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International Trade

Support for Trade in Principle

A majority has consistently expressed the view that trade has a positive impact on the US and the US economy. A July 2004 CCFR poll found that 57% believed that "international trade" was good for the US economy; 39% said it was bad. More broadly, in October 2005 67% said they had a very (19%) or somewhat favorable (48%) opinion of international trade (GMF). In the same poll, 79% agreed that "Freer trade helps to increase prosperity, both in the US and in other parts of the world." In June 2000, near the peak of the long boom of the 1990s, Gallup found 67% saying the "increase in foreign trade" deserved a great deal or fair amount of credit for the "positive state of the economy in the past few years." An October 1996 poll by CBS found an especially high 69% thought "trade with other countries-both buying and selling products" was "good for the US economy." Only 17% thought trade with other countries was bad for the economy. [1] However, when a September 1997 Los Angeles Times poll gave respondents the option of saying that trade had not "made a difference one way or the other to the economy", only a plurality (39%) still said "free international trade has helped the economy," while 18% chose the 'no difference' option and 30% said it has hurt the economy. [2]

Poll questions that ask about "free trade" itself find fairly robust support in principle. In October 2005, an overwhelming 83% agreed with the statement that "freer trade enables American business to access new markets for our products" (GMF).[2a] In an Investors Business Daily/TIPP poll conducted in May 2002, Americans were asked about "free trade between the US and other countries" and given three options-that it is good, bad, or makes no difference "for the US economy." Of those surveyed, 52% thought it was good for the United States, while only 25% thought it was bad, with 14% saying "no difference." [3] Given two options in a Pew poll in February 2000, 64% said that they felt "free trade with other countries" is good for the United States; just 27% felt it is bad. When an April 1999 poll by Rasmussen Research asked, "Generally speaking, is free trade good for America?" 55% said yes, just 16% said no, and 29% were not sure. In a Penn, Schoen and Berland poll in January 1997, three in four (76%) replied "yes" when asked simply, "Do you support free trade?" Just 16% said "no." Even as far back as 1953, Gallup found that a 54% majority of Americans favored "a policy of free trade." [4]

Assessments of free trade can be influenced, however, by the framing of the question. In October 2003, TIPP asked the same question mentioned above about the impact of free trade on the US economy and found only a plurality of 45% saying it was good. Thirty-four percent said it was bad and 13 percent said no difference. However, unlike in the 1992 poll, the question was preceded by the statement," In recent years, the federal government has expanded the policy of free trade with other nations. As a result, trade has greatly increased with countries such as China, Mexico, Singapore…" Given the reservations Americans feel about the impact of trade on jobs (see Reservations About the Effects of Trade in Practice ) - particularly as a result of freer trade with lower wage countries - it is not surprising that positive responses declined. Still, positive responses outweighed negative ones, suggesting support for free trade in principle is resilient.[4a]

Other questions suggest the public is positive about the growth of trade. In a September 2002 Pew poll, respondents were first asked if they thought trade and business ties between the United States and other countries had increased relative to five years ago. A majority of 67% said these ties had increased "a lot more (39%)" or "somewhat more (28%)." Only 16% said they had increased "only a little more" and 9% "not more." This question was later followed with one that asked whether respondents thought "growing trade and business ties between...the United States...and other countries" was a good thing or not. An overwhelming 78% said it was a "very good" (21%) or "somewhat good" (57%) thing. Only 18% thought it was a "somewhat bad" (14%) or "very bad" thing. [5]

In an April 2002 poll by Greenberg Quinlan Opinion Research, Americans were asked whether they considered themselves a supporter of free trade or not. Respondents were asked to rate themselves on a scale of 0 to 10, in which 10 indicated that the label of supporter "is perfect" as a description and 0 indicated that the label of supporter is "totally wrong." The mean response to this question was 6.4, with 59% giving a response above 5 (a positive response), 20% giving a 5, and just 18% giving a response below 5. [6]

Interestingly, one of the highest levels of support for trade was expressed in response to the question of how growing trade affects "you and your family." Asked in a September 2002 Pew poll, "Now thinking about you and your family--do you think the growing trade and business ties between our country and other countries are very good, somewhat good, somewhat bad or very bad for you and your family?" 79% said they are very good (20%) or somewhat good (59%), while only 15% said they are somewhat (11%) or very (4%) bad. [7]

