Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Will the real trade issues please stand up?

President Bush said Monday that a trade agreement with Colombia is "dead" unless House Democrats agree to hold a vote on the pact, effectively admitting defeat on a White House priority. The standoff over Colombia began last week, after Bush submitted the trade agreement to Congress and urged lawmakers to approve it within the normal deadline of 90 legislative days. The Democrat-controlled House then voted to postpone the decision indefinitely, saying the pact does not provide enough protections for workers. As projected, this has spiraled into a political issue rather than one made on economic intuition.

On economic grounds, there's no reason to reject the agreement. Colombia's exports already enter the U.S. market duty-free under the 1991 Andean Trade Preference Act. Meanwhile, many U.S. exports to Colombia face stiff tariffs -- up to 35 percent on autos, 15 percent on tractors and 10 percent on computers -- most of which would ultimately go to zero under the agreement.

Yet, it's politically convenient to oppose the trade agreement because the popular imagery is that trade destroys U.S. jobs. The loss of almost 4 million U.S. manufacturing jobs since 1998 seems easy to explain by cheap imports or the flight of plants to Mexico, China and other poorer countries.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Although this has occurred, job losses also stem from greater efficiency (fewer workers producing more goods) and slumping domestic demand (for communications equipment and computers after the dot-com bust and for housing materials and vehicles now). Nor has falling factory employment crippled overall U.S. job creation.

The fact of the matter is that trade has become a lightning rod for a myriad of grievances (job insecurity, wage inequality, eroding fringe benefits). But even if trade caused all the factory job loss, its impact is shifting. The dollar's dramatic depreciation (down an inflation-adjusted 20 percent since early 2003) has enhanced the competitiveness of U.S. exports. Export growth now represents a major source of job creation and economic expansion.

It is no longer necessary to rely on elegant theories of comparative advantage, more consumer choice or greater competition to favor open trade. Jobs and economic growth will suffice. Indeed, without export-led growth, the economy may face a sluggish future.

Even after the current economic slowdown ends, the outlook is worrisome. Consumers are heavily indebted. Housing will recover and reach previous highs, but probably not for several years. Government spending is constrained by growth in the rest of the economy, unless Congress sharply raises taxes or deficits. Exports and related investments are our best hopes. Let's hope we don't shoot our other foot by constraining part of the current economic solution.

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