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Free-trade lemmings are perilously close to the cliff

Our elected officials in Washington – both Republicans and Democrats – are wandering the halls of Congress like lemmings in a sort of “free trade trance,” and if they don’t come to their senses soon, we’ll all pay the price.

These free trade lemmings are convinced that their unbridled, free market view of trade – the notion that we should sign every agreement possible because more trade in and of itself is necessarily better – is good for the nation in the long term .  To achieve this, they hand the president the authority to negotiate these deals in secret – widely known as Fast Track — with our potential trade partners and then at the ninth hour are pressured to either sign on the dotted line or not, foregoing any chance of amendments that might protect American jobs, American workers or the environment.

{mosads}Congress has signed plenty of these agreements in the past; let’s see how the track record looks to date. After signing massive trade agreements including the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the U.S.-Korea Trade Agreement, the prosperity and jobs that were promised to flood our nation and lift our middle class like the rising tide have failed to appear. In 2014, the trade deficit increased to $505 billion, representing nearly 3 percent of the nation’s total Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and acting as a drag on the overall economy. The U.S. has carried the weight of a trade deficit every year for the past 41 years.

There are a number of reasons why these agreements are not working for us and one of the largest is currency manipulation, which allows governments to keep their currencies undervalued and boost exports, limit imports and create large current-account surpluses. Malaysia, Singapore and Japan, three known currency manipulators, are involved in the current Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations, one of the massive deals currently being considered by Congress.

For example, the U.S. deficit with Japan reached nearly $80 billion in 2013, and currency manipulation was the most significant cause of the deficit. It is estimated that the trade deficit with Japan alone resulted in 896,600 jobs eliminated in the nation across nearly all congressional districts.

And then there’s the trade deal with South Korea, which is celebrating its 3-year anniversary.    When we signed this deal, the American public was promised an increase in exports and at least 70,000 new jobs.  Instead, our exports to South Korea are down and we’ve lost 84,000 jobs. For every new U.S. car sold to Korea since we signed the deal, they sell us 14 new cars, all made with jobs that could and should be here.

Even agriculture, which has fared fairly well in these trade deals, lost big on this one. U.S. exports to Korea have taken major hits as beef exports are down 5 percent, pork is down 4 percent, poultry is down 41 percent and grains are down 21 percent. At the same time, Korean exports to the U.S. increased by 28 percent.

Many might wonder why one of the nation’s largest organizations representing family farmers and ranchers is coming out against massive trade agreements. Trade can and has benefitted U.S. agriculture, which represents about ten percent of net exports from the U.S. Agriculture exports have been greater than U.S. agriculture imports for more than fifty years and has been one of the only clear winners in these deals. The $39 billion surplus generated by farm exports helps counter the enormous U.S. non-agricultural trade deficit. 

There are two answers to that. First, we’re not only farmers and ranchers, we’re Americans, and we’re tired of seeing our great nation drawing the short straw in every trade deal we sign. Fairness is ingrained in the American psyche and culture, so looking at the real economics of these deals just rubs folks the wrong way.

The second reason is more practical.  As farmers and ranchers, we understand that the vast majority of the products we grow – whether it’s tomatoes or cattle – are sold domestically. And if we continue to lose good jobs and dig ourselves into a deeper debt hole as a nation, our major market – our fellow Americans – won’t have the means to purchase the food, fiber and fuel we grow. So family farmers and ranchers lose too, big time, in the long run.

We need to take a new approach to trade that focuses on reducing the U.S. trade deficit as its primary goal. We must also refuse to enter agreements that will subvert the jurisdiction of our important domestic laws protecting workers, our children and the environment. Finally, trade is a concept whereby the assumption is that both parties can benefit by swapping goods, which is why we need to stop thinking of trade as a baseball bat to single-handedly bludgeon other nations into changing their behavior. Just look how well that mindset worked with Cuba. 

The easiest way to keep the lemmings from charging over the cliff is to deny this president, and every president of any party that follows, fast track authority. 

Johnson is president of the National Farmers Union.


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