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Global Issues >> International Trade

International Trade

Helping American Workers
Given their concerns for American workers, a majority of Americans supports having some trade barriers as a means of protecting workers from sudden job losses, even when this is weighed against the potential benefit of lower prices. At the same time, Americans show ambivalence about trade barriers and a strong majority favors the long-term goal of gradually removing them. Also, more popular than trade barriers are government programs that help American workers, through retraining and education, adapt to a globalizing economy. When it is assumed that such government programs will be in place, support for removing trade barriers becomes overwhelming.

As discussed in "Reservations About the Effects of Trade in Practice," most Americans feel that American workers are getting little benefit from the growth of international trade. They are not convinced that trade creates a net increase in jobs. They are also not convinced that trade increases the quality of new jobs and, even if it does, a majority does not feel that this offsets the disruption caused by losing jobs. Overall they do not feel that US trade policymakers are giving enough consideration to the needs of working Americans.

Given these concerns for American workers, Americans see trade barriers as a necessary means of protecting workers even when this is weighed against the benefit of lower prices. Presented a trade-off between lower prices and preserving American jobs, respondents tend to choose preserving jobs. The possibility of an American worker losing his job carries much more weight than the prospect of paying lower prices for consumer products. However, Americans also show ambivalence about trade barriers and a strong majority ultimately favors the long-term goal of gradually lowering such barriers.

Readiness to Employ Trade Barriers

Poll questions that elicit the highest percentages opposing the removal of trade barriers to protect jobs are in response to questions that ask about the total removal of such barriers. Since the early 1980s, the Los Angeles Times has asked whether Americans think "it should be the policy of the United States to restrict foreign imports into this country in order to protect American industry and American jobs, or [whether] there should be no restrictions on the sale of foreign products in the United States in order to permit the widest choice and the lowest prices for the American consumer" (emphasis added). Consistently, about two-thirds of Americans have opted for restricting imports, while about a quarter of respondents have preferred no restrictions. In September 1997, 67% favored restricting imports while just 24% preferred no restrictions. [1]

Other questions of this type have produced similar results. In February 1996 a Time/CNN poll found two-thirds agreeing with the argument that "the United States should tax foreign goods imported into this country in order to protect American jobs and wages." Just 27% agreed with the opposing argument, that the US "should not tax foreign goods…because this will raise the prices American consumers will have to pay for these goods" (emphasis added). [2]

Questions that specify that workers in fact suffer as a result of the removal of trade barriers (rather than presenting this as a prediction) also get high numbers criticizing their removal. In the October 1999 PIPA poll, respondents were presented a scenario in which the US makes a trade agreement that leads to a US shoe factory closing. The workers have to find new jobs that pay on average $5,000 per year less, but American consumers save $20 per pair of shoes. Based on this information, 63% said the US would have made a mistake by entering into the agreement. [3]

Ambivalence About Trade Barriers

At the same time Americans show ambivalent feelings about using trade barriers to protect workers. In a variety of poll questions other values have been elicited that weaken or even override the support for using trade barriers.

When the principle that workers have a responsibility to compete in the global market is put against the principle of protecting workers, support for trade barriers divides. When a May 1998 Epic-MRA poll asked respondents to choose between two statements, 47% chose "we should restrict or ban imports of foreign-made goods in order to protect certain American jobs," while 45% chose the opposing argument, that "permanent import barriers artificially prolong the death of certain types of outmoded jobs-those workers should compete for work openly in the global marketplace." This sentiment was also apparent in an October 1999 PIPA poll that implicitly referred to trade barriers as a form of protection. Presented two arguments, 48% favored the idea that "we have a responsibility to make sure that all Americans have the opportunity to share in the benefits of increased international trade, even if this slows the growth of trade and the general US economy." But the statistical equivalent (45%) thought, "we should do what's best for the growth of the economy, and leave it to individuals to adapt and take advantage of the new opportunities created by international trade." [4]

When the costs of trade barriers are brought into the picture, support for trade barriers drops to a minority. In October 1999, PIPA initially posed a question about lowering trade barriers in the textile industry. Sixty-two percent said they preferred to keep barriers up. This group was then told about the costs of protection to the economy with the statement, "Some economic experts have calculated that having these barriers cost the American economy…mostly due to higher prices consumers must pay…more than $50,000 for each job saved." Given this information, the percentage wanting to preserve the barriers decreased to 40% while the percentage in favor of lowering them increased to a slight majority of 53%. [5]

Other polls also show that there are limits to how much Americans are willing to absorb in higher prices to save jobs. In 1998 and 1999, Epic-MRA (WIIT) asked how much more per month Americans were willing to include in their budget to buy only American-made products and goods. In 1999, only 39% said they would be willing to pay more, while 31% said they were not willing to pay more, and 30% were undecided. In 1998, only 34% were willing to spend more, while 41% were not and 25% were undecided. [6]

