By William Reinsch:
In the heat of the presidential trade debate, one irony seems to have escaped both participants and observers, and that is while trade may not be helping anybody here — which is highly debatable — it is incontestably helping millions of people elsewhere. “Between 1990 and 2010, their number [people in extreme poverty] fell by half as a share of the total population in developing countries, from 43% to 21% — a reduction of almost 1 billion people.” (The Economist, June 1, 2013). (Note I did not say free trade, just trade. Much of this improvement occurred in China, which turned to market-oriented policies during that period, but which can best be described as mercantilist rather than free trade).
Free or less than free, trade is an effective means of helping poor people out of poverty throughout the world, and it is certainly effective at keeping them that way. One would think we would be happy about this. Less hunger, better nutrition, less disease, people becoming consumers of more sophisticated products, some of them made in America. Arguably, less war. All good things. You would also think this sentiment would be particularly noticeable in our political left wing, which has a long history of speaking out on behalf of poor and oppressed peoples worldwide.
It is less surprising to see our far right conservatives uninterested in poor foreigners. Donald Trump is running on an “America First” platform — a disturbing phrase we first heard from isolationists in the 1930s. While that has been much criticized — rightly — for what it will do to America’s leadership role in the world, few words have been said about the economic harm it will cause poor people all over the world. There seems to be no expectation on the right that our policies are supposed to worry about that.
The left, on the other hand, is expected to worry about that, as it has done at least since the Vietnam War, if not before. Yet in the current debate that concern has been submerged. The focus has been entirely on either American jobs and wages or occasionally on our trade negotiators’ failure to improve foreigners’ lives by insisting on higher labor or human rights standards in our trade agreements, the latter a noble effort but one whose impact pales in comparison to the immediate impact increased trade would have on their lives.
This is disappointing but not surprising. Campaigns are about “us” not “them,” and individual voters can be counted on to think about “me” not “them” when they go to the polls. Even so, it is a sad commentary on us and on our country. America is the world’s leader because we do worry about other people, and we do make things like improved public health, nutrition, jobs and growth in other parts of the world part of our foreign policy. We did that after World War II when we helped the devastated nations of Europe, including Germany, as well as Japan rebuild and restore their economies, and we have continued to do it through foreign aid and humanitarian assistance as well as trade concessions through programs like the Generalized System of Preferences and the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act ever since. And it has been political progressives who have led the way on those programs, but they seem to have forgotten that in their focus on trade as the source of our domestic economic problems.
There is a moral question here — the extent to which a smaller number of people should take a hit so that a much larger number of people can improve their lives, but when all of the people taking the hit are here and all of the people improving their lives are foreigners it is easy to predict what the answer will be. And I am not arguing the answer right now should be any different than what we are seeing from our candidates, but it would be nice along the way to see some acknowledgement of the impact a negative trade policy will have directly on the rest of the world and indirectly on America’s image. It may well be that after this election we will need to make America great again, but it will be by restoring our image to counteract the damage done by our candidates.
William Reinsch is a Distinguished Fellow with the Stimson Center, where he works principally with the Center’s Trade21 initiative.