A Nation Engaged: Trade Stirs Up Sharp Debate In This Election Cycle | KERA News

A Nation Engaged: Trade Stirs Up Sharp Debate In This Election Cycle

Apr 23, 2016

In this year's election cycle, international trade has emerged as a top campaign issue.

So journalists with NPR and several public-radio member stations set out this week to examine trade matters as part of our special election-year series: A Nation Engaged.

We journalists learned a lot about what Americans are saying about trade. You can join in the learning process and conversation on this page, where we've pulled together the stories and interviews.

If you don't have time to dive into all of it, here are some of the comments that helped us tell stories about the good and bad impacts of trade.

  • Mike John, Missouri cattle rancher: "This pending TPP trade negotiation, to me, is hugely important for agricultural commodities, but specifically for beef. ... The Asian markets are showing a huge increase in demand for beef."
  • Dennis Roach, truck driver: "Jobs are going to foreign countries, we're shipping more products in from overseas. ... I bet you go to anybody's house and look in their closet and it says: Indonesia, China, Japan, Taiwan. Very few things are made in the USA."
  • Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper: "Commerce between two countries, throughout history, has always, has almost always, led to improving quality of life on both sides."
  • David Autor, MIT labor economist: "If I lose my job at a furniture factory where I've worked for decades, no amount of cheaper toys and raincoats at Wal-Mart is going to make me whole again."
  • Congressional Research Service: "NAFTA did not cause the huge job losses feared by the critics or the large economic gains predicted by supporters. The net overall effect of NAFTA on the U.S. economy appears to have been relatively modest."
  • Ron Kirk, former U.S. trade representative and former Dallas mayor: "No state benefits more from global trade and global commerce than the state of Texas. In Texas, we lead the country in exports and no other states are close — we export just shy of $300 billion of goods and products and services. ... There are literally thousands of Texans who owe their livelihoods to the production and movement of goods to consumers around the world."
  • John Hansen, Nebraska Farmers Union president and opponent of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement: "We have a more positive balance of trade with countries that we do not have a trade agreement with. We'd be better off if we did nothing than we did something that's destructive."

Listen to the audio above for a discussion of trade in the political season with NPR's Michel Martin, NPR's Marilyn Geewax and Colorado Public Radio's Megan Verlee.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're going to start with election-year politics. But we're going to talk about issue that's gotten candidates and voters riled up across the political spectrum. That issue is free trade.


DONALD TRUMP: The TPP is a horrible deal. It's a deal that was designed for China to come in as they always do through the back door and totally take advantage of everyone.


TED CRUZ: We're getting killed in international trade right now.


HILLARY CLINTON: We've learned a lot about trade agreements in the past years. Sometimes they look great on paper. Now looking back on it, it doesn't have the results we thought it would have.


BERNIE SANDERS: The TPP is just a new easy way for corporations to shut down in America and to send jobs abroad.

MARTIN: That was Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz and Democratic candidates Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders all talking about the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and free trade in general. We wanted to talk about why international free trade has struck such a nerve with Americans this year. So all this week, a group of NPR stations around the country participated in a coordinated conversation called A Nation Engaged. We're closing it out with NPR senior business editor Marilyn Geewax. Hi Marilyn.


MARTIN: And from the studios of Colorado Public Radio Megan Verlee. Megan, welcome to you as well.


MARTIN: So let me just start out, Marilyn, by pointing out that actually for decades, the political parties have by and large supported big trade agreements that you hear about in the news. People will have heard about NAFTA. They will have heard about the TPP. Why has it turned around seemingly so much, and why is China such a focus of all of this anger?

GEEWAX: Right. Let me just say that in the past, Republicans liked it because they tend to be pro-business, Democrats tended to like it because they tend to be internationalists. They see the world as being globalized, so you had a lot of support for it. But then we slammed into the Great Recession. A lot of the popularity of trade went down.

Then when it comes to China, there's a lot of deep feeling about that because we all go into the store and we see those things made in China, and it seems like gosh, aren't they making everything these days? Well, China is not part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It's not one of the 12 nations involved. It's the United States, Japan, Australia - all these countries that are around the Pacific Rim but specifically not China.

MARTIN: But the anger is real. Marilyn, could you talk a little bit more about this?

GEEWAX: That individual anger is certainly real and justifiable. I mean, if you're one of the people that lost their jobs, you really hurt and your community is devastated. For example, this year we've had this kind of well-known case about Carrier. It's a company that makes air conditioning. And they announced they were closing a plant back in February, and they're moving all these jobs to Mexico. Well holy cow, if you're one of those people that just lost their job, this hurts a lot. The intense downside of trade is felt very much by people, and it makes it easy to point to examples like that if you're a political candidate.

