What Should We Do About Trade? What Is The Progressive Position?

I am ambivalent about foreign trade, in part because I’m far from an expert on particular trade deals and the economic literature is mixed, to say the least, on the impact and effects of major deals.  On the one hand, I think that foreign trade is good conceptually because of comparative advantage and the idea that it will benefit multiple nations.  On the other hand, I have concerns that trading with partners that don’t have nearly the same protections for workers or the environment will lead to a race to the bottom that will do much more harm than good.

During this election cycle, the United States’ trade agreements have been much maligned.  Bernie is against most of them.  As is Donald Trump.  Hillary’s position, perhaps unsurprisingly, is harder to pin down.

This article from Vox brings up a very important issue that seems to be ignored during the discussion of trade in this election cycle: the effect of trade agreements on people other than US citizens.  The article notes that there’s a lot of evidence that free trade generally, as well as some specific trade agreements, has been instrumental in raising the standard of living for some of the poorest, most vulnerable people in the world.

Even if we ignore other issues with some of the arguments against trade agreements (they tend to benefit consumers, manufacturing jobs are on the decline due to increased automation, some manufacturing jobs are increasing in the US even with the agreements) and even if we assume that the critics are correct that trade agreements hurt manufacturing jobs in the US, should progressives be against them?  Is it more progressive to stand up for the US’s middle class or the world’s poor?

This is something I grapple with.

Having traveled to developing countries and seen the kind of poverty and lack of opportunity that exists, it’s hard for me to support policies if the stated goal is to protect manufacturing jobs in the US (who, historically and currently, have been and are white males without college degrees) without regard for the effects on the very poor people of the world, most of whom are not white males.  It may be politically unwise for an American politician to call to attention the plight of the world’s poor as a reason to hold a certain position, especially when certain regions of the country are doing poorly, but it would be nice for it to be part of the conversation.

Because protectionism and lack of compassion for the poorest people of the world doesn’t seem too progressive to me.

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