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Trade, Jobs and Sales Jobs: Failing To Do the Math on Export Promises

US President Barack Obama has sent long-stalled free trade deals with Colombia, Panama and South Korea to Congress and pressed lawmakers there to approve them "without delay." As is customary when it comes to international trade agreements, the mainstream media seems incapable of giving voice to those critical of such deals. Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch calls the notion that a bilateral deal with Korea would support some 70,000 jobs “one of the most popular outright errors in the history of trade debates.”

Corporate media have spent the last few years portraying the federal budget deficit, not jobs, as the public’s consuming worry, despite poll after poll revealing people unsurprisingly more interested in getting or holding onto a paycheck (FAIR Media Advisory, 8/1/11)

Only now that official Washington turns its sights to the issue have media “discovered” the unemployment crisis—George Stephanopoulos now refers matter-of-factly to “the country’s top issue, jobs” (Good Morning America, 8/16/11)—but the same skewed priorities are on display.

Bad enough the glib nature of their attentions, reflected in New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s ingenuous “feeling” (8/27/11), based on visiting his hometown on vacation, that perhaps media may have “dropped the ball” on the issue. Surveys like those cited by Kristof, revealing a public deeply worried about their livelihoods, have long been available; yet it took hearing about it “in the living rooms or on the front porches here in Yamhill, Oregon, where I grew up” for Kristof to give them weight.

Media’s shallowness of approach extends to their handling of factual issues, like those around the push to pass languishing “free trade” agreements (FTAs) with South Korea, Colombia and Panama, where familiar promises of new jobs and booming export growth meet little resistance, despite a remarkable lack of credibility.

Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch (8/5/11) calls the notion that a bilateral deal with Korea would support some 70,000 jobs “one of the most popular outright errors in the history of trade debates.” The group (8/6/10) found the factoid, cited by U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, among others, to be based on a glaringly selective reading of data from the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC), focusing on export growth but ignoring the effect of imports.

If we were to account for the effects of imports, use this same method of jobs calculation, and consider the effect of the Korea FTA on the U.S. global trade balance (available on Table 2.3 in the USITC report), we would find that the Korea FTA would cost us a net 2,100–2,700 jobs, since the trade deficit will increase by $308–$416 million.

It sure looks like an intentional misrepresentation, but outlets like Washington (8/3/11) simply reported the 70,000 jobs figure as an assertion of “the White House, which backs the trade deals,” without evident curiosity as to its truth, while the San Francisco Chronicle (8/18/11) used the bogus statistic as a foundation for an editorial endorsement of the deals.


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Kirk “made a compelling case that delayed ratification of those bilateral trade agreements is costing American job opportunities,” the Chronicle explained. “Increasing U.S. exports by lowering trade barriers is a way to stimulate job creation without government subsidies. A nation with 9 percent unemployment cannot afford to pass up such opportunities.”

At the Associated Press (8/4/11), the distorted claim of 70,000 jobs, along with the “$13 billion” increase in exports on which such claims are statistically premised, were rendered neutral and eminently plausible: “The stakes are considerable: The trade agreement with South Korea would be the biggest since the 1994 passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, with estimates of 70,000 new jobs created by increased U.S. exports.... Combined, the three deals could increase U.S. exports by $13 billion a year.”

The idea that the pacts would increase exports by between $11 and $13 billion was reported without examination in news reports (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 7/17/11; San Antonio Express-News, 7/17/11) and touted in editorials (Boston Herald, 7/3/11).

But again, while no estimates are available for the Panama deal, Global Trade Watch (8/5/11) found that for Colombia as with Korea, projections of increased exports are based on ignoring the effect of imports and the overall trade balance. In reality, “the USITC studies reveal that net exports would decline by $482 million under the Korea and Colombia trade deals.”

Global Trade Watch has called on journalists to call out these important errors in FTA proponents’ arguments, which, the group points out, are far from complex, involving numbers that “are publicly available, very straightforward and involve reading no more than two pages in two reports.”

Of course, doing independent investigation into the promises made to Americans about jobs and trade deals would require elite media to care about regular people’s struggles in a consistent way—not just when they’re on vacation.

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