While experts keep reminding us that protectionism would prove catastrophic for the economy, the American people have begun to tune that message out. In exit polls after the Wisconsin primary, only 13 percent agreed that free trade with other nations creates jobs here at home; 74 percent believed that free trade produces a net loss of American jobs.
That confusion is understandable. The most recent recession ended back in November 2001, but in the subsequent "recovery" we've actually lost 700,000 jobs. Corporate profits may be up, Wall Street stocks are rising, but median household income -- the best gauge of how the mythical "average American" is doing -- has fallen in the most recent Census Bureau report.
In this kind of economy, it is only natural for voters to begin to wonder what's going on. As Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan admitted last month, "There is a palpable unease that businesses and jobs are being drained from the United States, with potentially adverse long-run implications for unemployment and the standard of living of the average American."
Inevitably, that "palpable unease" has drawn a political response. Both Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards are sounding protectionist themes on the campaign trail, even if they haven't yet proposed protectionist policies. Congress is refusing to dismantle corporate tax policies that have been ruled illegal trade subsidies, even at the risk of a trade war with Europe. And having boosted farm subsidies and imposed steel import tariffs, President Bush has already proved himself willing to seek political advantage at the expense of free trade.
So, are we about to embark on a new wave of protectionism that economic textbooks say would be disastrous? Has globalization lost the political consensus needed to sustain it?
No, not yet. But unless something changes, it could happen pretty quickly.
Even those economists who are most insistent about the benefits of globalization concede that it is a messy and sometimes destructive process. While stockholders and corporate executives reap enormous benefits, others find themselves having to compete with low-wage workers overseas and still others lose their jobs, homes and careers.
That harsh divide between winners and losers was exemplified by news last week that PeachCare, Georgia's tax-subsidized health insurance program for low-income families, now serves more than 10,000 children of Wal-Mart employees. Meanwhile, the five heirs of Sam Walton rank among the 10 richest people on the planet, with a net worth of $20 billion each.
For many Americans, though, concern about the impact of free trade did not crystallize until the discovery that even high-tech jobs are being shipped overseas. Economists say that the importance of that phenomenon has been vastly exaggerated, pointing out that the number of high-tech workers who have lost their jobs overseas is relatively tiny. What they miss, though, is the power of symbolism. When even high-tech workers with skills and education lose their jobs, it drives home to everyone that no one is safe, that there is no protection.
If we are to fend off a growing demand for protectionism, it will not be enough for our leading economists to chant "free trade good, protectionism bad" at every opportunity. Lectures in economic theory simply will not suffice. A political consensus on behalf of free trade can be sustained only if we find a way to spread both its benefits and its pain more equitably and give people some sense of security in uncertain times.
Instead, we are doing just the opposite. Last week, the U.S. Senate voted against extending long-term unemployment benefits. The Bush administration is cutting housing subsidies for the working poor, and its new budget proposes little or no new money for job training. The Georgia Legislature is slashing hundreds of millions of dollars from public education, as are its counterparts across the country, and taxpayer support for higher education is plummeting.
The net result of those policies is to make people feel more vulnerable. And vulnerable people aren't real picky about where they seek protection.
Jay Bookman is the deputy editorial page editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
© 2004 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution