Breaking the Deadlock on Trade Policy

By Weidenbaum, Murray | The Christian Science Monitor, March 19, 2001 | Go to article overview

Breaking the Deadlock on Trade Policy


Weidenbaum, Murray, The Christian Science Monitor


Trade policy in the United States is now deadlocked. Whatever new title is given to the proposal to restore the presidential ability to secure "fast track" treatment of international trade agreements, it is not likely that Congress will go along under present circumstances. Too many interest groups - ranging from labor unions to environmental organizations to traditional protectionist forces - are in opposition.

It will take a combination of strong effort, inventiveness, and goodwill to break the ice. Let's try to start by seeing if we can develop some reasonable responses to the major divisive issues.

One cluster of issues focuses on traditional protectionist concerns. Unfair imports are hurting Americans and our government is asleep at the switch, protectionists argue. It is not adequate merely to identify the shortcomings in such statements. Economists, including me, have done that on many occasions without convincing the people who believe they are hurt by imports. A key positive response would be to help those who lose their jobs as a result of foreign competition, obtain good new jobs. This is not easy.

Various "trade adjustment" programs already are in operation. But they suffer from overlap, complexity, and lack of user friendliness. Streamlining and consolidation are surely in order. Often the most effective aid for newly unemployed persons is simply to show them how to go about locating a new job.

A related concern to be dealt with is the view that other nations consider the US to be a patsy because we are an idealistic island of free trade in a cynical world of protectionism. Of course, there is no shortage of US obstacles to imports, including numerous "buy American" restrictions, import quotas, "antidumping" provisions, and selective high tariffs.

Nevertheless, this nation could do a much better job of enforcing the trade agreements it has entered into, as well as "encouraging" our trading partners to take their own trade agreements more seriously. Responsibility for enforcement should be elevated within the two major trade policy agencies - the Trade Representative's Office and the Department of Commerce. …

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