The trade paradox

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Moisés Naím says there’s a free trade paradox: trade is booming while negotiations bust.

In many countries, free trade agreements are now politically radioactive, with imports routinely blamed for job losses, lower salaries, heightened inequality, and more recently, even poisoned toothpaste and deadly medicines. The domestic politics of trade reforms are inherently skewed against trade deals…

In 2006, the volume of global merchandise exports grew 15 percent, while the world economy grew roughly 4 percent. In 2007, the growth in world trade is again expected to outstrip the growth rate of the global economy… An unprecedented number of countries, rich and poor alike, are seeing their overall economic performance boosted by strong export growth…

So, what explains the paradox of gridlocked trade agreements and surging trade flows? The short answer is technology and politics. In the past quarter century, technological innovations—from the Internet to cargo containers—lowered the costs of trading. And, in the same period, an international political environment more tolerant of openness created opportunities to lower barriers to imports and exports. China, India, the former Soviet Union, and many other countries launched major reforms that deepened their integration into the world’s economy. In developing countries alone, import tariffs dropped from an average of around 30 percent in the 1980s to less than 10 percent today. Indeed, one of the surprises of the past 20 or so years is how much governments have lowered obstacles to trade—unilaterally. Between 1983 and 2003, 66 percent of tariff reductions in the world took place because governments decided it was in their own interests to lower their import duties, 25 percent as a result of agreements reached in multilateral trade negotiations, and 10 percent through regional trade agreements with neighboring countries…

As the volume of trade continues to grow, the need for clearer and more effective rules becomes more critical. In this century, the quality of what is traded will be as important as the need to lower tariffs was in the last… Moreover, a rules-based system accepted by a majority of nations can protect smaller countries and companies from the abusive practices of bigger nations or large conglomerates. The rule of law is always better than the law of the jungle, even in resolving trade conflicts.

[Hat tip: WaPo]

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