After U.S. trade representative Ron Kirk spoke to the House yesterday, I had the opportunity to catch up with him for a short interview.
Ambassador Kirk, who is naturally gregarious and optimistic, painted a gloomy picture of what it is like to carry an unpopular message to skeptical folks in shrinking industrial America. “A lot of people are suspicious of me,” he said. “They say, “You guys only care about the new age economy.” In addition to going abroad, he spends a lot of time in the Rust Belt preaching the administration’s message. “We’re lucky if five people show up,” he said. “We [the administration] had a tin ear,” he said. “Most of the people I talk to think Ross Perot was right [about NAFTA].” Still, as he pointed out, Canada and Mexico are America’s two largest trading partners.
“The public believes that we play fair, but that other nations don’t. Seventy percent of the people I talk to think trade is bad for America,” he said. “They don’t think we have a policy that is designed to open up markets. They want us to enforce our trade agreements and to focus on job creation.”
There are a lot of misconceptions about trade, he pointed out. The benefits of trade are that it lowers the cost of imports, but people in areas where the pain is localized, where jobs have been lost, don’t see it that way. A few dollars saved on clothing hardly balances the jobs and the paychecks that have disappeared. Trade is not really the culprit, he insists. “For every job that is lost to trade,” Kirk said, five are lost to increased productivity and innovation.”
Kirk was upbeat about recent trade agreements that have been reached with Panama, Colombia, and South Korea. At the end of our interview, I threw in a question about birth rates, worldwide, and how it was affecting trade. Much to my surprise, that really lit him up. “Agriculture!” he said. “That’s the future of trade. Birth rates in Latin America are high. Brazil especially can be a great market. No other nation can come close to us when it comes to feeding the world.”