With Trade Advocates Like These…

My colleague Dan Griswold salutes President Bush for ditching the traditional script and touting the broader benefits of trade in a speech yesterday in New York City. I would like to emphasize how rare, refreshing, and late-in-coming the President’s comments were.

One explanation for the growing resistance to trade liberalization in the United States is that the Bush administration’s “pro-trade” message has been weak, even self-defeating. Typically, when the President or members of his administration take to the podium, the message on trade is monothematic: exports are great and our trade agreements promote them.

The following is an excerpt from a speech the President gave at the headquarters of Caterpillar, Inc. in Peoria, Illinois on Tuesday:

Last year we exported a record $1.4 trillion worth of goods and services. Now, in order to export something, somebody has to make it. In other words, when I talk about numbers, behind the numbers is [sic] people who are providing the service and/or making the product. So the more one exports, the more likely it is people are going to be working.

Not once in the speech did the President allude to the benefits of imports, which are also important to Caterpillar, as sources of components and raw materials. Certainly, the mention of $1.4 trillion worth of exports in the context of the relationship between exports and jobs might invite the slightly curious to scratch their heads and wonder whether last year’s record $2.2 trillion worth of imports had an adverse impact on jobs.

Indeed, that is the central premise of many of trade’s opponents: exports create jobs, thus imports destroy them. By not mentioning that our record level of imports last year occurred alongside economic growth of 3.4 percent, the creation of 2 million net new jobs, and an unemployment rate that ended at a slim 4.5 percent, the President sacrificed an opportunity to drive home the point that imports do not undermine economic growth or job creation.

In fact, Dan Griswold has written extensively on the strong positive relationship between import growth and the growth of U.S. manufacturing output. (Here’s one of his offerings.) Basically, U.S. businesses account for about half of all U.S. imports. If you want to curtail imports, all we need is a handsome recession.

Now consider Exhibit 2. In response to the President’s announcement that he will seek extension of trade promotion authority, which expires at the end of June, U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab, yesterday, offered: 

The agreements enacted under TPA have helped us dramatically increase exports, which are likely to be an engine that drives the American economy to continued strong growth this year. U.S. exports to the 10 countries with which we implemented free trade agreements between 2001 and 2006 grew twice as fast as U.S. exports to the rest of world.

Okay, perhaps U.S. exports to those countries have increased faster. But is that all there is to tout?  What about the fact that we can purchase fresh grapes and blueberries, imported from Chile, in the middle of winter, at about the same price we purchase the same fruit from U.S. growers in the summertime?  (Just check the origin labels at your local grocer). By focusing exclusively on export potential, our trade advocates reinforce the myth that trade is exclusively a boon to business (“BIG BUSINESS,” of course), which comes at the expense of ordinary, “middle class” Americans.

Still, worse than the failure of policymakers supportive of trade to articulate its full benefits is when policymakers betray their own ignorance in a way that gives fodder to those counseling retreat from the global economy. Ways and Means Committee Ranking Member Jim McCrery (R-LA) claimed yesterday that “Our free trade agreements since TPA went into effect have reduced our trade deficit by $5.5 billion.”  I’m not sure how that was calculated or what exactly the figure represents, but presumably the comment is intended to demonstrate that trade agreements are good. I think it backfires.

If the exclusive purpose of trade policy is to promote exports, then it’s pretty easy for trade’s detractors to point to the massive and growing trade deficit and conclude we are losing grievously at trade. Our $800+ billion trade deficit is larger today than when TPA was enacted in 2002.  Using McCrery’s logic, trade is thus a menacing plague. I don’t know, maybe this is just a naïve thought but if you base the thrust of the case for trade on the export side, then the massive and growing trade deficit is all of a sudden an albatross around the necks of liberalizers. But the truth is that the trade account has virtually nothing to do with trade policy and efforts to somehow connect the two cannot serve a pro-trade agenda.

It’s no wonder we are having a national debate on the merits of trade, despite the overwhelming evidence of the relationship between greater openness and economic growth. Policymakers who claim to favor trade liberalization have been incapable or unwilling to articulate the complete and proper argument. That will have to change soon.