Happy days are here again, say enthusiasts of the Democratic takeover of Congress. But the days may not be so happy for job seekers, businesses and consumers in this country, or desperate millions in Third World countries, if some ofthe protectionist, subsidy-happy Election Day victors get their way.
A party that once proudly boosted free trade has turned skeptical and worse as dozens of its candidates have sought votes with popular trade-bashing pledges that, if enacted, would dent our prosperity, create friction with other lands and even promote death among the poorest on this planet.
Despite rhetoric that would make you think otherwise, the Bush administration’s free-trade record has been spotty at best, its most noted transgressions including the temporary imposition of steel tariffs, its support of outrageous handouts for farmers who don’t need them and the placing of a high tariff on Canadian lumber imports. It’s legacy-building time, however, and given cooperation from Congress on fast-track trade authority and a new farm bill, the administration’s performance almost certainly would improve dramatically in the final two years of its tenure.
This so-called fast-track authority, which will lapse if not renewed next year, means the president can negotiate trade deals that Congress can vote up or down but cannot amend. Without it, the deals are painfully difficult to come by — why should a foreign country agree to provisions that Congress could turn inside out?
But as reports on their campaigns make clear, many congressional Democrats want less free trade, not more.
They want environmental and worker conditions that would make treaties unendurable for countries that could only sustain such measures with the sort of wealth that would eventually flow from trade, but not be available at the outset.
The Democrats whine about cheap imports as if they had not been crucial in helping in the virtual defeat of U.S. inflation and did not provide products at prices the least advantaged among us can afford.
They seem to forget that any import curtailment would hurt U.S. businesses through a retaliation against our exports.
Understandably, they worry about those put out of work when other lands can produce products less expensively than we can, but fail to acknowledge that far more jobs are created than are lost by free trade.
A number of Democrats have also clearly said they are gung ho for another round of inexcusable subsidies to that minority of American farmers who get them. These subsidies, along with even more outrageously high agricultural subsidies in Europe and Japan, are the primary reason the last effort at Doha talks collapsed — and a reason for starvation in Third World countries where farmers cannot compete with crop production underwritten by U.S. taxpayers to the tune of $20 billion a year.
News outlets have been filled with expressions of delight at the full-throated Democratic comeback in congressional elections last week, as if we had entered a period of renewed enlightenment. But on a host of issues ranging from tax policy, to business regulation, to entitlement programs, to free trade, the Democrats are not enlightened, just a bunch of populists with dark-age ideas. If a fresh understanding does not accompany their increased responsibilities, a great many people face a lot of trouble.