U.S. public still offers support for free trade

Miami Herald Editorial Board

President Obama met last year with a host of former U.S. officials including Henry Kissinger, to seek support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.
President Obama met last year with a host of former U.S. officials including Henry Kissinger, to seek support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. AP

Looking for some cheerful news in a truth-challenged political season, we found a nugget of encouragement: Despite all the negative rhetoric and bad-mouthing about free trade, the American public still has a surprisingly positive attitude toward globalization.

Americans like free trade, according to a survey by the Chicago Global Affairs Council. The finding is welcome, yet unexpected.

Sen. Bernie Sanders made his opposition to the pending free trade deal between the United States and 11 other nations on both sides of the Pacific the focus of his strong race for the Democratic nomination for president. Likewise, Donald Trump has been vocal — is he ever otherwise? — in his condemnation of free trade pacts, and Hillary Clinton, once a supporter of the deal, has now backed away in the face of grassroots opposition from unions and others in her party.

And yet the public seems to understand the basic fact about free trade agreements: Globalization is an unstoppable force, a reality that must be dealt with. U.S. participation in these treaties is the best way to protect and promote American economic interests abroad.

Are they perfect? Hardly. Any complicated compact that purports to govern the economic relationship among multiple trade partners will likely contain provisions that could stand considerable improvement. But to condemn all the agreements like the pending Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) because they’re not perfect is to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

The TPP, in particular, is necessary to maintain America’s position in the Far East. It is not, as some have said, an economic weapon to be wielded against China, but rather a tool of American economic power that can unite this country and its regional allies to maintain stability in that part of the world.

It will not “stop” China — that was never its intent — but it can bolster U.S. diplomacy. It contains improved environmental and worker protections, as well as provisions for U.S. allies to accept American standards for trade and investment. It requires substantial economic reforms for some countries without changing existing U.S. policies.

There are legitimate reasons for American workers to resent trade pacts. Growing trade can hurt some members of the U.S. labor force, and globalization has definitely had mixed results within the economy at home.

But protectionism — raising tariffs, as Mr. Trump has suggested — is a counter-productive strategy. Building a wall against foreign markets where 90-plus percent of the world lives hurts us as much as it hurts our competitors, if not more.

That’s not the way to help American workers because the transformation in the world economy that involves more automation, globalized markets, and shifts in manufacturing, will take place regardless.

More training for displaced workers, a stronger safety net for workers who lose their jobs for any reason, and higher wages across the board will ultimately help everyone who contributes to the economy much more than withdrawing from the world.

In South Florida, where trade with other countries is a major driver of the economy, capital improvements of more than $1 billion are complete at PortMiami. The port contributes $28 billion annually to the local economy and supports more than 207,000 jobs. Each of them is one more reason to support U.S. participation in free trade.