I have been looking at the recent Gallup poll on trade. The interesting story to write on US public attitudes to trade is that support is falling off a cliff and the US is about to pull up the gangplank to global trade. So the Gallup headline - 'Americans more negative than positive about foreign trade' - writes itself. But I have a couple of observations on the data which do not fit well within the narrative of a calamitous and unprecedented collapse in US support for trade: first, this year's figures (47% seeing trade as an opportunity, 44% as a threat) are almost exactly the same as in President Clinton's first year (46% and 44% respectively); second, support for trade improved significantly between 2007 and 2008, from negative 11 to negative 3. As an aside, it is also worth noting the exquisite mercantilist framing of the question: 'do you see foreign trade more ... as an opportunity for economic growth through increased American exports or a threat to the economy from foreign imports'. Under this formulation, bananas and coffee beans - both barely produced in the US - are somehow an economic threat. The logical conclusion of the question is that the best thing for the US is to export as much as possible and import nothing, which is a self-evident nonsense.
But it is notable how international trade, which is seen as being at the centre of 'Anglo-Saxon capitalism', has so little support in the US compared to other countries. The US public is consistently among the most suspicious of the effects of trade. See, for example, page 19 of the Pew Global Attitudes survey from last June, where US support for trade stood at 55%, compared to 79% in France (a country which is often rolled out as being instinctively anti-trade). Quite why US support for international trade is so low is a puzzle. Has America, which maintained high tariffs throughout the nineteenth century, retained a Hamiltonian appreciation for the benefits of protection - in which case, why have other countries which followed a similar developmental pattern not? Has trade had more baleful impacts on the US economy than on others - in which case, why has this effect been felt most keenly in the US, with a ratio of trade volume to GDP much lower than most other developed countries? Is free trade tainted by being a relatively partisan issue in Washington - in which case, why is there so little distance between the views of those polled who identify themselves as Democrat or Republican? Do supporters of international trade talk the wrong language - in which case, how has the dialogue been so different in other countries? Is it because employers provide many benefits provided by the state in other countries, making the loss of a job more traumatic - in which case, why is it international trade, which is estimated to cause under 5% of American job losses (and create many more), that bears so much of the criticism? I think this is a fascinating topic.
Professor Doug Irwin notes that before the second world war most self-respecting US Congressmen prefaced comments on international trade with the proviso 'I'm not a free trader but ...' and that this switched during the 1950s to 'I'm not a protectionist but ...'. I think and hope that we are some way from the first proviso coming back into fashion (though the last few months have shaken the firmness of my conviction on that). In that regard the Gallup poll is relatively reassuring.