It's easy to play bumper-sticker politics with trade. But it gets us nowhere.
When Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton came out against the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) in the run up to Ohio's presidential primary last month, they also spoke about U.S. trade policy generally. They mentioned problems with China's currency, toxic toys and contaminated food, and communities wrecked by plant shutdowns and lost jobs.
But conservative economists and a lot of newspaper editors heard only "Nafta" and saw only "protectionism."
Our country deserves a real debate on trade, not a debate where labeling one side protectionist is game, set and match.
The supporters of our trade policy rarely mention our exploding trade deficits. In just 15 years, our annual trade deficit has mushroomed to over $800 billion from $38 billion in 1993. With Mexico, our trade surplus evolved into a $90.7 billion trade deficit. With China, our trade deficit jumped to $250 billion today from about $22 billion. President George H.W. Bush once estimated that a $1 billion trade deficit represents 13,000 lost jobs. Do the math.
One country's deficit is another country's surplus. Our annual trade deficit helps fuel the growth of government-owned investment funds overseas. Free traders rarely mention these funds even as they proliferate.
Nonetheless, today, five governments control more than $2 trillion that they use to buy stocks and other assets in America and other countries. So far, the funds controlled by the People's Republic of China and the United Arab Emirates have been passive investors. So far.
Advocates of free trade rarely want to debate the fact that unregulated trade with China has recently allowed toys with lead paint, contaminated toothpaste and poisonous pet food into this country. We take for granted our clean air, pure food and safe drinking water. But these blessings are not by chance: They result from laws and rules about wages, health and the environment. Trade agreements with no rules to protect our health, the environment and labor rights inevitably create a race to the bottom and weaken health and safety rules for our trading partners and for our own communities.
But cheerleaders for current U.S. trade policy, while mostly shrinking from a debate about the issues that matter to middle-class America, insist that those of us who want more trade – but trade under a very different set of rules – are protectionists.
I guess it depends on what you want to protect.
Eight times I have taken an oath of office to "support and defend" the United States. My colleagues and I commit ourselves to protecting our nation "from all enemies, foreign and domestic." That includes protecting our neighborhoods from unsafe products. And, yes, that also means protecting our workers and businesses from unfair competition.
The Colombia Free Trade Agreement is being shopped around Congress by an overzealous White House. Let's put aside, for now, the debate about rewarding a country that has done little to stem the tide of rampant labor abuses and human rights violations – including dozens of murders.
Let's focus on the merits of the agreement. Supporters sell it as a free-trade agreement, a great opportunity for American companies because it eliminates tariffs on our products. If that were true, the agreement would be a few lines long.
Instead, we have a trade agreement that runs nearly 1,000 pages and is chock full of giveaways and protections for drug companies, oil companies, and financial services companies, and incentives to outsource jobs now held by Americans.
Nafta. The Central American Free Trade Agreement. China. Now Colombia. We have a pattern in our trade policy that aims to protect special interests, but betray our workers, our environment, our communities.
Let's stop accusing one another of being protectionists. And let us agree that U.S. trade policy – writing the rules of globalization to protect our national interests and our communities – is worthy of a vigorous national debate.
Mr. Brown, a Democratic senator from Ohio, is the author of "Myths of Free Trade" (New Press, 2004).