By almost any measure, Americans are near the top of the great wave of prosperity that has grown, with occasional setbacks, through the past half century. Consumer confidence surveys indicate that a strong majority currently appreciates that fact.
It's quite puzzling, then, that a growing minority of the US public is getting cold feet about further cutting down of barriers to free trade. Puzzling for two reasons:
1. The reduction of such barriers has played a major role in creating the nation's - and the world's - huge growth in prosperity.
2. Further negotiations on the trade front would benefit all parties, but likely would benefit US workers and consumers even more.
Eight rounds of global trade negotiations in the past four decades have cut average tariff trade barriers from 40 percent to just 6 percent. The last great global cut, the so-called Uruguay Round, is expected to give consumers worldwide between $100 billion and $200 billion per year in extra spending power. And American workers, on average, gain higher paying jobs that replace lower paying jobs.
So the job is done?
Not by a long shot. There are still high barriers (100-to-300 percent on some farm products) restraining American trade in the very sectors in which the US now excels - agriculture, service industries, computer hardware and software, biotech, entertainment, financial know-how.
But what about environmental and labor standards?
Answers need to be found separately. Holding down trade will do little to improve these areas in poor nations. In many cases cutting trade will prevent gains by limiting resources available to remedy problems. And lack of job creation abroad means more pressure from migrants wanting to come to America and Europe.
If low-paid workers stay home, won't we finally hear the "giant sucking sound" of US jobs going abroad?
No. Some older heavy manufacturing jobs will exit. But higher-paying jobs are being created faster than lower-paying ones disappear. Much US trade is with higher-wage Europe. Imports from lowest-wage lands amount to just 2.6 percent of total production.
Democratic House minority leader Richard Gephardt, leading the attack on President Clinton's push for renewed trade authority, says he stands for "future oriented, modern trade policy." That's like an ad for some "all new" cereal with less content.
American workers and consumers deserve better. They deserve a yes vote on the Clinton/GOP trade bill.