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.

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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.

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.

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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.

These are dead-end jobs, and our economy as a whole is being similarly squeezed into dead-end industries. The green jobs of the future? Gone to places like China, where governments bid sweeter subsidies than Massachusetts can afford. Nanotechnology? Perhaps the first major technology in a century where America is not the leading innovator. Foreign subsidies are illegal under WTO rules, but no matter: Who’s going to enforce them when corporate America is happily lapping at their very trough?

Part of the problem is that today’s free-trade order is in reality a curious mixture of genuinely free trade practiced by the United States and a few others with the technocratic mercantilism of surging East Asia and Germanic-Scandinavian Europe.

It wasn’t always like this.

A history of protection

From 1790 to 1945, America grew and prospered in a largely protected economic environment. Our trade then was not “free.” But after World War II, we wandered away from Alexander Hamilton’s vision of a relatively self-contained American economy in order to win the cold war. We threw our markets open to the world as a bribe not to go communist. If we fail to return to a policy of strategic, not unconditional, economic openness, we may lose the next cold war – to a Confucian authoritarianism no less opposed to the idea of a free society than Marxism, and considerably more efficient.

There is an appropriate policy response. For starters, the US should apply compensatory tariffs against imports subsidized by currency manipulation, an idea that originated with Kevin Kearns of the US Business and Industry Council and was recently passed by the House of Representatives. Also essential is a border tax to counter foreign export rebates implemented by means of foreign value-added taxes.

The fundamental reality of free trade is that it relieves corporate America from any substantial tie to the economic well-being of ordinary Americans. If corporate America can produce its products anywhere, and sell them anywhere, then it has no incentive to care about the capacity of Americans to produce or consume. Conversely, if it is tied to making a profit by selling goods made by Americans to Americans, then it has a natural incentive to care about American productivity and consumption.

Productivity and consumption are prosperity. The rest is details.

Ian Fletcher is senior economist at the Coalition for a Prosperous America, and the author of "Free Trade Doesn't Work."

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