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September 15, 2008

Obama Advisor on What's So Cool About Free Trade

(Disclosure: Global Trade Watch has no preference among the candidates.)

Obama campaign staffer Jason Furman has a piece out in the Harvard Law & Policy Review that touches on trade. (It came out in the summer edition, but I just saw it.) You may remember the decision to hire Furman caused a bit of a stink a few months ago. Here's what he and co-author Jason Bordoff, in a piece mostly about tax policy, have to sez:

The Growing Protectionist Backlash

The U.S. economy has become increasingly integrated with the rest of the world over the past twenty years, due to advances in technology and transportation. The result has been greater flows across borders of goods, services, capital, people, and ideas. In 2007, the sum of exports and imports amounted to 29% of GDP, up from 19% in 1979.

Concomitant with this rise in global economic integration in recent years has been a protectionist drift among Americans and their representatives. Trade deals have stalled in Congress, most notably one with South Korea, and Congress allowed the President’s trade promotion authority to expire last summer. Voters, meanwhile, are becoming more skeptical of the benefits of trade. According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, the share of Americans who believe that trade is good for their country has plunged from 78% in 2002 to 59% in 2007, the lowest proportion among the forty-seven countries included in the survey. This concern is not limited to Democrats: a Wall Street Journal poll in the fall of 2007 found that Republican voters were skeptical of free trade by an almost two-to-one margin (59% versus 32%).

Beyond free trade, protectionist sentiment is likely to be fueled further by increased foreign direct investment in the United States. Voters and policymakers alike expressed outrage when the Chinese energy firm CNOOC tried to purchase the U.S.-based Unocal, and similarly when Dubai Ports World tried to purchase operations at six U.S. ports. Such concerns are likely to be exacerbated in the coming years as the sovereign wealth funds of some foreign nations increasingly seek investment opportunities in the
United States.

The Promise of Global Economic Integration

The growing protectionist backlash against global economic integration is a serious threat to our economic well-being. Greater openness has greatly benefited the U.S. economy—even though it admittedly can precipitate concentrated harm to workers in particular industries and communities. For example, one study found that trade provided an aggregate benefit to the U.S. economy of $1 trillion per year. Free trade allows people to specialize in the goods and services they produce with the most comparative efficiency— the classic idea of “comparative advantage”—while also allowing producers and consumers to benefit from economies of scale. In doing so, free trade leads to increased productivity and GDP growth, which ultimately are necessary to raise standards of living and provide the resources needed to address costly challenges such as health care and climate change. For consumers, free trade also promotes competition, which introduces new low-priced goods and services and constrains markups on existing goods and services. For workers, free trade may be associated with competitive labor markets that can sustain lower rates of unemployment without triggering inflation.

Closely linked to greater trade are greater international capital flows, which have grown even more quickly than trade volumes in recent decades. American firms are leaders in financial services, and financial openness allows U.S. investors to find new and more productive investment opportunities abroad and permits foreigners to invest in the United States. America’s large budget deficit and low private savings would have had much more serious consequences were it not for America’s open capital account, which allows substantial foreign investment to help maintain America’s production. Moreover, open trade has been beneficial for the United States recently because, as the economy has slowed and the dollar has weakened, a rising share of economic growth has come from exports.

Finally, globalization is a benefit not only to the United States, but also to the rest of the world—particularly the developing world. Trade is driving economic growth throughout the world, lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, and has proven far more effective at doing so than has traditional development aid. Openness to trade and investment can facilitate growth, and growth and poverty reduction go hand in hand. Even for those countries trapped in a cycle of poverty, one leading scholar argues that what is needed more than increased foreign aid is increased market access for the “bottom billion” to the economies of the rest of the world.

Here's what Senator Obama had to say about the Korea trade deal that the Jasons reference:

Obama, who has made criticism of free-trade pacts a staple of his campaign, called the accord between the two nations ``badly flawed.''

``In the interests of cultivating bipartisan cooperation on trade policy, I urge you not to send this agreement forward to the Congress,'' Obama wrote in a letter to Bush released today. Instead of pushing the agreement, the U.S. trade office should use existing laws to challenge ``barriers to U.S. exports,'' Obama said.

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