Making America isolated again

Will no one stand up for free trade?

Good luck to U.S. voters looking for a presidential contender who believes in free trade. Protectionist policies have come into fashion, and "globalization" is regarded as a dirty word by those seeking to be the country's next president. That's great for all those Smoot-Hawley fans out there who may have forgotten how 1930's trade restrictions worsened the Great Depression, but it's a sad state of affairs for those who still favor economic growth.

Take, for instance, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the pro-business group that usually backs Republican candidates as reliably as "Game of Thrones" kills major characters. Their attack this week on Donald J. Trump, the party's presumptive nominee, was sharp and unapologetic, calling his views on trade "flat out wrong." The chamber's beef? During a visit to the Ohio Valley on Tuesday, Mr. Trump called NAFTA the "worst trade deal in history," harshly criticized the U.S. trade agreement with South Korea and described the Trans-Pacific Partnership as a "death blow for American manufacturing."

That sort of rhetoric wouldn't be shocking coming from Sen. Bernie Sanders (or any number of Democrats, frankly), but it's bizarre to see the GOP's standard-bearer espousing such business unfriendly views as forcefully as this. Mr. Trump was skeptical of the TPP before last week's Brexit vote, of course, but as the Chamber of Commerce acknowledges, he now seems to be "doubling down" on protectionism.

"The Trans-Pacific Partnership is another disaster done and pushed by special interests who want to rape our country, just a continuing rape of our country," the New York billionaire and reality television star said during a stop in St. Clairsville, Ohio. "That's what it is, too. It's a harsh word. It's a rape of our country."

Inappropriate imagery aside, Mr. Trump's effort to move to the political left of the presumptive Democratic nominee, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on trade is not just a populist political tactic: It could prove disastrous for the very middle class workers he claims to be representing, raising unrealistic expectations of what any president can do about the global economy or worse, ensuring the next occupant of the White House will be scrapping rather than inking trade deals like the TPP which, incidentally, Secretary Clinton now says she opposes.

First, let's get the terminology straight. Globalization isn't new, it's just a term used these days to describe a process that is centuries old — the movement toward more integrated societies where people can travel, communicate, do business and trade more freely. Historically, the U.S. thrives when trade barriers are reduced. U.S. manufacturing has actually benefited overall from NAFTA, for instance, with sales to Canada and Mexico increasing 63 percent from 1993 to 2006 compared to 37 percent the 13 years before that. Meanwhile, U.S. consumers benefited from lower prices.

The shrinking middle class and growing income inequality within the United States aren't products of bad trade deals. The situation is more complicated than that and involves technology, tax policy, education and changing demographics. And while the loss of high-paying blue collar jobs is clearly a factor, the answer isn't to build a proverbial fence around livelihoods destined to go the way of buggy whip making — it's to increase U.S. competitiveness and productivity. Steelmaking and coal mining might have been big job producers a century ago, but it's far better for the U.S. to focus on technology, aerospace, advanced materials, medical technology, pollution controls, computer software, biotechnology and other sectors with high-growth potential. Under Armour may be working to bring manufacturing to Baltimore, but it's not talking about rooms full of low-skill workers with sewing machines. It's opening a facility with robots, 3D printers and workers in lab coats.

The outlook for the TPP is clearly bleak for this year — but with it could go the country's best chance of countering China's growing economic influence among Pacific nations. If the U.S. doesn't want these markets, China will be only too happy to do more business with countries that collectively represent about 40 percent of the global economy — an alliance that will carry negative implications not only for U.S. job growth but potentially for national security as well.

Perhaps Mr. Trump is just bloviating again, but words matter. Just ask Brexit voters who are just now coming to realize that the country's choice to leave the European Union may not be as easy — or beneficial — as they thought prior to casting their votes. So much for nationalism over rational trade policies. Trade isn't Ms. Clinton's strong suit, given her estrangement from the Obama administration on the TPP, but Mr. Trump now appears anxious to prove himself even worse.

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