'Free Trade' Takes Increasing Hits ; Expanding Global Commerce Has Long Been Considered an Engine of Growth, but Job Losses at Home Stir Criticism

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Free trade, long a controversial theme in America's political and economic life, is stirring a new level of contention.

Some Democratic presidential candidates such as Richard Gephardt are winning applause with comments that tap into angst over jobs lost to cheap labor overseas. Public opinion surveys show rising concern about whether America is benefiting from a globalized economy. Even among economists, who generally argue that trade benefits all parties despite its dislocations, the topic has fresh edge.

In an October Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll, for example, only 43 percent of Americans say free trade is "good for the economy," down from 52 percent when a similar question was asked in May 2002.

In part, such concern reflects the slow job market, which makes many wary of foreign competition. And in part, it reflects the approach of presidential primary elections. But it runs deeper than that.

Free trade, while opening the doors for US exports and helping Americans get low-cost consumer goods, has also shaken entire industries from textiles to cars. Free trade is one of the key factors behind a continuing plunge in the number of US manufacturing jobs - from 19.3 million in 1980 to 17.8 million in 1990 and about 14.6 million today. Now, worries are rising over the outsourcing of service jobs to locations such as India and the Philippines. Many wonder: Can this be good?

Jobs versus growth?

"I see no value from opening these [foreign] markets," says Ben Connolly, a software developer in Newton, Pa. "I don't see us getting more jobs." Married with two children, Mr. Connally was laid off for most of 2000. He blames it partly on the stock market bubble, but adds that "free trade hasn't helped."

In Congress, rising protectionist sentiments have resulted in 10 bills or resolutions attacking China's "unfair" trade practices and "overvalued" currency. None, though, is expected to pass. That reflects a longstanding view that the benefits of trade as an engine of growth outweigh the costs.

Both President Bush and President Clinton before him have pushed for a new round of talks to liberalize world trade. Under President Bush, a round was launched at Doha, Qatar, in 2001.

That round is still alive, despite reports of its demise after a failed ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization in Cancun in September.

During the eight multilateral, global trade negotiations since World War II, temporary "failures are quite normal," says Robert Z. Lawrence, an economist at Harvard University's Center for International Development in Cambridge, Mass. In this case, "the agenda has been clarified. We will continue the round," he comments.

Indeed, last month the 146-nation World Trade Organization announced another meeting of trade ministers.

One reason for pressing ahead may be that consumers, though fearful of the competition from free trade, welcome its positive side - the cheap goods from China, Taiwan, or other low-cost nations.

Love affair with cheap imports

"Certainly in their buying behavior, Americans suggest they love imports," says Richard Cooper, an economist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

In fact the Monitor/TIPP survey found that a plurality of respondents believe free trade is beneficial. …