Focusing on trade

It’s likely that if the awful events of September 11, 2001, hadn’t happened, the biggest issues of the upcoming US presidential campaign would be jobs, trade and foreign competition. Other concerns have pushed these issues to the side, but that doesn’t make them any less important to millions of Americans.

I suppose that worrying about Americans losing relatively decent-paying manufacturing jobs is enough to get me labeled in some circles as a hopeless nativist, protectionist, anti-globalist– choose your favorite epithet. Still, I plead guilty to worrying. And I’m pleased that Dick Gephardt has put this issue at the center of his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

President Bush’s main response so far to unfair competition was a recently-rescinded tariff on imported steel– exactly the sort of thing those troglodyte Democrats are supposed to do. It may have provided some relief to US steelmakers, but it hardly dealt with the underlying problem. Gephardt, on the other hand, has offered some ideas on how to promote economic growth and improved living and working standards in poorer parts of the world that don’t come at the expense of workers in developed countries. He advocates an international minimum wage— which obviously would not be the same for each country. He argues that minimum labor and environomental standards should be written into trade agreements. And why not? Why should countries which suppress the right of their workers to organize free trade unions– China comes to mind– have the same access to our markets as countries which protect the right to organize?

It’s not just old-fashioned industrial jobs that are disappearing or relocating to cheaper climes. It’s high-tech jobs moving to Bangalore and call-center jobs going to New Dehli. This is fine for the Indians who fill these jobs– at least until another country can provide skilled workers at an even lower rate. But what about the Americans who have bought in to the high-tech promise, who learn the latest in-demand skills, only to find that equally-skilled people on the other side of the world are able to perform the same tasks for a fraction of the salary?

Gephardt doesn’t have all the answers. Believe it or not, even I don’t. But I suspect that devotees of free trade, free markets and “creative destruction” don’t either.