When probed specifically about exports support is especially high, presumably because it does not elicit concerns about the impact of imports on jobs. In a July 2002 Penn Schoen and Berland poll, 87% said that "increasing U.S. exports to other countries around the globe" is an important "part of a strategy to improve America's economy" (with 51% saying it was "very important" and 36% saying "somewhat important") while only 12% said it was either "not very important" or "not at all important." [8]

Benefits of Trade

A strong belief in the theoretical benefits of trade predicted by economists reinforces this general support for freer trade. Americans respond favorably to the idea that increased trade means increased or improved product selection. For example, a January 2005 National Opinion Research Center poll found 56% agreeing that, "Free trade leads to better products becoming available in America." Thirty-eight percent disagreed. In a September 2002 Pew poll, asked about the fact that as a result of trade "different products that are now available from different parts of the world," a strong majority of 81% said it was either a "very good (30%)" or "somewhat good (51%)" thing for our country. [9] In a May 2000 poll by Epic-MRA, large majorities said that imports from other countries give American consumers a "larger selection of goods and products to choose from" (87%), "keep American manufacturers on their toes and makes them work harder to improve the quality and prices of their products to be more competitive" (80%), and allow low-income families to buy many products they might not otherwise be able to buy (74%). Most appear to recognize the positive effect on prices for consumer products. In an April 1998 study by Epic-MRA, 61% believed they would pay more for products if they were to "buy only American-made goods" [emphasis added]. Another 27% felt they would pay about the same, and just 10% thought they would pay less. [10]

Americans are also positive about the impact of trade when asked to think solely as consumers (as opposed to workers). This suggests that they believe, as economists suggest, that trade lowers prices. In July 2004, CCFR found majorities saying "international trade" is good for "consumers like you" (73%) and for "your own standard of living" (65%). In PIPA's January 2004 poll on trade, 52% rated trade's impact on American consumers as positive (greater than 5 on a scale of 0-10), while only 16% rated it as negative. It must be noted, however, that when the value of lower consumer prices is paired off against job creation or job security, a majority favors the latter [see "Helping American Workers"].[10a]

Another reason Americans have supported trade is their general sense that trade promotes good relations between countries. In October 2005 78% agreed that "Freer trade makes the world more stable by putting people from different countries in contact with each other"; only 16% disagreed with this argument (GMF). During the period leading up to NAFTA's passage in 1993, two ABC News polls found that two-thirds of respondents believed NAFTA would help "strengthen US relations with Mexico and Canada."[11]

Free Trade Agreements

Questions about free trade agreements also tend to show majority support. Epic/MRA in March 2003 found 63% saying they approve of free trade agreements with other countries," with just 26% disapproving --up slightly from the levels of approval in 2000 (57%), 1999 (60%), and 1998 (59%). A December 1997 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found 55% saying that international trade agreements are "a step in the right direction," with just 22% saying they were "a step in the wrong direction" and 13% saying they make no difference. In August 1996 a Washington Post/Kaiser Foundation /Harvard poll also found 55% saying that "trade agreements between the US and other countries" are good "for the nation's economy." [12]

However, more specific questions that name certain agreements may show only plurality support. In three 2004 polls, Pew asked, "Do you think that free trade agreements like NAFTA and the World Trade Organization, have been a good thing or a bad thing for the United States?" In December, 47% said they were a good thing and 34% said they were a bad thing. Results were very similar each time. Newsweek also asked this question in February 2004 and found a more negative result, though the percentage volunteering "mixed" or "don't know" was more than one-third of the sample, making it hard to compare to other poll results. [13]

A 2005 question by Ipsos Public Affairs and Ayres, McHenry and Associates that included a detailed description in 2005 also found plurality support. Fifty percent favored "free trade agreements that attempt to cut costs for consumers by reducing restrictions and taxes on imports, exports, and business investments between the United States and other countries." Thirty-two percent opposed such agreements, and 18% said they didn't know. The high percentage of "don't know" responses perhaps suggests the detail of the question caused more respondents to express doubt about their position, or that they had different reactions to different parts of the question.




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