The loss of almost 4 million U.S. manufacturing jobs since 1998 seems easy to explain by cheap imports or the flight of plants to Mexico, China and other poorer countries. The truth is murkier: Although this has occurred, job losses also stem from greater efficiency (fewer workers producing more goods) and slumping domestic demand (for communications equipment and computers after the dot-com bust and for housing materials and vehicles now). Nor has falling factory employment crippled overall U.S. job creation.
Look at the numbers. From 1998 to 2007, total non-farm payroll employment rose 12 million, and unemployment averaged only 4.9 percent -- despite the 4 million lost factory jobs. In that period, U.S. manufacturing output rose 22 percent.
No matter. Globalization and trade have become lightning rods for myriad grievances (job insecurity, wage inequality, eroding fringe benefits). But even if trade caused all the factory job loss, its impact is shifting. The dollar's dramatic depreciation (down an inflation-adjusted 20 percent since early 2003 against a basket of currencies) has enhanced the competitiveness of U.S. exports. Their growth now looms as a major source of job creation and economic expansion....
What House Democrats did was particularly perverse. They suspended trade promotion authority, which mandates that Congress vote up or down on trade agreements within 90 days of their submission. TPA gives other countries a reason to negotiate in good faith. They can make politically difficult concessions without fearing that Congress will ignore the agreement because it dislikes the U.S. concessions.
Americans do have legitimate trade complaints: China manipulates its currency to aid exporters; other countries restrict imports. It's in the U.S. interest to dismantle these obstacles. Now the suspension of TPA can serve as an excuse -- symbolically and substantively -- for other countries not to negotiate, just when U.S. firms can most benefit from market openings.
What matters for workers and manufacturers is not what politicians say. It's the consequences of what they do. On trade, many Democrats -- and some Republicans, too -- are fighting the last war.