President Obama Fails to Understand Trade

At the beginning of the Obama administration, I had the audacity to hope that the new president would defy conventional wisdom and become a proponent of trade and a good spokesman for its benefits. Scott Lincicome and I even wrote a 20,000-plus word Cato analysis explaining why the economic, geopolitical, and domestic political environment offered the president a unique opportunity to steer his party back to its pro-trade roots.

The thrust of our analysis was that, despite the campaign rhetoric, the president understood the economic benefits of trade and that he would see it as an escape route from recession and a path to political success; that the president’s visibility and new cache with his trade-skeptical political party—and the fact that he wasn’t George W. Bush—made him well-suited to the task of challenging and extinguishing lingering myths about the alleged ravages of trade, while explaining its many benefits; and, that the president would recognize that pro-trade policies should be part of the current Democratic Party platform, if for no other reason than the fact that restrictions governments place on trade harm lower-income Americans and the world’s poor more than they hurt anyone else. (Protectionism is regressive taxation, which is presumably anathema to Democratic Party creed.)

Alas, our study, “Audaciously Hopeful: How President Obama Can Restore the Pro-Trade Consensus,” was just a little too. It fell on deaf ears. It was ignored. In fact, it’s almost as if the past two years of trade policy were conducted to spite the recommendations in that paper.

From this administration, we’ve seen completed bilateral trade agreements sent to an off-site storage warehouse; the imposition of taxes on imported tires; “Buy American” provisions; prohibitions on Mexican trucks; demonization by the president of companies that outsource; defiance of multilateral rules governing use of the antidumping law; and, a “Boardwalk Empire”-style deal to prospectively compensate Brazilian farmers for the lower revenues they should expect on account of the lavish subsidies bestowed by U.S. taxpayers on U.S. cotton producers in lieu of reducing—or better still, halting—cotton subsidies altogether. Yes, the hallmark accomplishment of this administration’s trade policy so far is a deal that requires American taxpayers to subsidize Brazilian cotton producers for the right to continue subsidizing U.S. cotton producers.

Despite all that, I remained audacious (or gullible) enough to hold a glimmer of hope that the president would finally see the wisdom in our advice—given the new political landscape.  That glimmer was snuffed out with publication of an oped in the New York Times this past Saturday, in which President Obama betrays profound misunderstanding of trade and its purpose.  The president portrays trade as an enterprise that is won or lost at the negotiating table, where only the most savvy or most committed negotiators can succeed in bringing home the spoils.  The president promises to fight hard to get Americans their fair shake from this dog-eat-dog process, while actual producers, consumers, workers, and investors are relegated to tertiary roles.

The central dysfunction between Americans and trade is the assumption—reinforced in the president’s op-ed—that exports are good, imports are bad, the trade account is the scoreboard, and our trade deficit means that we are losing at trade. That dysfunction resides comfortably within a zero-sum worldview, which the president touts in a purposeful cadence throughout the oped. In the penultimate sentence, the president writes:

Finally, at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Japan, I will continue seeking new markets in Asia for American exports. We want to expand our trade relationships in the region, including through the Trans-Pacific Partnership, to make sure that we’re not ceding markets, exports and the jobs they support to other nations.

By opining about trade without understanding that its real benefits are manifest in imports (here’s Don Boudreax’s elaboration of that process), the president is simply reinforcing myths that will continue to confuse and divide American.  As long as politicians insist that our trade account is a scoreboard and that a surplus is a trade policy success metric, Americans will continue to be skeptical about trade.