A Democrat Against Our Allies

-By The Heritage Foundation

Citing opposition to NAFTA from Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in the run-up to Ohio’s Democratic presidential primary, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) pleaded with Wall Street Journal readers yesterday not “to play bumper-sticker politics with trade” and instead engage in “a real debate.” If the rest of his op-ed represents all the arguments he has against current U.S. trade policy, then it’s going to be a short debate.

Brown first raises concerns over rising trade deficits, specifically mentioning the growth of our trade deficit with Mexico since 1993. What Brown fails to mention is that 95 percent of the increase in our NAFTA deficit since 2000 is due to increased energy imports. If Brown really were concerned about these deficits ,he would support expanding domestic energy production in places like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. The more energy we produce domestically, the less we need to import. But Brown is opposed to almost all efforts to increase domestic energy supplies.

Next, Brown raises the specter of sovereign wealth funds, intoning: “five governments control more than $2 trillion that they use to buy stocks and other assets in America and other countries. So far, the funds controlled by the People’s Republic of China and the United Arab Emirates have been passive investors. So far.”

What the freshman Ohio senator fails to realize is that America benefits from investment abroad. The U.S. has run a trade deficit for most of its history and the record shows that unemployment generally drops as trade deficits rise. This is because trade deficits are offset by investment surpluses from abroad. These investments create jobs and wealth for Americans.

If Brown really thinks trade deficits are bad, he should scurry back to Ohio and shut down its border with Michigan. Ohio’s economy is concentrated in services, which make up 4.4 million of its 5.4 million payroll jobs, while Michigan has been dominant in manufacturing for decades. According to the logic of protectionism, Michigan has been stealing jobs from other Midwestern states for years.

Brown also warns of lead paint in toys and contaminated pet food. This is blatant fearmongering. In each known case, responsible U.S. companies moved quickly to get problem products off the market, and no actual harm to Americans has been proven.

Brown then asserts that free trade causes a race to the bottom in labor and environmental standards. History shows otherwise: Trade helps developing countries grow wealth. Wealthier populations then raise their labor and environmental standards. This model has repeated itself all over the world, and is doing so now in China.

Finally, Brown moves to the debate over the Colombia Free Trade Agreement. The senator says we shouldn’t reward a country that “has done little to stem the tide of rampant labor abuses and human rights violations — including dozens of murders.” The Washington Post recently editorialized on the “intellectual poverty” of these claims, citing strong evidence that Colombia’s democratically elected president, Alvara Uribe, has significantly reduced violence — particularly against labor leaders.

Brown could establish himself as an honest broker on the issue if he took any time to combat the violence American unions practice at home. From threatening employers with guns and knives, to racketeering, to physical violence between unions and stalking and harassment of those who haven’t signed a union card, there’s plenty of union violence for the senator to confront here before he begins telling other countries how best to police themselves.

Brown closes: “NAFTA. The Central American Free Trade Agreement. China. Now Colombia. We have a pattern in our trade policy that aims to protect special interests, but betray our workers, our environment, our communities.”

Sherrod Brown doesn’t want to be called a “protectionist.” So what’s a better word for someone who opposes every major trade deal the U.S. has signed in the past 20 years?

Copyright Publius Forum 2001