Trade Policy’s PR Problem

I’m not sure when international trade got such a bad rap.  Maybe it was Lou Dobbs’ inaugural appearance on cable news?  Or was it when our favorite anti-trade Congressman from Ohio – Sherrod Brown - joined the Senate in 2006?  Or maybe it happened when Wal-mart started crushing sales of cheap imports across the country?  Whatever it was, trade has become the scapegoat for much that people believe is ‘wrong’ with our economy.  In fact, according to a survey commissioned by a think tank in 2007, 57% of Americans believe that free trade costs more jobs than it creates.  People are rightfully concerned about U.S. jobs going overseas to developing countries like India and China, which has intensified long-standing fears about the effects of trade.  But we need to remember that jobs created through the production of U.S. exports often offset the jobs being lost to imports and imports also allow us to buy goods more cheaply than we otherwise could.  And we ALL know how much Americans rely on imports (um, hello? Can you say Ikea?  How about Target?  Walmart?).  Trade improves standard of living by providing Americans with lower cost goods and developing countries with a chance to put their skills and their people to work.   

In a recent New York Times Editorial, the author went so far as to say that “Trade will play an important role in the world’s eventual recovery, transmitting economic growth from one country to the next.”  So, if trade could ultimately become a ticket out of this economic mess, why has it become such a despised policy?  Why do thousands of people protest on the streets of Seattle or Doha during the WTO ministerial?  How do the workers on the factory floors of Caterpillar or John Deere not understand that the health and security of their jobs are directly affected by the shipment of machinery to Columbia or Chile?  And how does a nation that has literally been built on free trade, open borders and two-way commerce not understand how terribly damaging the current shift toward protectionist policies could be?  It’s simple….Bad PR.   

Those on the winning side of the argument, such as the unions, have done a much better job of telling their story.  Theirs is a story of job-loss, disappearing health care and destroyed lives, and one that resonates with everyday people.  And it should.  But the actual story about everyday Americans emerging from this recession through a robust trade policy that creates jobs and a higher standard of living should also resonate.  So, next time you hear Lou Dobbs spouting off some populist garbage, go ahead and turn off that beautiful flat-screen that you purchased at Best Buy, put on your Jimmy Choo’s and your Chanel shades, get in your Acura SUV, pick up some Chilean apples, some Italian wine and some French cheese and do a little research into how trade impacts you.  You might actually be surprised by what you find.   

- Contributed by Sarah Ellis.  Follow her @sakerellis