Media Coverage of Trade and Jobs Issues Again Fails Americans

Alan Tonelson |

Silly me. Here we are in an election season practically defined by boiling working class economic anger at America’s political leaders. So I thought improved press coverage might be in store of the trade policy failings behind so much blue collar job loss and (at best) wage stagnation. Yet the last week alone has once again indicated that such hopes are in vain.

Example one was the October 20 Wall Street Journal post from Gerald F. Seib detailing the Obama administration’s efforts to sell Congress on the recently concluded Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal by touting its supposed benefits to individual states. Although that’s become a standard practice for such campaigns, Seib was right to report on the latest iteration.

But what Seib should have also reported on was all the evidence belying the sales pitch being made by U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman. As usual, Froman’s case for the TPP relied exclusively on state-level exports. Apparently Seib forgot that trade flows also consist of imports, and thus their net effects can’t be determined without identifying trade balances and how they’ve changed.

Even worse, Seib was not only reminded of this potential half-truth, but actuallygiven the data exposing the administration line as fraudulent. This came the following day, when I sent him an email pointing him to the government figures showing that in recent years, the great majority of states have seen their merchandise trade balances worsen, meaning that trade flows on balance have weakened their growth – and surely employment. The email also noted that the administration used its 2012 Korea trade agreement (KORUS) as the TPP’s model – and that since under this previous agreement, America’s bilateral trade shortfall has exploded, similarly dismal results seemed likeliest for TPP.

I’m still waiting for the courtesy of a reply.  More important, Seib has still failed to correct the record. So the odds have just improved that the Obama administration succeeds in hoodwinking the nation and its elected representatives.

Example two concerns the conventional wisdom that it’s completely naive to believe that American politicians can do anything to bring significant numbers of manufacturing jobs back to the United States, and that those that do return generally won’t pay like their predecessors. The Atlantic‘s Alana Semuels (in a post yesterday) and CNBC’s Phil LeBeau (in a tweet today), have been the latest to repeat this contention.

There’s no doubt that, largely because of the sector’s impressive (though apparently slowing) productivity gains, domestic manufacturing’s job-creation potential isn’t what it used to be, and that’s ultimately good for the economy, all else equal. But there’s also no doubt that for decades, a major manufacturing job (and wage) killer has been the mammoth trade deficit run by the sector – a gap that owes at least in part to the long string of offshoring-friendly trade deals signed and trade policy decisions (e.g., long-time acquiescence in China’s currency manipulation) made since the negotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Although it’s not explicitly reported in the U.S. government’s monthly trade reports, the dimensions of the shortfall have become truly jaw-dropping. Last year it hit $734 billion. This year, (as of August) it’s running nearly 16 percent ahead of that rate. Which means that a trillion dollar annual shortfall is within sight. According to the standard methodology for measuring the economy’s size and growth, the more than $850 billion trade deficit that could be registered this year translates directly into lost output. In fact, the 2014 manufacturing trade deficit represented 4.23 percent of gross domestic product in current dollar terms. Even simply narrowing the gap would boost production, and therefore employment and wages, dramatically.

Further, much of the current manufacturing trade deficit has nothing to do with the labor-intensive goods in which high income countries like the United States genuinely and naturally struggle to compete. Nearly $116 billion is in the automotive sector. Nearly $42.5 billion is in communications equipment. More than $33 billion is in pharmaceutical and medicines. More than $15 billion is in iron, steel, and similar metals. More than $5.9 billion is in machine tools and other metalworking machinery. More than $4.2 billion is in industrial heating and cooling equipment. Nearly $2.9 billion is in navigational, electro-medical, and other advanced instruments. Dig deeper into the numbers and you’ll see big deficits in construction equipment, relays and industrial controls, ball bearings, and the like. Can even most of these results be explained simply by market forces?

It’s understandable that many politicians would swallow easily debunked falsehoods or excessively defeatist memes about U.S. trade policy and its economic effects. That’s to be expected from a system that fosters corruption and rewards inertia and simple laziness. Why, however, has it become so common to see the same behavior from journalists?

DISCLOSURE: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors, and do not represent the views of Readers should not consider statements made by the author as formal recommendations and should consult their financial advisor before making any investment decisions. To read our full disclosure, please go to:


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