Are Fair Trade Policies “Extreme?” Is Clinton Ready For Trump On Trade?

Dave Johnson

Is it really “extreme” to think we should have fair trade policies?

The New York Times on Tuesday published a story by Nelson D. Schwartz and Quoctrung Bui, “Where Jobs Are Squeezed by Chinese Trade, Voters Seek Extremes,” reporting that, “research to be unveiled this week by four leading academic economists suggests that the damage to manufacturing jobs from a sharp acceleration in globalization since the turn of the century has contributed heavily to the nation’s bitter political divide.”

By “sharp acceleration in globalization since the turn of the century” they mean millions and millions of manufacturing jobs, and more than 60,000 factories, all moved to China since 2000 to take advantage of China’s non-democracy that allows exploitation of workers and the environment. (But China doesn’t really “trade” with us by buying things, resulting in a record $365.7 billion trade deficit with China just last year.)

They go on:

Cross-referencing congressional voting records and district-by-district patterns of job losses and other economic trends between 2002 and 2010, the researchers found that areas hardest hit by trade shocks were much more likely to move to the far right or the far left politically.

“It’s not about incumbents changing their positions,” said David Autor, an influential scholar of labor economics and trade at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and one of the paper’s authors. “It’s about the replacement of moderates with more ideological successors.”

Mr. Autor added: “In retrospect, whether it’s Trump or Sanders, we should have seen in it coming. The China shock isn’t the sole factor, but it is something of a missing link.”

So Sanders, who basically advocates returning to policies that are not even as “left” as those that were dominant in the Eisenhower era, is now considered by these reporters to be “extreme” and “the far left”? In some minds, apparently, the answer is yes.

There’s Trade And Then There’s “Trade”

There is trade and then there’s “trade.” Trade is the exchange of goods and services across borders. People who live in certain climates and can grow bananas can also have cars, and people who make cars can have bananas. Both sides benefit – as long as the value of the banana going one way and the value of cars going the other way line up. In other words, with actual trade we buy things from other countries and they buy things from us.

In our country’s current trade regime, however, “trade” is used as a justification and enabler for closing American factories and moving American jobs to places where people are paid less and the environment is not protected, and bringing the same goods that used to be made here back here and selling them in the same outlets. The people who used to employ those American workers can then pocket the wage and environmental-protection-cost differential; the country gets a massive trade deficit.

The Times article quotes corporate economists who, “like most economists,” explain that “we all” benefit because “lower prices” result when things are made somewhere else by people who are paid almost nothing. (Apparently moving our jobs out of the country is good for us.) It does not address the inequality and economywide worker wage stagnation that has resulted from these policies. It ignores that our country has had enormous, humongous trade deficits every single year since “free trade” ideology became dominant in elite thinking. Oh well.

This is the reason for the disconnect in American thinking about trade. Elites tell us “free trade” is good but voters can see and feel that what this country has actually been doing has been bad for them. Americans like the idea of actual trade, but they hate our country’s trade deals. They are rational; they see that the “trade” deals have really been about moving jobs to benefit corporate elites and they see and feel the terrible results of this all around them.

What About Clinton?

Note that the story specifically names Sanders as on the “far left,” while candidate Hillary Clinton also claims to oppose the trade deals that shipped jobs and the upcoming Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), also claims to be as “progressive” as Sanders, and has taken many of the same positions on most issues as Sanders. The reporters apparently simply do not believe her. There’s that old credibility problem cropping up in the strangest places.

This exposes what will likely be one of Clinton’s biggest problems in the coming election if she and Trump are the nominees. As the Times story notes, Trump has built his campaign partly on a popular and resonating message about how our trade deals have hurt the country. Clinton says she opposes TPP and other bad trade deals, but no one believes her.

This election will be at least partly, if not mostly, about trade. The consequences of decades of moving jobs out of the country are coming home to roost. People are fed up. This means Clinton needs to toughen up her trade policies – and mean it. She should start by calling on President Obama not to submit TPP to Congress, The public gets it, Clinton better get it, too.

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