Thomas J. Donohue is president and chief executive of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
While the competing candidates for president each make anti-trade rhetoric a central theme to appeal to populist anger and a nationalist mood, they’re leaving out a few key facts about trade. It is good for the country. It is vital for our economy. And, yes, it helps American workers.
It is also true that some workers have been displaced by trade, and they should be given the help they need to compete and succeed in the 21st-century economy. But misguided proposals to build tariff walls, tear up trade agreements and turn inward would only hurt those the candidates say they aim to protect.
In the worldwide economy, trade is our best tool to create new jobs and spur growth here at home. About one-third of U.S. jobs created between 2009 and 2014 were in trade-dependent industries. Today, more than 40 million American jobs are tied to trade.
The presidential candidates often use the so-called demise of manufacturing and the shift away from traditional factory floor jobs to make their case against trade. But the facts get in the way. U.S. real manufacturing output has risen by more than 75 percent over the past 25 years and is at a record high today. Though some industry jobs have been lost due to technology and efficiency, trade remains a strong driver of manufacturing jobs. Exports support approximately 6 million U.S. factory jobs — roughly half of all manufacturing employment.
America’s farmers and ranchers also rely on trade. One in three acres on U.S. farms is planted for exports. For many crops, such as wheat and almonds, more than half is sold abroad. U.S. agriculture is so productive that there’s no way Americans could consume this bounty alone.
Exports tell only half the story. Our standard of living depends on our ability to import goods from around the world. Consumers benefit from trade through lower prices and access to a wider variety of products. In fact, international trade boosts the average U.S. household’s annual income by more than $13,600. And studies show that consumer gains stemming from trade disproportionately accrue to the poor and middle classes.
Though trade creates many more winners than losers, we must recognize and mitigate the downsides. Changes in technology and productivity gains are disruptive forces that have led to some job losses. Those who have lost jobs deserve help, and that starts with dramatically improving our job retraining programs.
We must also change the mind-set that a four-year college degree is the only path to success. There is a tremendous need for workers who obtain two-year degrees, certifications and vocational training. These men and women can fill a growing number of skilled technical positions that often sit vacant for lack of qualified candidates.
We care about those who have been negatively affected by trade, and we must help them. But let’s get one thing straight — ripping up our trade agreements, as presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump suggests, and raising a tariff wall around the U.S. economy wouldn’t bring those jobs home. Instead, it would decimate millions of high-wage American jobs and slam families trying to make ends meet. Increasing tariffs on Chinese and Mexican goods — another one of Trump’s proposals — could cost American families $250 billion per year.
We need to go on the offense, and that means moving ahead with the Trans-Pacific Partnership with 11 other Asia-Pacific nations. This is our chance to set the rules for trade in a critical part of the world. It will advance America’s economic and national interests and affirm our values, which is why presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state, was among its top proponents — that is, until it became politically inconvenient.
For both parties, turning away from trade is not just a threat to our economy and millions of Americans’ livelihoods. It’s a threat to our national security as well. Trade is how we lead in a dangerous and uncertain global environment. Trade leadership helps us negotiate agreements that strengthen ties with global partners while protecting the interests of our citizens. But if we fail to lead, we will cede influence to others.
We’re never going to solve the problems that the political candidates are so fond of talking about on the campaign trail if we turn inward, retreat from the world and strangle our own growth. Expanding trade is key to making our country and people more prosperous and more secure. So let’s build bridges, not walls.
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