Educating Main Street on Trade

Susan A. Aaronson
Susan A. Aaronson Research Professor - George Washington University, Director - Digital Trade and Data Governance Hub

November 13, 1997

My town could be Anytown, U.S.A. The people on my block work hard and look forward to their retirement. When they go shopping, they load up their Fords, Jeeps, Hondas and Volvos with a wide variety of products, some of which are made overseas.

When they save for their children’s college or their golden years, they often invest in many companies that operate around the globe.

Every hour of hour day, they see, smell, hear, touch, and taste traded goods and services. But they rarely think about trade policy. Although they have heard many cliches about the global village, they do not think they live there.

Last week, President Clinton acknowledged the political implications of this fact. In a speech to wealthy donors, he made a dramatic confession.

The president told them he had no idea he had to build public support for trade. He worried out loud about the political consequences of such public ignorance and apathy for fast track and the future of multilateral trade liberalization.

He had made his case for fast track based on the macroeconomic arguments for the economy as a whole, rather than showing members of Congress how their constituents might benefit from his authority to negotiate new trade agreements.

Early this week as well, the president failed to gain fast-track authority to negotiate new bilateral, regional and multilateral trade agreements without having them face congressional amendments.

It was a tough fight closely watched inside the beltway, corporate boardrooms, union headquarters and on Wall Street. But on America’s main streets, in neighborhoods like mine, the debate over fast track was largely ignored.

Fast track matters little if the president can not win the hearts and minds of his fellow Americans.

A public that is ill-informed about trade may be more receptive to protectionism or to scapegoating our trading partners when times get tougher. Support for protectionism in the heartland cannot be easily countered by Washington-based lobbying.

The public must be educated about trade and about global economic interdependence. More Americans need to understand that the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade system is not global deregulation, as those of the right and left often like to say.

In fact the GATT/World Trade Organization system is a set of rules governing how entities can trade. To achieve this understanding takes leadership: education along the lines achieved by President Roosevelt in his historic effort to win “lend-lease” aid in the 1940s.

It will not be easy. A May 1997 poll by EPIC/MRA found that some 62% of those polled said they knew very little about trade. The few Americans who care tend to have negative impressions.

A September Business Week poll found some 56% of Americans believe “expanded trade leads to a decrease in the number of jobs.” In July, the president’s own pollster, Penn Schoen, found that 51% of Americans believe global economic integration “benefits multinational corporations at the expense of average working families.”

By not addressing how global economic integration and trade benefit average working families as they work, play, shop and get on with their lives, President Clinton has hampered achievement of one of his main goals—enabling every hard-working American to have “a chance at the American dream.” Many Americans think trade agreements are the equivalent of global regulations, enabling American companies to ship their jobs and their dreams of a better life overseas.

They have little understanding that trade agreements in fact protect them: provide rules on how entities can trade and rules governing how all nations, rich and poor may protect.

The debate over fast track provided an opportunity that is not lost. Public policy must be built on a foundation of public support rather than a mere panoply of legislative deals.

Mr. Clinton should use his bully pulpit to build future support for trade, trade agreements and global economic integration. He can begin by relating trade to people’s daily lives.

And he should be honest—he should discuss how Americans are affected by trade, both positively and negatively, in their many roles—as citizens, producers, consumers, and friends of the earth.

No American is untouched by trade. Because trade is everybody’s business, the president should make it his business to build greater public understanding.