U.S. Economic Misery — or Delusion?

Opponents of trade liberalization are painting themselves into a corner. They repeat endlessly that rising imports and trade deficits are bad for the U.S. economy and American workers. Imports and the trade deficits they fuel supposedly reduce U.S. employment and wages and impoverish American households as we borrow more and more and sell off the family jewels to support consumption. And since imports and trade deficits keep expanding, our economy must be getting worse, right?

Wrong. This morning the Labor Department reported that the U.S. unemployment rate fell again last month, to 4.5 percent, which must be full employment by anybody’s definition. Almost 100,000 net jobs were added in February, despite cold weather that crimped construction. Those job gains come on top of a revised net gain of 372,000 jobs in December and January, bringing net employment growth in the past four years to 6.5 million. Today’s report also confirms that real wages continue to rise for American workers.

Adding to the favorable picture, the Federal Reserve Board reported yesterday that the net household wealth of American families in the last quarter of 2006 reached a record $55.6 trillion. And that is net wealth: what we own after subtracting mortgage, consumer and other debts. Our net wealth is up 43 percent in the past four years, driven by increases not only in home values but also stock prices.

Granted, our infinitely complex, $13.5 trillion economy will have its ups and downs, but the current reality simply does not square with the politically tainted picture of economic misery and hopelessness being portrayed by certain critics of trade.