State of the Union: US Trade Policies Stuck in Neverland

In his State of the Union speech, President Obama made a mercifully quick stop in the Neverland of U.S. trade policy, promising – again – to double U.S. exports and to do so by reviving the long-dormant Bush-era trade deals (South Korea, Colombia, and Panama) and pursuing the TransPacific Partnership, which he held off on branding by name or acronym. TPP, after all, could start to sound a lot like NAFTA, that agreement he promised to renegotiate and in whose image the Bush deals were created, with a few post-Bush cosmetics (and side deals) to fool a few trade union leaders and perhaps a few more legislators.

The stop was brief, but Obama was in Neverland nonetheless, that magical realm of Peter Pan and Tinkerbell where no one ever grows up. And no party to a trade agreement ever ends up importing more than they export. NAFTA came out of just such a Neverland. At one point in the campaign for the agreement, Canada, Mexico, and the United States were all claiming the deal would give them a trade surplus with the other parties to the agreement. Everybody exports more than they import, no one has to grow up. Reality intruded on the NAFTA countries, and many North American residents grew up to the reality that NAFTA was not the great engine of job growth that had been promised. Mexico was going to “export goods not people.” Only in Neverland. The people kept exporting themselves.

Now the trade deals President Obama is pushing are supposed to help the U.S. double its exports and create more jobs. What, exactly, does he think the South Korean government is telling its citizens? That the United States will sell them more than they buy? Of course not. In the land of trade treaties, Neverland reigns supreme, at least while the treaties are being campaigned for.

Mr. President: In a world struggling to recover from a recession, every country needs jobs. Every country needs to increase its exports, hopefully more than its imports. Do you think every country can achieve that goal? More important, don’t you think it is in the long-term interests of the United States to encourage the dynamic development of its trading partners, which in the long run will result in greater demand for U.S. – and other countries’ – exports? South Korea is a coveted market today precisely because its leaders refused to follow the economic prescriptions that have failed Mexico under NAFTA. Take us away from Neverland, to a place where not only do we grow up but so do our economies and those of our trading partners, not on the basis of ephemeral export markets but driven by domestic demand that grows with the living standards of our peoples.