The cost of rhetoric

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Lane Kenworthy has a great post on why Democrats should embrace economic change, including globalization. It’s a long post that’s worth reading, but for those already intimately familiar with the economics and politics of trade, this is the punchline:

But once managed trade is introduced as an option, it ends up crowding out discussion of other approaches…

Neither Obama nor Clinton is likely to press for serious restrictions on trade or offshoring if elected president. This holds for most Democrats running for Congress too. But that isn’t the point. Even if they did follow through on a managed trade agenda, it probably wouldn’t have much impact on actual import levels. Pacts such as NAFTA seldom dramatically alter the degree of cross-border trade; had it not passed, imports from Mexico would not be much lower than they are today. The problem isn’t that managed trade rhetoric might lead to actual trade restrictions; it’s that it distracts from efforts to advance the scope and generosity of adjustment and cushioning policies…

My argument rests on a hypothesis that Democratic leaders’ trade rhetoric has a significant effect on the political feasibility of more generous and extensive social policies. I could be wrong about this. But given that any trade restrictions they might actually put in place would probably do little to stem globalization, it seems to me the potential costs of abandoning managed trade rhetoric are likely small.

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