WASHINGTON, Nov. 16, 2016 - With the Trans-Pacific Partnership dead or on life support and the future of trade policy in doubt under the administration of President-elect Donald Trump, two former top trade negotiators are calling for efforts to change the prevailing notion that global trade is a drag on the U.S. economy.

“We’ve got to begin to talk about trade in a way that American people can relate to,” says Mickey Kantor, a Los Angeles lawyer who was U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) during the Clinton administration. “We’ve got to begin to literally educate not just the American people, but our media know very little about trade. Many members of Congress, particularly members of my own party, don’t know much about trade,” he told a Cato Institute audience here Monday.

Susan Schwab, USTR under former President George W. Bush, observed that basic economics and politics don’t always align. “We have got to have a stronger narrative,” she says. “We need to be pro-active. Open trade is good, but not for every single solitary market,” she adds. Those who see jobs disappear are hurt. “That said, most of the jobs haven't been lost to trade agreements, they have been lost to technology changes, productivity enhancements.”

Although U.S. manufacturing employment continues to decline, she said, manufacturing output continues to increase, says Schwab, now a University of Maryland professor of public policy. “Many of those jobs are being performed by robots. Globalization may have accelerated structural change, but it has not changed the rules of comparative advantage,” she says.

Schwab cites agriculture as an example. While the number of people employed on farms has declined to less than 3 percent of the population, she says, “no one argues that trade agreements have hurt agriculture. The agricultural economy benefits tremendously from trade agreements. We have made big gains in agriculture, yet employment has gone down” through technology.

Kantor noted that every president since 1934 has supported rules-based trade, Still, he said, “We go to the Congress today, chiefly in my party (and) we find people who are skeptical, even openly hostile.”

California would be the biggest winner from TPP, with agricultural export gains and growth at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. “Yet almost every Democratic member of the California delegation is opposed. I’m confused. Our governors and mayors and the agricultural community are all for trade and trade agreements but somehow our congressional delegation seems not to get it. Let’s educate Congress. Let’s educate the media even more so.” He adds, “When they interview someone on trade I want to jump through that television set.”

Most of the data and arguments used by opponents of trade agreements are not correct, Kantor says. “But we don’t have counter-pressure going on.” The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was approved by Congress with the support of 104 Democrats, in part because of strong advocacy from agriculture and the business community.

Both speakers expressed uncertainty about how trade policy would play out in a Trump administration. “I don't know what's going to happen to trade policy,” Kantor says. “None of us do. But we need to be hopeful. We can’t be downbeat.” The advice Schwab would give to the Trump transition team: “Take care of the career staff” at USTR, which embodies the institutional memory that the new administration will need in developing trade policy. Because of its professionalism and small size, she says it offers “the best bang for the buck” in Washington.


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