Minor Thoughts from me to you

Supporting Free Trade

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Republican voters are skeptical about the benefits of free trade.

By a nearly two-to-one margin, Republican voters believe free trade is bad for the U.S. economy, a shift in opinion that mirrors Democratic views and suggests trade deals could face high hurdles under a new president.

Six in 10 Republicans in the poll agreed with a statement that free trade has been bad for the U.S. and said they would agree with a Republican candidate who favored tougher regulations to limit foreign imports. That represents a challenge for Republican candidates who generally echo Mr. Bush's calls for continued trade expansion, and reflects a substantial shift in sentiment from eight years ago.

Frank Newport, at USA Today, says that the poll is largely worthless.

This type of question, often used by the pollsters who conduct the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, is both complex and tricky to interpret.

In essence, the question format gives respondents a set of several reasons to support the subject of the question (in this instance foreign trade) and several reasons to oppose the subject of the question. The respondent is then asked to indicate which set of reasons is most convincing to them.

Thus, the pro and con arguments read as part of the question become very important. In other words, when the topic is something relatively arcane, many respondents listen to the cues presented as the interviewer reads the question and then give their answer based on what seems to resonate most "on the spot". Or - if the respondent is not listening carefully - responses are based on which fragments or phrases sound most appealing.

The Nation Association of Manufacturers does see some cause for concern.

What's happening? The Lou Dobbs effect? The media's incessant hyping of contaminated food and other imports? Just more of the anti-foreign bias as detailed by George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan* in his new book, "The Myth of the Rational Voter?" Or are the advocates of free-trade not working hard enough?


We advocates simply have to work harder in making the case for trade in terms that the public can appreciate, connecting good-paying jobs to trade. And not let the anti-trade rhetoric stand unchallenged. Because protectionism makes us poor.

Meanwhile, if voters are potentially misunderstanding the issue, at least the candidates themselves are getting better advice. Here is Barack Obama's economic adviser on free trade.

"Globalization" means free trade and various deregulations that supposedly put downward pressure on American wages because of imports from low-wage countries. Goolsbee, however, says globalization is responsible for "a small fraction" of today's income disparities. He says "60 to 70 percent of the economy faces virtually no international competition." America's 18.5 million government employees have little to fear from free trade; neither do auto mechanics, dentists and many others.

Goolsbee's rough estimate is that technology -- meaning all that the phrase "information economy" denotes -- accounts for more than 80 percent of the increase in earnings disparities, whereas trade accounts for much less than 20 percent. This is something congressional Democrats need to hear from a Democratic economist as they resist trade agreements with South Korea and such minor economic powers as Peru, Panama and Colombia.

So -- stay in school, get an education, become rich. What's not to like? (Oh, and keep both goods and people flowing freely over the border.)

This entry was tagged. Free Trade