This election is not going to be won or lost on trade. Compared to the banking crisis and the wars we are fighting, trade is a distant concern in the public’s mind. When Americans do think about trade, polls show that a majority think it kills jobs and generally hurts the country.
This only goes to show that a handful of bloviators can be more influential than a consensus of Nobel Prize-winning economists. Indeed, even the most recent winner of the Prize once wrote, “A country serves its own interests by pursuing free trade regardless of what other countries may do.”
At the last presidential debate Wednesday night, Barack Obama proved himself to be one of the bloviators. “I believe in free trade,” Obama said. “But I also believe that for far too long, certainly during the course of the Bush administration with the support of Senator McCain, the attitude has been that any trade agreement is a good trade agreement.”
To the extent that it leads the U.S. to lower its own barriers to trade, any trade agreement is good for the country as a whole. But trade liberalization does not benefit all interest groups equally, and so it generates political opposition. In recent years, most of this opposition has come from Democrats, and Barack Obama is one of the most protectionist politicians in his increasingly protectionist party.
JohnMcCain took the opportunity to blast Obama for his opposition to the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, which McCain rightly called a “no-brainer”:
But let me give you another example of a free trade agreement that Senator Obama opposes. Right now, because of previous agreements, some made by President Clinton, the goods and products that we send to Colombia, which is our largest agricultural importer of our products, is–there’s a billion dollars that we–our businesses have paid so far in order to get our goods in there.
Because of previous agreements, their goods and products come into our country for free. So Senator Obama, who has never traveled south of our border, opposes the Colombia Free Trade Agreement. The same country that’s helping us try to stop the flow of drugs into our country that’s killing young Americans.
McCain added, “Maybe you ought to travel down there and visit them and maybe you could understand it a lot better.
“Actually, I understand it pretty well.” Obama replied. “The history in Colombia right now is that labor leaders have been targeted for assassination on a fairly consistent basis and there have not been prosecutions.
Actually, violence against labor leaders in Colombia has plummeted over the last five years. As Edward Schumacher-Matos, a former New York Times reporter and visiting Latin American Studies professor at Harvard, wrote in the Boston Globe earlier this year:
All sides agree that the killings are dramatically down, and no one accuses the government of orchestrating them. By the unions’ own count, the killings dropped from a high of 275 in 1996 to 39 last year. The government says 26.
The assumption by the Democrats is that all were killed for union organizing. It is an assumption implied in reports they cite from groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Those groups, however, rely on Colombian unions for their numbers, instead of collecting their own. The number of convictions now being won in the unions’ own cases reveals that perhaps one-fifth, and almost certainly less than half, of the killings had to do with unionism.
Obama opposes the Colombia deal because organized labor opposes it, and his fealty to the AFL-CIO on that and every other issue should be causing more concern than it is. Whether workers will retain the right to a secret ballot in union elections is a question that the next president will almost certainly decide, and Obama has already come out in favor of taking that right away.
Americans are on the verge of electing the most anti-trade, pro-union candidate of the last three decades, but these issues have received scant attention compared to Obama’s tax plan. Obama’s redistributionist approach to taxes is important to highlight, but his protectionism is also a form of redistribution: It would force consumers to pay higher prices for certain goods in order to benefit favored domestic industries. Joe the Plumber was the star of Wednesday night’s debate, but tax policy is not the only way Barack Obama seeks to “spread the wealth.”