Wanted: An Honest Debate About Trade

“Americans support free trade.” That’s something you won’t hear Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump admit. Yet poll after poll have shown this statement to be true. President Obama and Speaker Ryan know it’s true. Even close Clinton confidant and Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe knows it’s true — that’s why he suggested Clinton might support the Trans-Pacific Partnership, if elected.

Why, then, does the GOP nominee continue to drift?

The answer is that Americans are worried about their jobs and their futures and isolationist policies offer an easy rhetorical solution in a heated campaign. The truth, however, is that neither trade nor immigration is killing the American Dream — it’s our education, tax, and regulatory systems that are to blame.

To be sure, the free exchange of goods and services has costs, as Mr. Trump has pointed out. But it also has enormous benefits.

For more than half a century, U.S. leaders have built a system that has facilitated, and even encouraged, a dramatic increase in economic exchange between the nations of the world. They’ve also crafted a dispute resolution system that limits the abuses of countries that thwart international trade laws. It’s worked — and incredibly well, too. Over most of that period of time, global growth exceeded domestic growth, and millions of people were given the opportunity to escape abject poverty and even starvation.

We can honor this work by turning the challenge of international trade into a positive for all Americans. There are countless opportunities to do so — a free-trade agreement with Great Britain would be a perfect example. (Republican leadership in the House has already endorsed the idea of a U.S.-UK FTA and, according to reports, the White House has already begun early discussions with British officials.) 

Yet, any responsible consideration of trade must include not just “better deals,” but also better policies that will enable every American to participate in this new global economy. That’s where change is urgently needed, and that’s where Republicans can provide the necessary leadership.

For many individuals, families, and communities across the country, the consequences of the explosion in international trade have ranged from very real pain to virtual devastation. Too often, those inside the Beltway have ignored this pain and moved on, leaving millions of our fellow citizens by the side of the road. That’s wrong.

Clearly, change is needed in Washington. But that change has to begin with a real discussion about what ails us — not rhetoric that faults others.

We live in a global economy, one that’s knowledge-based and requires fundamentally new and better education and training systems. This new world is also highly competitive and will require far more competitive tax and regulatory policies from Washington. Our firms should not have to deal with some of the highest corporate taxes and most intrusive regulations in the world.

But our workers must have the tools to compete. Our education and training systems simply do not provide students with what’s needed to participate in a knowledge-based, highly competitive global economy. That’s especially true in the neediest school districts. Inequality in education leads to inequality of income, and politicians shouldn’t blame outside forces when they’ve let our own institutions crumble.

Voters today are frustrated. Whatever their circumstances, they sense that the country they know and love has drifted. And it has. Americans are right to demand more of our leadership. And they deserve a response.

But we must also recognize that the subject of trade is far too complex and important to treat with simple solutions. Criticism is not enough; we have to be honest. We live in a globalized world; there’s no going back. We must not give in to the voices of division and turmoil, which scapegoat American businesses and immigrants, damaging global relations and domestic stability. Instead, we need real solutions, which will require better and more responsive leadership.

Should we embrace tax and regulatory reform or erect trade barriers? Promote domestic investment and job creation or high tariffs and high prices? Look to education and training programs or self-defeating isolationism? These are the choices we face as a country. Who will provide the leadership we need to make the right decision?

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