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Opinion

Cost of US 'free' trade: collapse of two centuries of broadly shared prosperity

A reckless free-trade policy is destroying America's jobs machine. We must return to a policy of strategic, not unconditional, economic openness.

By Ian Fletcher / April 1, 2011



San Francisco

It’s time to face a brutal truth about the American economy: Even if rising gas and food prices don’t hasten a double-dip recession, our 200-year tradition of broadly shared prosperity is over.

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That’s because the great American job machine has been destroyed by a reckless free-trade policy.

Since the end of the cold war, and accelerating after NAFTA in 1994, Washington has pursued a globalized economy made possible by ever-expanding “free” trade agreements. This policy is a major factor in America’s increasing inequality, our rising indebtedness, community abandonment, and the weakening of the industrial sinews of our national security.

About to crumble

The good news is that this global order of free trade is about to crumble – within the next 10 years at most. The unsustainable American trade deficit alone makes this a near-certainty.

For now, though, America’s economy continues to struggle because our trade deficit – fluctuating around $500 billion a year for a decade now – acts as a giant “reverse stimulus." It causes a huge slice of domestic demand to flow not into domestic jobs but foreign wages.

Our trade deficit helps Guangdong, Seoul, Yokohama, even Munich – but not Gary, Indiana, Fontana, California, and the other badlands of America’s industrial decline. Washington’s response? Yet more stimulus, leading to an ever-increasing overhang of debt, both foreign and domestic, the cost of whose servicing then exerts its own drag on recovery.

Despite the 216,000 jobs added last month, the American economy has, in fact, entirely lost the ability to create jobs in tradable sectors. This cheery fact comes straight from the Commerce Department. All our net new jobs are in nontradable services: a few heart surgeons and a legion of busboys and security guards, most of them without health insurance or retirement benefits.

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