International trading isn’t a perfect art, but it’s still a necessary one

By Ben Brown for the Juneau Empire

Since the 2016 presidential race got underway, there has been a lot of talk, some of it angry and hostile, about globalization and free trade. The consensus among those seeking the White House has been alarmingly trending toward a consensus that free trade is generally bad for America, or that it ranks among the greatest threats to the survival of the republic.

Common sense indicates, and the actual science of economics strongly illustrates, that trade is a good thing: It expands the range of people to whom a person seeking to make a living can sell the goods she produces or the services he provides. Over a millennia, humans have become ever increasingly interconnected through the sale and purchase of the fruits of their physical strength and creative endeavors, and this has helped directly pay for significant material improvement in the quality of human life on Earth.

The isolation of different racial and linguistic groups, and their exposure to and opportunity to experience and learn from each other, would never have changed over time without commerce. Of course, overall, long-term universal progress comes with consistent disruption and consequent pain for groups and communities as change occurs. This calls for caution and attention to detail as America conducts and negotiates our global economic relations.

Expanding trade opportunities for Americans must be done the right way in order to be a desirable thing which engenders public and political support. Agreements to expand trading opportunities must be in part platforms for the adoption and enforcement of standards that preclude the externalization of costs from the economic equation. Poorer workers, more environmental degradation, and economic upheaval can be prevented as trade terms are created, and the past has shown the way in which things can be done better, with more attention built in the process to offset negative effects and assist affected communities and individuals. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has created billions of dollars in additional economic activity since its inception, but has also disproportionately impacted specific industries and geographic areas in ways that were foreseeable, and if not entirely preventable, still subject to measures that would have helped transitioned people forward.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) being debated today is a trade deal that has evolved from a four-county agreement called the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement. In 2005, Brunei, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore committed to a set of rules for trading goods and services, uniformly designating products’ country of origin. It settled trade disputes, created consistent food and plant safety standards, protections for intellectual property and other terms meant to make trade between the partners more robust. It set an ambitious goal of reducing tariffs (often arbitrary surcharges levied on imports from — or sometimes exports to — other countries) by 90 percent within a year, and eliminating then entirely within a decade.

Tariffs are often used to decrease demand for a product to protect a perceived national interest, and the elimination of tariffs is generally considered to remove a distorting factor from economic transactions so they are more efficient for the buyers and sellers of goods and services.

Once these first four nations had ratified this deal, it led to increased commerce among the partners, which benefited them individually and collectively. A few years later, eight more nations began negotiating with the original group and each other about joining the partnership: Australia, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, the United States and Vietnam. This is an impressive array, diverse in ethnicity, stage of economic development, prosperity level and governmental and social structures. At the same time, they are unified by economic dynamism, significant populations and position on the Pacific Rim.

TTP has noble goals: to promote economic growth; support the creation and retention of jobs; enhance innovation, productivity and competitiveness; raise living standards; reduce poverty in signatories’ countries; and promote transparency, good governance and enhanced labor and environmental protections. This is a laudable list. One has to ask: Why would one oppose the U.S. joining a project seeking these results?

Unfair competition from foreign labor is a tremendous source of concern to sceptics of the TPP and the potential loss of American jobs is always a serious problem. What isn’t often acknowledged is that TPP mandates that its members adopt minimum wages, hourly limits, work conditions, and occupational health and safety standards; also that they allow unions to form and collectively bargain. It prohibits child and forced labor, discrimination in employment and human trafficking. The TPP contains more far-reaching, progressive labor provisions than any trade agreement into which the U.S. has ever entered.

In addition to the labor terms, the TPP has elements for environmental protection and sustainability, shielding endangered species, preventing harmful over fishing, and curbing bad forestry and energy practices. Its other provisions address more general societal goals like promoting civil institutions and combatting corruption, safeguarding human rights and intellectual property.

The belief that some signatories to the TPP won’t meet their obligations leads critics to oppose ratification of the TPP by the U.S. Senate. While the TPP has lofty goals that, if implemented, would truly make the world a better and more prosperous place, past trade agreements have seen inadequate enforcement of their terms. But isn’t a commitment to better enforcement mechanisms preferable to giving up on trying to make the world stronger and its people more comfortable and healthy?

Some of the rules and standards in the TPP have been enjoyed in America since early in the last century, and trade agreements are one of the strongest ways to see these beneficial policies adopted wider and wider. This not only serves an altruistic purpose, but a most practical one: A more prosperous and stable world is one that will make combatting radical theocratic terrorism a more successful endeavor, and allow a coordinated approach to meeting food and energy needs of a still rapidly growing global population.

Every person in the world lives in greater proximity to everyone else with every passing day because there are more and more of us, and because technology brings us incessantly closer together. The only realistic path forward is to keep our nation strong and independent while playing a leading role in trading with other nations who share our standards and objectives. If the TPP as currently negotiated isn’t good enough, then it will have to be revisited, but the overall direction in which it leads is ultimately inevitable.

• Ben Brown is an attorney who lives in Juneau.