Obama, the optimist on trade
By Susan Aaronson
The writer is research associate professor of international affairs and business, George Washington University
July 22 2008
Around the world, the press has portrayed the 2008 US presidential election as a choice between freer trader John McCain and “protectionist” Barack Obama. That traditional paradigm has helped the media simplify the differences between the two men. However, such these labels do not accurately describe either candidate. And it does not fully portray the candidate, Mr Obama, who has the more optimistic vision of trade.
The conventional wisdom labels Mr McCain as a freer trader because he supports three bilateral trade agreements negotiated by the Bush administration. Mr Obama, in contrast, has come out forcefully against these agreements. Moreover, because Mr Obama states that he wants to review the effects of existing trade agreements, the press has found him to be unenthusiastic about trade liberalisation. (It is important to note that the US is already conducting a similar review of the World Trade Organisation.) Finally, Mr Obama has support from many US unions, which traditionally have taken a protectionist stance.
In fact, both men are pro-trade; they each support using trade agreements to open markets and create economic efficiencies. But the two have different perspectives regarding what trade agreements should do, what rules these agreements should include, and whom these agreements should directly benefit.
Mr McCain sees trade as a means to the end of economic growth and trade agreements as simply economic instruments. He has said very little about how he would use trade agreements to address negative side effects of globalisation, such as pollution. Nor has he articulated how the US can ensure that the economic growth stimulated by trade is equitable. Beyond suggesting tax breaks for business, he has not explained how the US can ensure that companies remain in the US and continue to hire US workers, rather than rely on technologies to remain productive. To bolster his freer trade bona fides, he has stated: “Only risks to the security of our vital interests or egregious offences to our most cherished political values should disqualify a nation from entering into a free trade agreement with us.” But Mr McCain’s support for freer trade has limits – especially when important constituents are adamant about trade bans. As an example, he supports continued trade sanctions against Cuba and Iran and enhanced targeted sanctions against human rights abusing nations Zimbabwe and Burma.
Mr Obama, in contrast, is a trade enthusiast as well as a trade agreements reformer. He sees trade as a means to the end of enhancing human welfare. Thus, he has stated: “From financiers to factory workers, we all have a stake in each other’s success.” He recognises that Americans cannot succeed unless globalisation promotes greater access to resources and opportunities for more of the world’s people (our future growth markets). Mr Obama also believes that trade agreements are essential tools of global governance. He recognises that public concerns about trade are really concerns about inadequate governance – instances where our trade partners are unwilling or unable to adopt and enforce rules to protect workers, consumers and the environment. Demanding such standards in bilateral agreements will not alter global market conditions or empower all workers. Nonetheless, trade agreements can, if properly written, improve both the supply and demand for good governance at the national and international level.
Mr Obama also has put forth a consistently positive vision of the potential of trade to promote human rights. Many human rights activists think trade with human rights abusing regimes is a form of complicity that can indirectly perpetuate wrongdoing in countries such as Sudan. But Mr Obama has openly questioned this view, asking whether the US has more or less leverage with less commerce. He has argued that cutting off trade may not be the best (or only) strategy to bring democracy to Cuba or Iran.
Like Mr McCain, Mr Obama’s vision of trade has some inconsistencies. He has yet to reconcile his internationalist and co-operative worldview with his promises to Democratic special interests. In addition, he has relied on jargon such as fair trade, without defining such terms in a global context.
Press coverage and public rhetoric about trade lags reality. Clearly when we talk about trade agreements today we are talking about regulations that can affect productivity, investment levels, prices and other important economic factors. But trade agreements can also ensure that more people have access to more resources such as credit, education, safe food and healthcare as well as greater opportunities. While Mr McCain sees trade agreements as a means of increasing the nation’s riches, Mr Obama sees trade agreements as tools that can both empower individuals and help our trade partners improve governance.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008
Tuesday, July 22, 2008Robert Reich
Robert Reich was the nation's 22nd Secretary of Labor and is a professor at the University of California at Berkeley.
McCain and Obama represent two fundamentally different economic philosophies. McCain's is top-down economics; Obama's is bottom-up.
Top-down economics holds that:
1. If you give generous tax breaks to the rich, they will have greater incentive to work hard and invest. Their harder work and added investments will generate more jobs and faster economic growth, to the benefit of average working people.
2. If you give generous tax breaks to corporations, reduce their payroll costs, and impose fewer regulations on them, they will compete more successfully in global commerce. This too will result in more jobs for Americans and faster growth in the United States.
3. The best way to reduce the energy costs of average Americans is to give oil companies access to more land on which to drill, lower taxes, and lower capital costs. If they get these, they'll supply more oil, which will reduce oil prices.
4. The best way to deal with the crisis in credit markets is to insure large Wall Street investment banks, as well as Fannie and Freddie, against losses. This will result in more loans at lower rates to average Americans. (Bailing them out may risk "moral hazard," in the sense that they will expect to be bailed out in the future, but that's a small price to pay for restoring liquidity.)
All of these propositions are highly questionable, especially in a global economy. The rich do not necessarily invest additional post-tax earnings in the United States; they invest wherever around the world they can get the highest returns. Meanwhile, large American-based corporations are doing business all over the world; their supply chains extend to wherever they can find low labor costs combined with high output, and their sales to wherever they can find willing buyers. Oil companies, too, are operating globally and set their prices largely at the point where global supply meets global demand. Additional drilling here creates environmental risks for us but generates the same marginal benefits for consumers in China, India, and Europe as we might enjoy (most likely not for a decade or more). Credit markets are global as well, so the beneficiaries of bailouts of large investment banks and lenders are also worldwide while the potential costs (including moral hazard) fall on American taxpayers.
This isn't to argue that top-down economics is completely nonsensical. America is, after all, the world's largest economy. So whatever helps the top of it will to some extent trickle down to everyone else here, and whatever hurts the top is likely to impose some burdens all the way down.
But in a global economy, bottom-up economics makes more sense. Bottom-up economics holds that:
1. The growth of the American economy depends largely on the productivity of its workers. They are rooted here, while global capital and large American-based global corporations are not.
2. The productivity of America workers depends mainly on their education, their health, and the infrastructure that connects them together. These public investments are therefore critical to our future prosperity.
3. Global capital will come to the United States to create good jobs not because our taxes or wages or regulatory costs are low (there will always be many places around the world where taxes, wages, and regulatory costs are lower) but because the productivity of our workers is high.
4. The answer to our energy costs is found in the creativity and inventiveness of Americans in generating non-oil and non-carbon fuels and new means of energy conservation, rather than in access by global oil companies to more oil. So subsidize basic research and development in these alternatives.
5. Finally, in order to avoid a recession or worse, it's necessary to improve the financial security of average Americans who are now sinking into a quagmire of debt and foreclosure. Otherwise, there won't be adequate purchasing power to absorb all the goods and services the economy produces. (As to "moral hazard," the financial institutions that did the lending had more reason to know of the risks involved than those who did the borrowing.)
Listen carefully to the economic debate in the months ahead in light of these two competing economic philosophies. And hope that the latter wins out in years to come.