Trade agreements are influenced by the composition of trade advisory groups

July 13, 2018

The export of U.S. agricultural crops like soybeans are being threatened with a 25 percent tariff as a part of a trade dispute with China over issues that have nothing to do with agriculture. Instead, it involves the violation of intellectual property rights held by U.S. citizens and corporations as well as U.S. imports of aluminum and steel.

The U.S. has ample evidence that U.S. intellectual property rights are regularly violated by Chinese firms. The current administration also believes China is providing government support to its aluminum and steel industries, placing U.S. firms at a competitive disadvantage.

This trade dispute reflects a general concern that many U.S. citizen have about the impact of trade agreements on their lives. The low prices that they see as the result of trade agreements is less visible than the loss of manufacturing jobs to workers in other, lower-wage countries.

Both political parties have been inattentive to the concerns that average Americans have over various aspects of trade agreements.

Part of the roots of those concerns is that the average person feels disconnected from the extended negotiating process that results in trade agreements. While the negotiations are conducted by representatives of the governments involved, these representatives depend upon trade advisory groups that can include a hundred people or more.

It appears to us that the disconnect the public feels, in part, reflects the composition of these groups. For the most part, the vast majority of the members of these groups represent the interests of corporations whose profits are affected by the results of the negotiations. And these corporate representatives have an outsized role in how the trade rules are written.

The fact that most trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement have been opposed by organized labor reflects the virtual exclusion of these groups and other worker representatives from trade advisory groups.

Another large group that has been excluded from equal participation in trade advisory groups is civil society. Civil society consists of groups that are concerned about the environment and human rights, including religious groups, as well as non-profit advocacy organizations.

The legitimacy of trade negotiations would be enhanced if labor and civil society each had as many members on various trade advisory groups as do corporate interests. The impact of trade negotiations reverberates well beyond the issue of corporate profits.

Will the inclusion of these groups in meaningful roles on trade advisory groups make trade negotiations more challenging? Probably — well, certainly. But, the legitimacy of the final product would certainly garner greater public acceptance and support.

In today’s world, there are a number of countries that have an advantage over the U.S. in the cost of a key input: labor. The result has been the suppression of wages in basic manufacturing and the loss of jobs in industries like textiles, steel and aluminum.

The U.S. has maintained an advantage in high-tech manufacturing due to the availability of a trained labor force that is not fully available elsewhere. But the gains in high-tech areas has not been sufficient to support the same proportion of middle class jobs that basic manufacturing supported a half-century ago.

Another issue is that theory suggests that exchange rates should equilibrate so that there are no long-term trade deficits and yet the U.S. has had a long-term trade deficit. How is that?

The U.S. has been the most stable place in the world for investors to park their money. As a result, the inflow of capital into the U.S. balances out the trade deficits, allowing the dollar to remain strong. At the point that the U.S. is no longer seen as a stable place to park money, the cost of trade deficits to the U.S. economy will be significant.

Our last point is to reiterate our belief that, since food is not a discretionary good even for a day, agricultural trade should be negotiated in a separate agreement apart from the WTO and the trade agreements negotiated under its aegis.

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