Free Trade Can End Up Costing Workers Their Jobs

Free Trade Can End Up Costing Workers Their Jobs

It’s easy to see the destruction now: the loss of the manufacturing jobs that built a comfortable lifestyle; the hollowing out of the great American middle class; the dying faith in the American dream. It’s easy to see now what fuels the anger and disillusionment of so many voters who can no longer count on hard work or determination or allegiance to a traditional code to bring them economic security.

In this campaign season, those anxious and angry voters have turned the political world upside down with their support for non-establishment presidential candidates, especially Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and real estate mogul Donald Trump.

Sanders, a self-declared socialist, and Trump, a bully billionaire who panders to prejudices, have little in common. But both men have criticized free trade deals, which they contend have hurt average American workers. Their opposition to free trade agreements helped to propel them to victories in their respective presidential primaries in Michigan, once a font of well-paying factory jobs but now part of the deteriorating “Rust Belt.”

It’s time to acknowledge that Trump and Sanders have a point about trade deals, designed to allow manufactured goods to flow freely between countries. As a handful of well-respected economists belatedly concede, the free trade agreements that drew bipartisan support for much of the last 25 years never brought the broad prosperity that was promised.

They’ve enriched the well-off while hurting the less affluent, depressing wages and killing off manufacturing jobs for workers without college degrees. As Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz has written, “… The reality is that these trade agreements do risk increasing unemployment.”

Indeed, it’s not just free trade deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), enthusiastically negotiated by President Bill Clinton (as Sanders never allows his rival, Hillary Clinton, to forget). It’s the larger forces of globalization, coupled with technological change, that have battered workers and downsized the middle class.

Statistics from the Federal Reserve tell the story. According to its data, median household income in Michigan has been in free-fall since 1999, plunging from nearly $66,000 a year then to around $52,000 a year now.

While Michigan, once the world capital of automobile manufacturing, has been especially hard-hit, similar stories have unfolded in Pennsylvania and Ohio, once capitals of the steel industry; in Maine and North Carolina, where textiles once powered the economy; in towns such as Galesburg, Illinois, once home to Maytag. During the presidency of George W. Bush, the country lost nearly 4.5 million manufacturing jobs, about one in four.

For far too long, the political establishment and intellectual elite have ignored that unhappy reality. And that’s nearly everybody — Democrats, Republicans, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, highly respected economists and political pundits.

Perhaps that’s because few of them were dependent on factory jobs; their college-educated friends and families continued to enjoy comfortable lifestyles, just as the policymakers did. While technology and globalization have also disrupted the jobs of college-educated workers — from journalists to accountants — the losses haven’t been nearly as severe.

Now, those anxious workers are at the center of the presidential campaign. That’s good news as long as it inspires policymakers to come forward with solid proposals to help rebuild the middle class.

Trump has largely peddled in nonsense laced with bigotry and xenophobia. He may attract votes, but he won’t grow jobs. Sanders, for his part, has the decency not to blame immigrants for the decline of the American worker. Still, his insistence on pointing the finger at Wall Street for every failure is overly simplistic. I’m no fan of big banks, either, but they didn’t send Maytag to Mexico.

The forces of globalization cannot be stopped, but they could be ameliorated if politicians and policymakers, Democrats and Republicans, finally understand the cost to the average worker. That hasn’t happened yet.

President Obama still speaks about his proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership as if it would enhance the prospects for average workers who desperately need a raise. (It won’t.) And Republicans still insist that lowering taxes for the rich will inspire a trickle-down flood of wealth into the average bank account. (History suggests otherwise.)

No wonder voters are exasperated.

(Cynthia Tucker won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007. She can be reached at

Photo: Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) March 1, 2016. REUTERS/Brendan McDermi

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