E.J. Dionne reports today on growing opposition to CAFTA from the normally trade-friendly centrist Democrats. Petty politics? Hardly. In fact, I would go so far as to say that anyone who values freer trade should oppose CAFTA. Just listen to Adam Smith (D-WA):
“There has always been a certain attitude among some economists and trade advocates that the issue is simply trade: Reduce the barriers and move forward,” Smith says. “What we’ve discovered in the last 10 or 15 years is that, yes, that’s a part of it, but if you want to reduce poverty and move people to the middle class, you need more than that. You need an emphasis on workers’ rights. A balance must be struck between the short-term needs of business and the needs of workers.”
Quite so. Look, on balance, lower trade barriers are a good thing for the economy as a whole. Most economists will agree to that. I’ll agree to that. But economic upheavals still create clear winners and losers, and unless the government can cushion the blows for those who are hurt by globalization—through things like universal health care, unemployment assistance, or worker retraining—then long-term support for any sort of trade agenda will collapse. If you look at the latest Pew polling data here, there are only two voter groups that take an unabashedly positive view of trade: liberals (50 percent think trade agreements are good for the U.S.) and “upbeats,” or those who are generally optimistic about the economy (59 percent). That’s a fragile pro-trade coalition, and it’s clear that opposition only grows louder among workers who think the economy is doing poorly.
Now there are other reasons to oppose CAFTA too—from the way it guts labor standards in Central America to its protectionist handouts for pharmaceutical companies—but Rep. Smith gets at a big one. Allowing the White House to push a trade agenda free of worker assistance, while the Bush administration continues to gut trade adjustment assistance, will only fuel popular resentment against trade, and in the long run, make it that much harder to move public opinion away from protectionist sentiment.