The Free Trade Backlash

By three to one in a WSJ/NBC News poll, Americans say free trade hurts the country

The Wall Street Journal zooms in on a poll result from last week: That far more Americans now oppose “free trade” than support it.

By a whopping 53 percent to 17 percent, Americans say free trade has hurt the U.S. versus helped it. More people (20 percent) think free trade hasn’t “made much of a difference” than believe it’s helped the country.

The Journal emphasizes that number but doesn’t include a slightly different question that makes the trade question look even worse. When asked whether free trade agreements create or cost jobs here, the poll found 69 percent said they kill jobs versus 18 percent who say they create them.

While the jobs poll numbers aren’t all that different from what they were in 1996, the help/hurt numbers are far worse than they were in 1999 when the U.S. was riding an all-too-temporary wave of full employment (and I should acknowledge, the current economic misery obviously affects the numbers, too).

And check these out (emphasis mine):

In the recent Journal poll, 83% of blue-collar workers agreed that outsourcing of manufacturing to foreign countries with lower wages was a reason the U.S. economy was struggling and more people weren’t being hired; no other factor was so often cited for current economic ills. Among professionals and managers, the sentiment was even stronger: 95% of them blamed outsourcing.

The Journal says what’s really different now is that better-off and better-educated people have decided they’ve been sold a bill of goods on free trade.

First off there’s “free trade,” which is a nice marketing slogan for Chamber of Commerce interests but often means giving away the store. When China subsidizes its exports 40 percent to 50 percent by manipulating its currency versus the dollar, that’s not “free” trade. Nor is it when American workers have to compete against those in countries where labor and environmental laws are roughly where ours were in the muckrakers’ heyday. It’s sure good for the CEO’s paycheck, though.

Then there’s the idea that we’ll outsource all the grunt work and keep all the high-value, high-pay information jobs. Oops.

The Journal says this:

Worries about side effects of trade and outsourcing seem one of the few issues on which Americans of different classes, occupations and political persuasions agree.

Indeed. Rarely will you see Americans coalesce these days on a political issue in these kinds of numbers. But this is one of those “populist” issues that politicians use to whip up the voters and then ignore when safely in office for two or four more years, as Barack Obama did in 2008.

But numbers like these are awfully hard to ignore—especially with the pent-up anger out there in the electorate.

Further Reading:

(Ex) Titans of Industry Against Free Trade Fundamentalism: Intel founder Andy Grove calls for a serious re-examination of our trade and industrial policies.

The Journal Just Loves This Obama Flip-Flop.

Audit Notes: Free Trade Fallout, China’s Peg, Bailout Failure.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.