from the New York Times
One of the unusual features of this very unusual election year is that both candidates have made major trade agreements an important issue in their campaigns. Donald Trump has been particularly vociferous on the matter, blaming trade for hollowing out the middle class and promising to rip up existing agreements with other countries. Though his talking points are nothing more than hot air, he has struck a chord with millions of angry voters.
Hostility to trade — even misdirected rage — should not be taken lightly. While trade is not the cause of all or even much of the wage stagnation or increased income inequality in the past several decades, there are real problems with trade agreements, as Hillary Clinton and her former rival Senator Bernie Sanders have pointed out.
Polls show that many Americans, especially Republicans, believe that trade has hurt the country. The Great Recession, from which many families have not recovered, is partly responsible for this belief, as is Mr. Trump’s rhetoric. In a March survey, the Pew Research Center found that 53 percent of Republicans said trade agreements with other countries were bad while 38 percent said they were good — a big switch from May 2015, when 53 percent of Republican voters thought trade pacts were good for the country. Democratic voters have been consistently more favorable: In March, 56 percent said trade agreements were good, a slight decrease from the previous May.
The United States trades with most countries under the rules of the World Trade Organization. It also has preferential deals with individual nations or groups of countries, like the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico, which go beyond tariffs and quotas and address issues like intellectual property rights.
Mr. Trump likes to blame these deals, and the World Trade Organization generally, for much of what is wrong with the economy. Mrs. Clinton has said she would review all trade deals, including Nafta. Both nominees are opposed to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which President Obama negotiated with 11 countries including Japan, Vietnam, Australia and Peru.
Trade generally benefits the economy, though there are winners and losers. Consumers benefit from cheaper clothes, electronics and other goods, while companies like Apple can sell more of their products overseas. But trade has hurt some factories and workers in the United States because they have not been able to compete with foreign businesses that enjoy lower-cost labor as well as subsidies and other benefits from their governments.
Even so, imports — including the surge from China — are not the only or even the most important cause of the loss of manufacturing jobs in America. Many economists believe that automation has had a much bigger impact. They point out that other industrialized countries like Germany and Japan have also lost manufacturing jobs even though they, unlike the United States, export more than they import. Between 1990 and 2014, the number of manufacturing jobs fell by 34 percent in Japan, 31 percent in the United States and 25 percent in Germany, according to an April report by the Congressional Research Service.
Mr. Trump’s proposals for increasing tariffs on Chinese goods or his threat to pull the country out of the World Trade Organization is unlikely to “bring back our jobs,” a favorite phrase of his. Such a policy would very likely cause other countries to retaliate by imposing tariffs on American exports, which would hurt American businesses and workers who produce those goods.
Though Mrs. Clinton opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership, She is not inclined to yank the United States out of the global economy. She says trade deals must meet the “high standards for creating good jobs, raising wages, and enhancing our national security.”
Mrs. Clinton has not offered details of what that would look like, but her approach would mean more assistance for workers affected by trade than Congress has been willing to offer, as well as negotiating provisions that would require other countries to improve their labor and environmental standards. She also wants other countries to agree not to depress the value of their currencies in an effort to boost their exports and says her administration would crack down on nations that engaged in such manipulation. It won’t be easy to get other world leaders to go along. And American businesses with big overseas operations might also resist her proposed changes.
Trade isn’t the main force destroying good jobs, but at the moment, it serves as an easy target for an electorate anxious about the economy and looking for answers.