As campaigning for the midterm elections winds down, many Americans may ask if something was missed among issues that so dominated the national debate, such as Iraq. One issue too often overlooked but close to home is how to help US workers adjust to tough global competition in wages and goods.
Even in the few campaigns for Congress that featured free trade, candidates usually debated how to prevent it, not how to adjust to it.
In Ohio, where more than 200,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost since 2001, Sherrod Brown, Democratic candidate for the Senate, hammered free trade. As a member of the US House, he led an effort in trying to block new trade pacts. If he wins this key state in America's industrial heartland, it will be one more signal of growing exhaustion over the effects of expanded open markets.
That exhaustion may be worldwide. After decades of success in negotiating open-trade pacts, many nations are resisting more such deals. This was reflected in last July's collapse of global trade talks (known as the Doha round). Negotiations fell apart mainly over reduction of tariffs and subsidies in agriculture.
In the US, however, much of the frustration lies in globalization's contribution to job losses in certain industries and in wage stagnation. Many candidates did address ways to create new jobs in fields where the US is strong. But anti-free-trade sentiments were also heard. Mr. Brown echoed sentiments in several campaigns by stating: "Companies are rewarded for sending good-paying jobs overseas and replacing them with low-wage service positions."
Indeed, rewards are huge for workers and stockholders in US companies that do learn to play the global economic markets. But the trade debate should not be about economic nationalism that might ignite global protectionism and hurt competent players. Rather, Congress must focus on better supporting and reeducating workers who have been sidelined – or may be sidelined – by global competition.
"Fair trade" should mean helping workers in jeopardy by fairly offering them opportunities to raise skills and try new fields. Assistance with career transitions, which can be so difficult, should be speedy. Limited government programs that exist now to do that in certain industries are far too restrictive and underfunded.
Too often, candidates focused on broad and crude ways to deal with the burdens of free trade. The usual response from Republicans is simply to push for faster economic and job growth through tax cuts. Democrats mainly pin hopes on raising the minimum wage. While both have merits and potential pitfalls, neither is a direct leg up for workers in need of a career shift because of globalization.
The next Congress should reaffirm a long US commitment to market openings – which have created more winners than losers. It should renew the president's authority to negotiate trade deals, which expires in June, and then make sure the benefits of free trade are used to assist workers hurt by foreign competition to find new ways to retool themselves.
If more nations did this, the stalled global trade talks could easily move along.