Obama free trade isn’t so free for US

The fight for fast track legislation to allow President Obama to negotiate the secretive Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal is over. After pulling out all the stops to push the deal through Congress, the President signed legislation giving him the authority to negotiate the trade agreement and put it before Congress for a straight up-or-down vote with no amendments allowed.

Americans are told that free trade is the best strategy for advancing global economic development, reducing poverty and achieving world peace. There is a lot to be said on behalf of the utopian dreams of free traders if you ladle enough frosting on the cake to compensate for its shortcomings. But if we want to help the American middle class -the stated goal of virtually  every politician -we would pursue different policy priorities.

To say that everyone benefits from free trade is misleading. Trade creates winners and losers and every American deserves to know the details buried in these deals. The benefits of the North American Free Trade Agreement and other trade deals have not been shared as broadly as promised.

Economists, businessmen and politicians, the most devoted acolytes, say technological advances lead to increased productivity, which means fewer workers are needed to get the job done. Yes, we have substituted capital for labor. But we have also substituted cheap offshore labor for American workers and the result is that Americans are losing jobs, their wages are stagnating and the middle class is coming apart at the seams.

How countries trade and whether they benefit from it are important questions. Starting with Adam Smith, economists have emphasized specialization and exchange as essential to increasing productivity and raising living standards.

The economic argument for free trade relies on the principle of comparative advantage developed by David Riccardo in 1817. His quaint theory, which built on Smith’s work, remains the cornerstone of free trade economics. So what in simple terms is comparative advantage?

Let’s assume that Lady Gaga, the world-famous entertainer, also happens to be a world- class typist. Rather than both entertaining and typing, she should specialize in entertaining, where her comparative advantage is greatest and she could maximize her income. This key insight is still endorsed today by the overwhelming majority  of economists.

Americans who lose their jobs are becoming less rich so people in foreign countries can be less poor. In the aggregate, people are better off, but domestic workers bear the cost. It should be clear by now that on the home front, free trade contributes to rising inequality, wage stagnation, and lost jobs .

The gains from trade are often widely dispersed, while the losses are concentrated. The extent to which offshore outsourcing is responsible for some of our current labor market woes has become highly contentious in recent years.

Perhaps it is time to adopt a national strategy that can make the American economy grow fast enough to produce decent jobs for every member of the American family who wants to work. How about if we start by investing in our broken infrastructure so it can generate economic growth instead of hamstringing it, and educating our children so they become world leaders in something besides sports?

Then we just might become internationally competitive again, and restore our economy to full employment while we’re at it

originally published: July 11, 2015