President Obama hasn’t really understood the case for free trade because I don’t think he’s been too interested in trade. His background is as an activist working with the poor people, so he hasn’t thought about these issues. So he ends up listening to other people, and a lot of people who are protectionist are around him, particularly the unions, who are afraid of international competition. But they dress up the fair trade argument in altruism, that they’re doing it to raise the labor standards and wages of workers in India and Brazil and so on and so forth, when in fact, they’re doing it to protect their own workers from competition. The president doesn’t seem to realize that this is something which other people, whom you pretend you’re trying to help, actually see as a naked, cynical ploy.Jagdish Bhagwati is too optimistic; Obama will continue to pander to union fear.
Instead of pandering to union fear, Obama has got to engage them. You have got to help these doubting Thomases confront their fears. He’s got to say that trade with the poor countries is actually helping, not hurting, you. The unions’ main fear is that unskilled jobs are disappearing. They see these jobs being taken up elsewhere where the labor is cheap. But they can’t hold onto these jobs anyway. What they get in return from trade are cheap products that they need as consumers. So free trade moderates the downward pressure on their real wages.
Big portions of the wages of poor workers go toward low quality textiles, for instance. That is well-established. But if you look at the structure of protectionism, if you go and buy something from Anne Klein that’s going to be expensive, but it carries no tariff at all because these high-end designers compete on variety. Tariffs matter where the competition is on prices. So the low-quality items which poor people buy end up carrying higher tariffs than high-end items that rich people buy.