Concerns that other countries will retaliate by imposing trade barriers soften support. In 1992, Roper asked whether "imposing economic penalties against the products of foreign countries is a good idea to preserve American jobs, or…a bad idea because it will cause the foreign countries to take similar actions against our products?" In this case, 50% said penalties were a good idea, with 39% saying they were a bad idea. [7]

An argument that free trade would be good because it would expand imports (and implicitly create jobs) did just as well as the argument that it would be bad because it would cost jobs. In April 2000 a Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll found that 43% agreed with the argument that "free trade would be good for the U.S. because it would help the U.S. economy by expanding exports," while 45% agreed with the argument that "free trade would be bad for the U.S. because it would end up costing the U.S. jobs." [8]

The principle of protecting workers with trade barriers is also offset by the principle of reciprocally lowering barriers. As mentioned in "US Trade Policy," in an October 1999 PIPA poll 64% said that if another country is willing to lower its trade barriers to US products, the US should be willing to lower its trade barriers. When PIPA followed up that question by asking if the same was true for low-wage countries, implying that this would mean wage competition with American workers, support dropped significantly, but 50% still favored such lowering, while 39% were opposed. In PIPA's April 1998 poll, though, only 43% favored reducing trade barriers with countries "with low wages," while 48% were opposed. [9]

Strong Support for Gradually Eliminating Trade Barriers

When given more differentiated options, a very strong majority favors gradually removing trade barriers. For example, given three options on the question of trade barriers in the October 1999 PIPA poll, only 31% took the unequivocal position in support of trade barriers: "We should keep up barriers against international trade because importing cheap products from other countries threatens American jobs." On the other hand, only 24% took the unequivocal position in favor of removing trade barriers immediately: "We should remove trade barriers now because this allows Americans to sell in other countries what they do the best job of producing, and to buy products that other countries do the best job of producing, saving everybody money." A plurality of 43% elected for the option that endorsed having trade barriers, but gradually removing them as workers adapt: "We should lower trade barriers, but only gradually, so American workers can have time to adjust to the changes that come with international trade." Thus 74% endorsed having some trade barriers for now, but 67% endorsed the view the goal of ultimately removing them. [10]


Strong Support for Government Programs to Help Workers

More popular than the idea of trade barriers are government programs that help workers adapt to the changes of a globalizing economy. This is also consistent with the support for the goal of removing trade barriers. In PIPA's 1999 poll, when given two argument options, a two-thirds majority (66%) agreed that the "federal government should invest in more worker retraining and education to help workers adapt to changes in the economy." Just 31% embraced the counter argument that "such efforts just create big government programs that do not work very well."[11]

In the same poll, a strong majority of 60% said that government efforts to help retrain workers who have lost jobs due to international trade have been inadequate. Just 29% thought such efforts have been adequate, and only 2% believed them to be more than adequate. [12]

This is consistent with the public's general support for government efforts to help with worker retraining. For example, in March 2000, a Penn, Schoen & Berland poll found that 88% wanted to "increase support for job retraining programs." A mere 8% were opposed. Also, a January 1996 Knight Ridder poll found an overwhelming 83% approved of "having [their] tax dollars used to pay for...retraining programs for people who have lost jobs." Only 15% disapproved. [13]

Many Americans also feel that making efforts to provide worker retraining for those who lose jobs due to trade would be an effective way to help workers deal with the changes of globalization. In the October 1999 PIPA poll, respondents were asked, "How well prepared do you think the average American is for the kind of global economy that will emerge over the next twenty years?" On a scale with 0 for "not at all prepared" and 10 for "extremely well prepared," the mean answer was 4.74. Then, when asked how well prepared the average American would be if "the US substantially increased the money spent on education and retraining for adults," the mean answer jumped to 5.90. [14]

Even more dramatic, in a 1991 poll by Peter Hart 79% said that "more training and retraining for workers to help them keep up with new technology and the skills of the future" would help "a lot" in aiding America to compete in world trade. Another 16% said retraining would help competitiveness "some," and only 3% said it would "not really help" or would be a "step in the wrong direction."[15]

At the same time, however, support for paying more taxes to support such programs is soft. When presented with a scenario in which lowering trade barriers reduced the price of clothing in the US but cost some textile workers their jobs, 51% favored a "slight increase in taxes to support programs to help displaced workers get new jobs" while 45% were opposed. (PIPA, October 1999). [16] However, the willingness to pay increased taxes is generally not a good measure of support for a program, as most people have some other government program that they believe should be cut first before tax increases become necessary.

As discussed in "Overwhelming Support for Trade When Workers are Helped," when respondents are given the option of having government programs to help workers who lose their jobs due to free trade, support for such programs is strong, and support for free trade-i.e. the removal of trade barriers--becomes overwhelming.

 

 

 

 

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