The thing that's tricky about trade is that this is a very large economy. It's almost a $19 trillion economy with 323 million people. A lot happens at once. The gains can be very diffused and they're spread out over the economy. For example, air conditioning is really cheap now. A lot of that is because of overseas production.

MARTIN: You know, it's interesting because when a lot of our reporters, as we mentioned, across the country have been digging into this over the course of the week, they experienced that kind of mixed bag of opinion themselves. For example, in Los Angeles, Saul Gonzales from member station KCRW talked with truck drivers in California. They're delivering goods from one of the busiest ports in the U.S. Here's Brian Spencer making the case for how trade helps him personally.


BRIAN SPENCER: How I pay my bills, how I take care of my family, etc., etc., is for the simple source of our trade system. You know, if nothing's coming and going, I'm sitting still, therefore I'm not making any money. I'm not making - you know, so I can't live.

MARTIN: And here's another trucker Dennis Roach, who had a different opinion, less of a fan. Here it is.


DENNIS ROACH: Jobs are going to foreign countries. We're shipping more product in from overseas. You know, I'd bet you go to anybody's house and look in their closet and it says Indonesia, China, Japan, Taiwan. There's very few things that'll say made in the U.S.A.

MARTIN: Let's go to Megan Verlee now. You had a piece that ran on member station Colorado Public Radio. Tell us a little bit about it. Well, let's play it a bit from the piece then Megan you can tell us more.


VERLEE: It's a quintessential Colorado scene. Grant Bledsoe's family has owned this Yuma County operation since the 1940's.

This is what hungry calves sound like?

GRANT BLEDSOE: They're just getting ready to go to grass for the summer time.

VERLEE: These steers will eventually be going a lot further than that, or at least parts of them will.

BLEDSOE: It's just amazing some of the products that get sold around the world, big demand for the diaphragm, the stomach, tripe to Mexico.

MARTIN: So Megan, tell us a little bit more about your reporting. What were the opinions of the people that you interviewed?

VERLEE: Well, like you've been saying, mixed from, you know, very traditional industries like beef production, which was shaped by NAFTA opening markets and now stands to really expand under the TPP into more Asian markets. On the one hand, we have people for whom the breaking down the barriers through trade deals is going to be a big plus. And I talked to workers who've been displaced because I think probably anywhere in the country you can find people who know that their jobs have moved overseas.

MARTIN: You met two women at Starbucks, for example. You want to tell us about that?

VERLEE: Yes. Venice Romero and Vanessa Abdurahman are really good friends. They met working at a T-Mobile call center, and they worked at that call center for more than a decade. And then a couple years ago, T-Mobile closed that center, moved the jobs over to the Philippines. And suddenly, these women who have families, have responsibilities, realize they only had high school diplomas and no way to make as much money as they had before. So they used a federal program called the Trade Adjustment Assistance program. It pays for two years of retraining to workers whose jobs have been lost to trade.

And they went back to school, became respiratory techs. They're making about as much now as they did before, and they're both a lot more satisfied with their work. So they're kind of - they're how trade is supposed to work - you know, these low-skill, low-paying jobs move overseas. They're replaced by higher-skill, higher-wage jobs. And in an ideal system, the same people get trained for those new jobs. What I found though is that very few people actually get to take advantage of this retraining opportunity.

MARTIN: Marilyn, is this an issue where you stand depends on where you sit because you're in an area where your livelihood depends on trade, then you tend to be for it, but if you're in an area where you think that you've been harmed by it, you tend to be against it? Or...

GEEWAX: Well...

MARTIN: ...Is that not so much the case anymore?

GEEWAX: Economists will say that generally speaking, there's something like a ratio of 16 to 1 of benefits to losses to trade. They find the data shows that ultimately it's good. But as I say, if you were that Carrier worker who just found out your job's going to Mexico, it's pretty tough to sit there, you know, thumbing through some academic studies saying that somebody else is winning when you know you're losing. And one other thing I just want to point out is that going forward, these deals are not going to be that much about manufacturing because that's sort of in the rearview mirror. We have lost a lot of manufacturing jobs already. What's happening in the future is how do these trade deals affect things like intellectual property, pharmaceuticals, much more sophisticated products.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Marilyn Geewax and also with us Megan Verlee from Colorado Public Radio. Thank you both so much.

GEEWAX: Oh, you're welcome.

VERLEE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.