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Let the trade debate begin

We live in an age of near-instantaneous information in which the noise of mayhem on a city street can echo around the globe before the first responders arrive on the scene. Combine this with special interest politics and modern brass-knuckle partisanship and there is a danger many Americans expect complex events and important policy decisions to be just as quickly distilled into good or bad, right or wrong, for or against.

Such was the case with the Iran nuclear agreement and so might happen again this week with Monday's announcement that negotiators for the U.S. and 11 other Pacific Rim countries have finalized the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership, a pact that could lower trade barriers involving 40 percent of the world's economy.

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That average Americans might be inclined to pass judgment in a matter of hours on what took negotiators eight years of talks to assemble is, in a word, nonsensical. It will take time to explore the agreement's full 30 chapters, copies of which won't be available for weeks yet. And we will certainly reserve final judgment until more is known, good and bad, about its details.

Yet already, one can see the opposition lining up and practicing their outrage. Industries that may lose special protections, unions that fear losing clout, Republicans who are inclined to be vehemently against anything President Barack Obama is for (especially those running to succeed him) and Democrats anxious to stand up for traditional progressive allies including organized labor and environmentalists.

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Billionaire Donald Trump has already loudly criticized it (that he knows little of what it contains is pretty much par for that particular course), but so has Democratic contender and liberal darling Sen. Bernie Sanders who is talking about the pact as a triumph for big business and Wall Street and a loss for workers. "I am disappointed but not surprised by the decision to move forward on the disastrous Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement that will hurt consumers and cost American jobs," Senator Sanders said in a statement released Monday morning.

No doubt there are winners and losers. Every trade deal has them. It is the nature of such agreements. Just as the Iran nuclear agreement required making concessions to a hostile regime, the U.S. can't expect to lower trade barriers to U.S. goods without doing the same for its partners. It's far more important to look at the agreement as a whole, the benefits and the concessions, and then ask, what would be the impact of the TPP on the U.S., particularly the domestic economy, and what would potentially rejecting it mean for the growing influence of China in the region?

Here's our bias: All things being equal, we favor lowering trade barriers and creating new, high-paying jobs whenever possible. Baltimore is a city built on international shipping with a port that remains at the top of U.S. coal, waste paper, automobile and truck exports ($12.2 billion overall) as well as the import of motor vehicles, farm and construction machinery, petroleum products, gypsum, fertilizer and wood pulp. More than 100,000 jobs are connected to the Port of Baltimore, including $3 billion in annual wages and salary. The expansion of the Panama Canal (due to be completed next year) is expected to provide a big boost as the port has already created facilities to accommodate larger vessels going to or from the Pacific.

Even so, it's also important to hear from all those individuals and communities who might be affected adversely. Just please spare us the suggestion that every concession — lowering the U.S. tariffs on imported Japanese automobiles, for instance — is a triumph of "big business" over average Americans, ignoring the importance of lowering trade barriers to U.S. goods exported overseas and the new jobs created by that demand as well as the benefits to American consumers of less costly automobiles. All these things are part of the same equation. And let the Pacific accord be judged on its merits, not on whether it helps or hurts a certain party of politician; that's the worst yardstick with which to measure a trade pact.

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There is an urgency here. The U.S. is in danger of losing ground in Asia-Pacific if it fails to embrace strong, enforceable trade rules and countries in the region turn elsewhere for their goods while still denying U.S. technology companies basic rights like intellectual property protection. That Congress granted "fast track" trade promotion authority earlier this year ensures only that the matter will not be subject to filibuster or amendment, essentially coming down to a yes or no vote — the outcome of which? Well, that's far too early to predict as well.

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