Hunter-gatherers freely traded what they produced (gathered) for what they needed but did not produce. The story is well known (except by Peter Navarro, an energy and environmental policy analyst masquerading as Trump’s trade expert). By specializing in what they did best (hunting) and trading their bounty with those better at producing the other things hunters needed, total output was greater and every one was better off. The right to sell what we produce for what we need/want but don’t produce is, or should be, a pretty fundamental right. It is called free trade.
Historically governments have interfered with this right to protect the markets of special groups otherwise unable to compete. These trade restrictions and tariffs reduced total output making everyone (except those protected) worse off. Recognizing the general harm done by trade restrictions, most countries have negotiated mutual reductions in these restrictions. These have taken the form of bilateral and regional and global multilateral trade agreements.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was one of the most recent efforts to expand trade and its income rising benefits. It was negotiated over an eight year period among 13 Pacific Rim countries and in addition to expanding trade would have deepened U.S. leadership in setting trade standards in the region. Steve Bannon rejoiced when President Trump withdrew the United States from the agreement, claiming that all future agreements would be bilateral. President Trump thereby potentially gave standard setting leadership in the area to China. Not very smart.
Candidate Trump had also promised to scrap the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Canada and Mexico, calling it the worst trade deal of all times (a rather crowded category). President Trump wisely decided to renegotiate it instead. It has been updated several times since it was originally signed and another round can potentially make it better still. In fact, many of the good features of the now discarded TPP are being incorporated.
If we remove existing restrictions on purchasing Canadian lumber and millwork products, for example, fewer trees will be cut down in Washington and Oregon. In exchange Canada will reduce its tariffs and other restrictions on American cars, equipment, and food product sales to Canada. Production will be more efficient and incomes will rise both here and there.
As competitive advantages shift with freer trade and product and manufacturing innovations, some workers will need to shift to new areas of work and may need new skills. Public policy should facilitate and ease the adjustment burdens of these shifts, but it is important to recognize that these shifts arise mainly from improving productivity and not from increases in cross border trade. Most of us export our labor to a domestic company (our employer) and import everything we need (paid for by our labor export). But most of those imports are from domestic companies and service providers not from so called foreign trade. The era of the self sufficient farm families ended long, long ago. https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2017/07/23/the-balance-of-trade/
President Trump may well oversee the negotiation of a better NAFTA (better for all three countries involved). Unfortunately his style of leadership in this area—baseless claims of great harm to American workers from existing trade agreements—provides a very misleading message to the American worker and public in general. He creates a negative atmosphere around the right of each of us to sell what we make to whom ever we choose and to buy what we need from whomever we choose. The world has benefited enormously from freer trade and the increases in worker productivity it has made posible. This is a huge understatement. President Trump does us all a great disservice by characterizing trade in negative terms.