Artwork titled "Make America Stronger Together" by American artist David Datuna in New York on Oct. 31, 2016.(Photo: Spencer Platt, Getty Images)
Things don’t look so good for international trade these days. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has made bashing China and Mexico a staple of his campaign. Both he and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton have turned sour on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the proposed pact linking 12 nations in Asia (excluding China) and the Americas. And recent numbers show that trade volume has flattened out globally after years of expansion.
But there is good reason to believe that the harsh anti-trade rhetoric is more a function of politics than public sentiment. A Pew Research Center poll in August, for instance, found that 50% of respondents view free-trade agreements as a positive, while 42% see them as negative. That level of support is essentially where it was early in the year and down slightly from mid-2015. The same poll found that TPP was supported by 40% and opposed by 35%, with the rest unfamiliar with the deal or not having an opinion.
There is also good reason to see that the economic case for trade is strong. While it creates winners and losers, the winning side is wider and deeper:Trade produces cheaper consumer products for struggling families. In most contexts, Americans would not support policies that make them pay more for something just to benefit a relative few. They certainly wouldn’t tolerate tariffs on imported oil to prop up domestic energy producers. So why should they be made to pay more for cars or clothes or building supplies? Trade produces competition that spawns innovation. Who could doubt that Detroit creates vastly better products now than it did in the 1970s, when imports were a relatively insignificant part of the domestic auto market? Trade produces export-related jobs. Many of the job losses blamed on trade deals are actually the result of technology that allows more goods to be manufactured with fewer workers. While it is true that trade and automation have been brutal on certain types of jobs, trade has had a brighter side as well. The United States exports $2.3 trillion in goods and services each year, producing 11.3 million jobs.
These export-related jobs tend to be higher skilled and better paying than the ones eliminated. Many of them are in high tech, pharmaceuticals and financial services. And, in fact, access to world markets has allowed companies such as Apple and Microsoft to become iconic global brands.
Exports have also come from some surprising areas. In 2014, for instance, Honda became the first Japanese car maker to become a net exporter from the USA.
Yes, more needs to be done to retrain displaced workers and offer them educational opportunities. But the remorselessly protectionist rhetoric on the campaign trail, including Trump's over-the-top attacks on NAFTA and Clinton's flip-flop on TPP, does not reflect economic reality. Robust trade helps an innovative, ambitious nation like the United States far more than it hurts.
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