Freer Trade

Published on: 12:09PM May 11, 2015

Congress is in the process of vigorously debating legislation to increase trade between the u-s and various regions of the world. The arguments are intense and repetitive of disputes that have embroiled our nation for its entire history.

Last Sunday, Greg Mankiw, a staunchly conservative Harvard economist, wrote an op-ed that pointed out more open trade was one of very few things that economists almost universally agree on. He also mentioned this chorus of approval didn’t seem to carry much weight.

Efforts to open up trade are clearly good for the nation as a whole, but always involve some sectors being exposed to more efficient competition from abroad, even though our strong industries benefit more. One good example is sugar production. If we were to have truly free trade in sugar, I doubt much would be grown in the u-s. Too many countries, like Brazil and Australia, simply can grow it much more cheaply.

But I have had earnest emails pointing out that my support for freer trade would mean an end to a way of life for thousands of beet growers, for example. Why am I attacking fellow farmers, these messages ask. There is no happy response to this.

One cynical answer is because I didn’t get rewards from the trade restrictions like those producers have. In fact, like all U.S. consumers I pay more for sugar as a result. Why should I go to bat for them? Just like the repeal of a tax break is not a new tax burden, the end of a good deal is not a punishment - it’s the restoration of equal treatment.

There is also a well-founded fear that when my inefficient industry collapses from global competition, my skills won’t qualify me for the other jobs in winning industries. This is a real problem, so i support government programs to help workers and industries adjust to the new facts of business.

All good deals can come to an end if they are dependent on the whims of elected officials. Remember tobacco?  The bottom line for me is freer trade looks a slow grind forward, but I think it will happen, and affect all our lives.