Yes to free trade

Our view: America should trade smarter

April 10, 2008

Hillary Clinton fired her chief campaign strategist this week in an embarrassing tiff over free trade. She's against it, and he was helping Colombia promote a free trade treaty with America. The opposition of Mrs. Clinton, Sen. Barack Obama and others to free trade is understandable during an economic downturn (and presidential campaign), but their protests miss the point. Free trade isn't the problem, the terms of the deals are.

Nations that trade with the United States should be held to the same tough environmental rules that apply here, agree to much stronger protections for union workers and respect American copyright and patent rights. At the same time, our government must be far more generous in funding programs that provide comprehensive retraining and other economic help for U.S. workers who lose their jobs to foreign competition.

American advocates of free trade have long paid lip service to such measures while arguing that the benefits of global trade far outweigh the pain of economic dislocation. But in recent years, the job losses have ranged far beyond blue-collar manufacturing to more highly skilled and well-paid professions that include computer services, industrial design, scientific research and financial planning. Meanwhile, the most substantial job growth in the U.S. has been in less-skilled and low-wage areas such as health care services and the food service industry.

All of this is making the nation's middle class increasingly doubtful about the benefits of free trade and concerned about its economic future, polls show. But America cannot turn its back on the world.

If the United States fails to lower trade barriers with Colombia, South Korea and other countries with deals now pending, the European Union, China and others will. Trade barriers are a futile exercise in a global market that continues to push work to the lowest-wage countries.

Still, America can compete more effectively, using its power as the world's largest consumer economy to cut better deals to benefit the environment and foreign workers while leveling the playing field for U.S. businesses. Tougher negotiations abroad and a stronger social safety net here are the answers to the challenges presented by free trade.

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