Why Bush's Trade Agenda Is Going Nowhere

Broadcast November 8, 2001

The trade talks starting this weekend are a side show to the main trade event. That's a bill that the White House has been pushing to give the president what's now dubbed "trade promotion authority." It would allow Congress to vote yes or no on any new trade treaty, but not change the terms. That's the only way other countries will be willing to sign trade deals with us.

Yet despite a lot of flag-waving and upbeat talk from the White House about getting trade promotional authority from Congress, the bill is going nowhere. The White House just doesn't have the votes to pass it, even in a Republican-controlled House and even with the backing of the most popular president in recent history.

Why? Put simply, because Americans don't want more free trade. If polls are to be believed, a bare majority of Americans fear that more free trade will threaten their jobs. Last week's gloomy unemployment report showing 439,000 private sector jobs lost last month, the largest monthly decline in more than a quarter century, doesn't exactly help. Since last March, private sector employment has fallen by 1.2 million.

Now trade wasn't responsible for these losses, and trade isn't even the main reason why manufacturing jobs have been disappearing for years now. Technology is probably a bigger culprit. Walk into any factory today, and you see a lot of robots and numerically controlled machine tools and fewer and fewer real people. In addition to that, we're mostly a service economy now.

But trade is an easy target, especially now that unemployment is on the rise. Americans who lose their jobs or feel in danger of losing their jobs see factories going up abroad and figure that's the reason. The march of technology is pretty much invisible, but photos of Mexicans or East Asians producing cars or dishwashers send a clear message, and that's one that a lot of Americans don't want to get.

The political reality is there's no way to get broad public support for free trade unless people feel more secure. Not that they'll always have their current job, but that if they lose their current job, they won't be left out in the cold. In other words, it's not possible to separate trade policy from social policy. If the White House is serious about getting trade promotion authority from Congress, it needs to throw its weight behind things like expanded unemployment insurance, health coverage for job losers, and training--programs that cushion the blow of economic change.

But don't hold your breath.

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