One of the casualties of the rough-and-tumble of Presidential politics this year has been a major trade agreement the U.S. signed with 11 of its major Pacific Ocean trading partners earlier this year known as the Trans Pacific Partnership, or TPP. Before it can go into effect it has to be ratified by all the member's legislatures, including, for better or worse, the U.S. Congress. In a year when that barely functioning entity is interlaced with a particularly toxic election season and voters grumpy and out-of-sorts, that's unfortunate. But that's democracy, apparently.
TPP has become a favorite across-the-board whipping boy. It's remarkable that both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, ideological opposites one would have thought, both oppose it. So does Hillary Clinton, who was in favor of it before she was against it. As Secretary of State, she thought it was a "the gold standard" for trade agreements. As a presidential candidate, however, she's walked that back, or tried to. But that's politics, apparently, and if elected President she might have the wiggle room to tack back to her earlier, and more accurate, stance on it.
We hear a lot this year about how globalization has wrecked domestic industries and thrown many out of jobs once thought safe and secure. The answer, folks like Trump and Sanders seem to argue, is that such trading deals have to ensure that workers jobs are protected no matter what, if not by outright protectionist measures that would price foreign-made goods out of the marketplace, then by provisions that would so one-sidedly favor the U.S. that no other party could possibly agree with them. They, after all, have to sell these agreements to these voters or party leaders back home, who are presumably just as jittery about being seen to protect their domestic industries and workers as any U.S. politician wants to be perceived as.
All well and good, and the over-arching idea, of course, is that everyone wants the same thing — expanding economic growth and benefits all levels of the workforce. It's how we get there that gets tricky.
Fortunately members of the Democratic Party's platform writing committee had the good judgment to insert a pro-TPP plank in, turning down entreaties from Sen. Sanders' allies who wanted a far tougher line taken. The best way to protect American workers whose jobs may be in jeopardy because of foreign competition is robust worker retraining. The minute the U.S. — or any other nation — decides it's going to place its private companies inside a time bubble and protected silo that freezes competition from spurring innovation and adaptation, the sooner it marches down the path to an economy doomed to never be world class again — sort of like what the economy of the 1980s Soviet Union looked like before that nation croaked.
This is actually a pretty good deal for the U.S. Our exports have been estimated to grow by more than $123 billion when — and if — it comes into effect. TPP would level the playing field between the U.S. and other nations by removing 18,000 tariffs currently in place against U.S. exporters. The agreement also contains provisions to crack down on wildlife trafficking, and will protect endangered animals like wild elephants and rhinoceroses. There are other environmental safeguards — long lobbied for — as well as advantageous rules on intellectual property and patents that would better protect U.S. advantages in those areas.
Another factor to consider is the geostrategic implications. The agreement excludes China, which is trying to set up its own financial competitor to the U.S. dominated banking system established after World War II, which has been helpful to U.S. economic interests and done well for the world as a whole. China has also lately been aggressively building itself up as a rival to U.S. interests in the Pacific, and not just in the South China Sea, where little outcroppings of rocks have been interpreted to confer outsized sovereignty to China and tensions are running high amid air bases are under construction at artificial islands. Failure to cement the TPP plays directly into their hands. Of course, that's a complicated relationship that the likes of Donald Trump probably can't process comprehensively, unless there's a hotel or a golf course to be part of the sweeteners. The Donald's attention span doesn't extend that far.
The U.S. used to be confident of its ability to compete successfully with other nations, and be happy to buy products from them when another country could produce them more cheaply, realizing that the money saved could be redirected into those areas where the U.S., with its educated workforce, robust legal and financial systems and wealth of natural resources, could successfully compete. The problem is that for many people, these benefits are harder to spot than a large, shuttered factory ground down by low cost foreign competition. It's easy to empathasize with those thrown out of work, but there's a lot of money saved by consumers here and a wider selection of choices. We would miss them if those choices went away.
It's time to get back to being that confident nation again. Yes, workers displaced from their jobs through no fault of their own should get all the assistance the country can offer. Workers in industries vulnerable to lower cost foreign competition — although that wage gap is narrowing, especially with China, as workers overseas also want to see the fruits of their labor in their lifetimes — need to be aware that the world of the grandparents is not the world they are or will be living in. Change has been accelerating. That's unsettling. But it will go on accelerating. We can either embrace it or watch living standards and incomes erode even faster.