“Free Trade” Is an Election-Year Nothingburger


Matt Yglesias aggregates a few Gallup polls today to make the point that, press insistence to the contrary, Americans aren’t especially anti-trade. Nor, apparently, are they especially angry about the economy in general or foreign competition in particular. You can always cherry pick interviews from Trump rallies to make it look like voters are frothing with rage, and editors can then order up a series of thumbsuckers using colorful anecdotes to make the case. The Washington Post, for example, has done this, complete with a nifty slogan (“The Great Unsettling”) and an earnest tagline (“With so much anger in America, a pair of reporters took to the road in search of its causes.”) The fact that America quite plainly isn’t all that angry seems to have made no difference to their headline writers.

Still, some people really are upset about trade deals. The problem is that their arguments always seem pretty thin to me. Here’s Dean Baker a few days ago:

The trade agenda of administrations of both parties has been to quite deliberately put U.S. manufacturing workers in direct competition with low paid workers in the developing world. [But] we have not sought to impose free trade everywhere. We have only done it for less well paid and less educated workers. We have maintained and in some cases strengthened protectionist barriers that sustain the jobs and paychecks of the most highly paid professionals.

Take the case of doctors with an average pay of well over $200,000 a year….We prevent foreign doctors from practicing in the United States unless they completed a U.S. residency program. Does anyone believe that we can’t ensure that doctors going through training programs in Canada, Germany, and other wealthy countries get sufficient skills to competently treat patients in the United States?

There is a similar story for dentists, who get paid almost as much as doctors. They used to be required to get a degree from a dental school in the United States. We just recently started allowing graduates from dental schools in Canada to practice in the United States.

It’s always dangerous arguing with Baker, but this really doesn’t hold water. Cars made overseas are required to meet American standards. You can’t just build anything you want and sell it here. In the case of doctors, the doctor herself is the product, and we require the product to meet American standards. Aside from the minor jolt of hearing a human being called a “product,” there’s not really much difference. You can argue that standards for cars and standards for doctors are poorly designed, but that’s a much subtler case to make. One way or another, both American doctors and American cars are going to be required to meet American standards.

Baker also argues that patent protections favor the rich against foreign competition, and here I have a little more sympathy. But only a little. I’m generally in favor of tightening up patent protections somewhat, but these really are reciprocal requirements: they protect American companies from foreign competition and they also protect foreign companies from American competition. That may work in our favor at the moment, but I wouldn’t count on that being true forever.

No matter how much Donald Trump rails against the TPP being the second-worst agreement ever in the history of mankind (Iran is #1, of course), it’s just not that big a deal. Yeah, the IP stuff is noxious. But how many voters even know what IP stands for, let alone care even a whit about it? The rest of the agreement is a mix of OK and moderately not-OK, and that’s about the strongest emotional reaction I can bring to it. If Congress wants to vote it down, fine. It won’t make much difference. If they vote for it, that’s fine too. It won’t make much difference. It certainly hasn’t ignited smoldering anger among blue-collar workers, and it’s not going to. As far as the election is concerned, it’s a nothingburger.

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