No issue divides Americans and politicians during this election season more than trade agreements and their impacts on jobs and the economy. As presidential candidates in both parties find resonance with an anti-free trade platform, the ground underneath the decades old bipartisan consensus on free trade policy seems to be crumbling.  Free and fair trade agreements are an important tool of American economic and diplomatic power. But trade proponents often promise miraculous benefits for job creation in the short term. Over the long term, well negotiated trade agreements are usually positive, but often not for everyone. Without a parallel domestic program to provide job opportunities for those that lose their jobs to increased global competition caused by free trade, it is no longer possible to make a strong argument for free trade agreements on the somewhat elusive promise of good jobs in the future.
Here is the real problem with US government backed free trade agreements: the benefits of trade aren’t immediately tangible for most Americans, whereas the negative effects are often pronounced, particularly in communities dependent on manufacturing jobs.


This isn’t an argument against free trade. Free and fair trade agreements are and important pillar of global economic competitiveness and world engagement and therefore in both our national economic and security interests. But we must acknowledge that many believe these agreements are more free than fair and create negative impacts on domestic jobs. While an open worldwide trading system contributes to a growing American economy, especially in the longer term,  the word "overall" does not mean much if you happen to lose your job to global competition.  As John Maynard Keynes once said, “But this long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead.”
What’s needed, if we are to preserve the possibility of American engagement and leadership in the global trade agenda in the future, is a parallel action to any free trade agreement that shows working class Americans that government recognizes the job loss caused by global competition.

The solution is a domestic jobs program that rebuilds American infrastructure: roads, bridges, water and sewer systems, electric and power grid, flood control and more. Such an investment would create millions of jobs to replace many of the manufacturing jobs lost through global competition and improve American economic competitiveness.
I just returned from China on an Aspen Institute conference. There, I witnessed both extraordinary infrastructure investments and an economy built in large part on the advantages of low wage workers competing against American workers. To respond, the US should not disengage from negotiating favorable trade agreements such as the Trans Pacific Partnership. But at the same time we should redouble our own efforts to rebuild and modernize our infrastructure. We cannot compete with decrepit roads, bridges, water and sewer systems, ports and airports. Granted, this means we have to have the courage to find the resources – and yes, the taxes – to pay for a substantial financial investment in rebuilding America. But the alternative is decaying infrastructure and communities, incapable of producing a bright economic future for the US.
Such an investment would create tens of millions of good jobs accessible to many of those very same Americans who lose so much out of free trade agreements. Creating jobs for Americans struggling in a global economy would improve the lives of millions of families, increase social cohesion and grow our economy by bolstering consumer resources and helping businesses get goods to market on high quality infrastructure.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, the picture of trade right now is job loss, disruption, despair and anger. The picture of building roads, bridges, air and seaports is millions of jobs for Americans who struggle to find work otherwise and an investment in a competitive America of the future Free and fairly negotiated trade agreements combined with a large scale, job producing infrastructure program might just give our political, business and labor leaders the opportunity to show Americans a brighter economic future in a globally competitive economy.


Glickman, a former US Congressman and US Secretary of Agriculture