectionism, which tries to shield specific industries and workers from imports. It's trade obstructionism: a reflexive reaction against almost any trade agreement. The idea is that much trade is inherently "unfair." Multinational companies use it to ship U.S. jobs abroad; other countries compete unfairly with low wages and substandard labor practices. Vast U.S. trade deficits measure the destructiveness. If trade is so unfair, why encourage more of it?
Much of this indictment is wrong or wildly exaggerated. For example, American trade deficits haven't destroyed U.S. job creation by sending work abroad. From 1980 to 2006, the trade deficit jumped from $19-billion to an estimated $786-billion, or from less than 1 percent of gross domestic product to about 6 percent. Employment in the same period rose from 99-million to 145-million.
Faster economic growth in the United States than in many of our major trading partners has stunted our exports and increased our imports. Likewise, the dollar's role as the main global currency has kept its exchange rate high. Companies, individuals and governments hold onto dollars rather than selling. This makes U.S. exports more expensive and imports cheaper. To be sure, that puts U.S. factory workers and farmers at a disadvantage on world markets. The disadvantage is compounded when some countries (China) keep their currencies artificially undervalued.
But there are also larger truths. One is that China's surging exports have (so far) come mostly at the expense of other Asian countries. Another truth is that U.S. jobs are destroyed for many reasons - new domestic competition, new technologies, changing consumer tastes, the business cycle. A remarkable statistic: Every three months, 7-million to 8-million U.S. jobs disappear, and roughly an equal or greater number are created. Trade is a relatively minor factor in job loss.
It is, however, an easy scapegoat. It enables critics to blame foreigners and suggest a solution - restrict trade.
The timing could not be worse. The U.S. economy is now moving away from growth led by housing and consumer spending, because heavily indebted American consumers are curbing their borrowing. Something will have to replace that spending if the economy is to continue to expand. The obvious candidates are exports and investment (in factories, machinery) related to exports.
It would be insane to hamper our export prospects - exactly what trade obstructionism threatens. The world is quietly retreating from a multilateral trading system, where all countries simultaneously reduce trade barriers. The latest multilateral trade talks are suspended; meanwhile, there are more than 200 country-to-country and regional trade agreements. The United States has 13. But to negotiate more of them, the president needs "trade promotion authority," and President Bush's expires in June.
If it's not renewed, the United States will effectively prevent itself from negotiating new trade agreements, while other countries are busily doing so.
The next Congress must decide whether it embraces the symbolism or reality of trade. If it chooses symbolism, it will perversely harm many of the workers it's trying to help.
2006, Washington Post Writers Group