Dumbing Down Trade to Make it Saleable

There is no doubt that Americans have soured on trade. And I’m willing to concede that trade’s opponents have made good use of anecdotes and symbols and catchphrases to compensate for the scarcity of facts and logic in support of their views. But this report in The Hill is really disappointing to me, and presumably would be to all others who understand trade and its benefits without the efforts to candy coat them.

Reportedly, the Chamber of Commerce commissioned a survey to gauge attitudes and reactions to certain terminology and arguments for and against trade. Surveys were conducted in six cities earlier this year by a company called Presentation Testing. The purpose was, ultimately, to come up with a refined message to improve the appeal of trade advocacy and to determine which words to emphasize and which to avoid. I sincerely hope the Chamber didn’t break the bank on this project because the recommendations are feeble, if not downright laughable. Here are some of the findings.

Instead of referring to “globalization,” it is better to use the term “international trade” because of the pernicious connotations of exploitation and cheap goods associated with the former. (This may be the most useful point from the survey, although I’m not convinced we should just concede the false impressions).

Trade advocates should stress how trade deals “level the playing field.” (Why does that phrase sound familiar, you ask? Because protectionists have already trademarked it. Nary a politician speaks of his support for trade without the disclaimer that it be fair trade and that the playing field be level. When Americans hear “level playing field,” they think lousy, cheating foreigners. This is very bad advice.)

Whoops, I shouldn’t have used the term “protectionists,” above. The survey found that “protecting something sounds positive,” and therefore one should never speak ill of “protectionists.”

“Our trading partners should treat us as fairly as we treat them” was deemed a “home run statement” by the company that took the Chamber’s money. Again, this statement resides on page one of the modern “isolationists’” handbook. (Apparently, isolation is not as warm and fuzzy as protection, according to the survey results.)

“With fears of losing health insurance paramount in workers’ minds, it’s critical that you mention you have a plan for them to hold on to it if they lose their jobs,” the document suggests. What plan? Is there a plan? Should we just lie? Would reassurances that workers can keep their health coverage – while reinforcing fears that they’ll lose their jobs – suddenly attract their support for trade? How about reminding them that trade is way down the list of reasons why people lose jobs, for starters?

Here’s one of my favorite pieces of advice (justifying the price tag of the study all by itself, no doubt): When advocating the U.S.-Korea free trade agreement, “You must distinguish South Korea from North Korea.” Yet, making the argument to a Democrat that a trade agreement with Colombia would show support for a crucial ally in a region prone to anti-Americanism would be ill-advised because Democrats “just don’t believe it – and most people know nothing about [Hugo] Chavez (and therefore don’t care about Venezuela.)” Are the survey consultants pretty sure, then, that Democrats know that South Korea is the good guy and North Korea the bad guy?

Look, my trade center colleagues and I have noted the many occasions in which we marshal the facts, make the arguments, and hope to convince the audience of the propriety of free trade only to have our opponents battle back by telling a emotional story about a worker who lost his job, then his wife got sick, and his dog ran away.

People seem to prefer stories to the facts. As trade advocates, we need to have better anecdotes, pithy catchphrases and resonant symbols to complement our winning facts and logic. Suffice it to say this latest consulting survey won’t end the search.