The United States has actively pursued free-trade agreements for more than two decades, and neither of the men vying to lead it for the next four years has any serious intention of reversing course. So it is troubling to see them pandering to voters with feigned outrage over the consequences of globalization, resulting in a phony debate over “outsourcing” that distracts from far more serious conversations about economic recovery and growth.
President Barack Obama has some history of flirting with protectionism when he needs to rally his base, and bears the most responsibility for the recent rhetoric. In a new television ad, Mr. Obama’s campaign claims that Mitt Romney’s private equity firm, Bain Capital, “owned companies that were pioneers in the practice of shipping work from the United States to overseas call centres and factories making computer components.” It’s just the latest in a series of “outsourcing” attacks aimed at painting the presumptive Republican nominee as unsympathetic toward voters in Rust Belt swing states, and perhaps at distracting from troubling news about a stagnant economy.
Mr. Romney’s response has not been much more constructive. While disputing Democratic claims (and media reports) about Bain’s business practices, he has fired back that Mr. Obama is the “outsourcer-in-chief,” based on some exaggerations of his own about stimulus funding creating jobs abroad rather than in the U.S. There are few signs that Mr. Romney is winning this debate; in the process, he’s helping legitimize fears of globalization.
A more productive response would be to explain why globalization should instead be celebrated, not least for the affordable goods it provides to the same middle-class voters the candidates are targeting. And both Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama could devote their attention to explaining how the United States can better adapt to new realities, rather than hide from them.
That requires discussion about how to stimulate growth of new domestic industries and make existing ones more competitive. To the extent that it relates to trade policy, it might mean talking about the shape of new agreements – notably the Asia-Pacific free-trade deal in negotiation – to ensure Americans benefit from them. The U.S. has enough real economic challenges that its presidential candidates shouldn’t be wasting time and energy on a sideshow.