The LA Times has a new piece on free trade by a Republican-turned-Democrat from Michigan, the international President of the United Steelworkers, (and member of the executive council of the AFL-CIO) and the chairman of the “New America Foundation.” Unsurprisingly, these three gentlemen entitle their piece “Buy American—Why Not?” Worse yet, their only premise for bashing free trade is because others, including the Chinese, have already put up trade barriers due to the economic crisis. In simpler terms, these gentlemen would have us break our promise on free trade and further damage our own economy because “they started it.”
The argument is as childish as it sounds. Chinese protectionism doesn’t make our protectionism right, and was probably spurred by American protectionism to begin with. (In fact, we’re lucky that some countries didn’t retaliate—like Canada.) By unilaterally walking away from our W.T.O. obligations and trade agreements, the United States gets a bad wrap and a bad deal: retaliations would hurt American jobs more than protectionism would help them, and America’s free-trade reputation would be tarnished. (It should also be noted that the United States could destroy world trade without breaking their trade obligations, as noted here where Dr. Jagdish Bhagwati says “Indeed, President Obama would find himself in a W.T.O.-consistent trade war.”)
A quote from the L.A. Times article says that “‘Buy American’ provisions of one form or another have been around since the 1930s, and it is not opportunistic, unfair or inappropriate, as some have said, for us to have a strong one now.” We remember such measures—the massively popular and economy-boosting Smoot-Hawley act, for example.
What America needs now—as ever—is to stand for free trade. And if anyone expects us to do otherwise, then convincing us will require more than just saying “well, they started it.”