A recent " Street Journal" headline screamed: “Americans Sour on Trade.” And why shouldn’t they? After all, the public is routinely bombarded with misleading or simplistic trade coverage that too often relies on cliché, innuendo and regurgitated conventional wisdom: it’s Team America versus the world. Without the war metaphor, trade is just a peaceful, mutually enriching endeavor between consenting parties. But that’s too boring.

Dan Griswold suggests this “collective attitude is more reflective of complaints people hear in the media than of any hard reality on the ground.” Let me continue with that theme because I’ve made no secret of my concern about the media’s inclination to eschew context and fact in order to pitch a particular narrative about trade.

The problem is not just limited to one or two newspapers; it is endemic. There are numerous examples of faulty trade reporting that my colleagues and I have criticized over the past year or so. And here’s a recent example from the editorial board of USA Today on Friday, October 1:

“From 2000 to 2009, America’s trade deficit with China surged nearly 300 percent. During that same time, 5.4 million American jobs in manufacturing were eliminated. It’s tough for U.S. manufacturers to compete against China’s lower wages, looser regulations and cheaper currency.”

Yes, the facts about the trade deficit and the American manufacturing jobs are correct. But the editorial implies that trade is responsible for the destruction of U.S. manufacturing. Nowhere does it mention that U.S. manufacturing jobs peaked in 1979 (well before trade with China was more than a statistical rounding error in our total trade figures) and have been trending downward ever since.

Nowhere does it mention that China has lost many millions more manufacturing jobs than the United States because of the same phenomenon: productivity growth. Nowhere in the editorial does it mention that U.S. manufacturing has been breaking records year after year during the decade (with the exceptions of recession years 2002 and 2009) with respect to output, value-added, revenues, profits, return on investment, and exports. Nowhere does it mention that U.S. manufactures are the world’s most prolific, accounting for the largest share of global manufacturing value added. And nowhere does it mention that China has been America’s fastest growing export market for a decade and that U.S. goods exports to China are up 36 percent compared to the same period last year—which is a 50 percent faster growth rate than U.S. exports to the rest of the world.

Obviously, those facts would undermine the assertion that “it’s tough for U.S. manufacturers to compete against China’s lower wages, looser regulations and cheaper currency.” In addition, the editorial does not note that the use of statistics from 2009, the nadir of the recession, might be a bit misleading. Furthermore, it does not mention that as U.S. manufacturing jobs declined by 3.8 million between 2000 and 2008, a total of 8.8 million new jobs were created in the U.S. economy, generating a net gain of 5 million jobs.

Americans have soured on trade largely due to the way media conveys its stories about trade. No alternative explanation is provided for a majority of Americans harboring ill-will toward trade. Nevertheless, most Americans enjoy the fruits of international trade and globalization every day in countless ways. Unfortunately, few realize that less than 3 percent of U.S. jobs losses are attributable to import competition or outsourcing.

Rather than focus so much on shaping public opinion, the media should rid itself of the curse of “group think” and get back to the basics of objectively reporting the facts, challenging the conventional wisdom, and citing multiples sources. The kind of lazy acceptance of unsubstantiated theories of cause and effect that are evident in international trade reporting these days is reminiscent of the media’s passive role in the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq.

Daniel J. Ikenson is associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Trade Policy Studies. This article appeared in Impact Analysis, November-December 2010.

Daniel Ikenson
About The Author Daniel Ikenson [Full Bio]
Dan Ikenson is an author, speaker and Director of The Cato Institute’s Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies, focusing on WTO disputes, regional trade agreements, U.S.-China trade issues, steel and textile trade policies, and antidumping reform.

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