I’m occasionally asked, “If the case for free trade is so solid, why don’t more people agree with it?” One reason is that it is so much easier to demagogue international trade than it is to explain it.
For example, consider a column posted this morning by Phyllis Schlafly, president of the Eagle Forum. Mrs. Schlafly is a social conservative known mostly for her opposition to abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment, but she also speaks out frequently against immigration and free trade.
In today’s column, titled “The Price Of Imported Food Is Too High,” she takes aim at trade with China, and in particular trade in agricultural goods.
The Clinton Administration conned American farmers into being the principal lobbyists in 2000 for passage of PNTR (Permanent Normal Trade Relations) for Communist China, which gave Chinese goods unconditional access to U.S. markets.
Bill Clinton promised in his State of the Union address that PNTR for China would be a win-win for American agriculture because "this agreement will open China's market to us." His Department of Agriculture predicted that the average annual value of U.S. agricultural exports to China would increase by $1.5 billion.
Globalization turned out to be a cheat. Department of Commerce figures show that U.S. wheat exports to China are less today than before PNTR was passed.
Consider the facts on U.S. farm exports to China. Since 2001, when we made normal trade relations with China permanent, U.S. agricultural exports to China have grown from $2.1 billion to $7.2 billion--an increase of more than $5 billion. Our export of soybeans alone has increased by $1.5 billion, raw cotton by almost $2 billion. Wheat exports, in contrast, make up a small and declining share of our total agricultural sales to China.
Mrs. Schlafly goes on to rail against tainted pet food recently imported form China. “Maybe China's poisoning of our pets will be one offense too many to tolerate,” she concludes.
Food safety is not primarily a problem of imports. Americans have been poisoned recently by meat from Nebraska and spinach from California. The answer is better safety inspections for domestic and imported food alike, not higher tariffs on imports. If we tax imported food, we would merely drive up food costs for American families, especially those on tight budgets who spend a higher share of their income on food.
It’s regrettable that an organization dedicated to upholding moral and family values would put out such misleading material in effect arguing for higher food costs for millions of American families.