International Trade

International trade has been controversial for some decades. Each international trade agreement has been preceded by a major debate about whether the benefits of trade outweigh the costs, particularly for American workers. 

During the 2016 election, Donald Trump posed strong challenges to America’s existing trade agreements. The Trump administration subsequently pulled the US out of the recently negotiated Trans-Pacific Partnership, imposed new tariffs on trading partners, and pressed for the renegotiation of various trade deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), renewing the debates about whether trade serves US interests and also whether the negative effects of trade can be better mitigated. In 2020, the Trump administration successfully replaced NAFTA with the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA).

A major aspect of the debate about international trade deals with the potential for mitigating the negative effects of trade, particularly on American workers and the environment.  

Proposals for mitigating such effects include having enforceable labor and environmental standards in trade agreements, increasing unemployment benefits to help American who lose their jobs as a result of trade, and working to make Americans more competitive in the global market.

  • National Sample: 2,993
  • Margin of Error: +/- 1.8%
  • Fielded: April 10 - May 13, 2019
  • Questionnaire
  • Report

Proposals with bipartisan support discussed below:

  • The US continuing to promote international trade through a set of internationally agreed-on rules
  • Continuing to be part of the World Trade Organization
  • Continuing to be part of NAFTA
  • Including enforceable labor and/or environmental standards in new free trade agreements
  • Increasing the amount of unemployment benefits a person can receive, as a percent of prior earnings
  • Increasing the maximum amount of unemployment benefits a person can receive
  • Increasing the maximum number of weeks a person can receive unemployment benefits
  • Providing employers with a tax credit to provide apprenticeships
  • Spending money on education and job training in the cybersecurity sector
  • Spending money on education and job training in the energy sector

Proposals with bipartisan support that were passed into law:

  • Congress voted in favor of the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA)

Proposals that did not have bipartisan majority support:

  • Expanding TAA to more people who get laid off from their job directly because of an increase in trade
  • The US invoking the national security exemption to impose tariffs of 25% on steel imports and 10% on aluminum imports
  • Imposing additional tariffs on China or continuing to work through the WTO to get a ruling against China

HAVING INTERNATIONAL TRADE AGREEMENTS

  • about the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs
  • how tariffs and non-tariff barriers to trade work, and their potential effects 
  • how GATT rules prohibit arbitrarily raising tariffs, or discriminating against products based on their country of origin

They were asked how familiar they were with the idea of promoting international trade through such agreed-upon rules. The majority of respondents reported being familiar (very 16%, somewhat 50%), with no significant differences between Democrats and Republicans. 

The briefing then turned to the creation of regional trade agreements, explaining that the US has many of these agreements, with the North American Free Trade Agreement being the most well-known (the USMCA had not yet passed). . 

They were told that there is a debate about the broader question of whether or not the US should continue to seek to further the growth of international trade through international agreements.  They were presented a series of pro and con arguments and asked how convincing they found each one.  As we will see both pro and con arguments were found convincing by large majorities. 

General Economic Growth and Unequal Costs/Benefits
The first argument in favor of promoting international trade was found convincing by three quarters of respondents, including about two in three Republicans and six in seven Democrats. The counter argument was found just as convincing (73%), with more Republicans this time finding it convincing than Democrats.

Expanding Access to Markets and Competing with Subsidized Foreign Companies 
The second pro argument was found convincing by eight in ten found, including 76% of Republicans and 84% of Democrats. The counter argument was found convincing by three quarters, with more Republicans finding it convincing than Democrats.

The Impact on Jobs
The third pro argument was found convincing by 77% of respondents, and the counter argument was found convincing by nearly three quarters. Both arguments were found convincing by majorities of Republicans and Democrats.

The Value of Engagement and the Threat to Sovereignty
The fourth pro argument was found convincing by two thirds, including 80% of Democrats but only a bare majority (52%) of Republicans. The counter argument was found convincing by 60%, including three quarters of Republicans, but less than half of Democrats (45%).

Effect on Poverty Around the World 
The last pro argument was found convincing by three quarters, and the counter argument by seven in ten. Both arguments were found convincing by majorities of Republicans and Democrats. 

Final Recommendation
After reviewing all of the various arguments, respondents were, finally, asked whether they approve or disapprove of the US, together with other countries, promoting international trade through a set of agreed-on rules.  Despite the fact that the arguments against international trade did nearly as well as the arguments against, an overwhelming majority of 87% approved.  This result was also striking bipartisan.  Even among Republicans—who in most cases found the argument against trade more convincing than those in favor—an overwhelming 84% approved.  There was almost no difference between those in very red and very blue districts (88%, 86% respectively).  

It is worth noting that support was so high though the arguments against the promotion of trade did very well and the arguments in favor were found convincing by less than the number who finally approved.  This suggests the process of deliberation has a positive effect on views of trade, even when counter arguments are included. 

There were no substantial demographic variations.  Even among those with education of high school or less, approval was 86%, though those with an advanced degree were slightly higher at 92%.  Age variations were slight, though the support among those in the 35-44 range were a bit lower (82%) than for either 18-34 (87%) or over 65 (93%).  

Related Standard Polls
Large bipartisan majorities have expressed the view that international trade is good for the US economy:

  • Asked whether “international trade is good or bad for: the U.S. economy,” 82% say good, including 82% of Republicans and 85% of Democrats;
  • Asked about “consumers like you,” 85% say good (Republicans 85%, Democrats 87%);
  • Asked about “creating jobs in the U.S.,” 67% say good (Republicans 65%, Democrats 71%). (2018, Chicago Council on Global Affairs)

When offered the option of expressing ambivalent feelings about free trade agreements, large numbers have selected that option, sometimes even a plurality.  The number who express positive views have far outweighed those with negative views:

  • Asked about “the U.S. making free trade agreements with other countries,” 52% were in favor, including 64% of Republicans and 54% of Democrats, but just 34% of independents. Just 10% were opposed, with minimal partisan differences.  While 38% chose “neither favor nor oppose”, including 29% of Republicans, 36% of Democrats and 54% of independents. (2018, American National Election Survey Pilot)
  • Asked the same question in 2016, the largest share said they neither favored nor opposed (40%, Republicans 41%, Democrats 38%). Thirty seven percent were in favor (Republicans 33%, Democrats 44%), and 21% were opposed (Republicans 24%, Democrats 17%). (2016 American National Election Survey Time Series)

Large majorities -- bipartisan up until recently -- have supported specific free trade agreements with Europe and among the Pacific nations:

  • In 2018, asked, “Based on what you know, do you think the U.S. should or should not participate in the following international agreements: The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (or CPTPP), a trade agreement among eleven Pacific nations based on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement,” 61% said the US should participate, including 77% of Democrats. Among Republicans, 45% chose “participate,” while 48% chose “not participate,” and 7% did not provide an answer. (2018, Chicago Council on Global Affairs)
  • In 2016, respondents were told, “As you may know, the United States is now negotiating a free trade agreement with twelve Pacific nations called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (or TPP).” Asked whether they support the agreement, 59% were in support, including 58% of Republicans and 71% of Democrats. (2016, Chicago Council on Global Affairs)
  • In 2014, respondents were told, “As you may know, the United States is now negotiating a free trade agreement with the European Union called the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (or TTIP).” Asked whether they support the agreement, 62% were in support, including 61% of Republicans and 68% of Democrats. (2014, Chicago Council on Global Affairs)

When respondents have been given the opportunity to express support for free trade agreement coupled with programs to mitigate the effects on American workers, a clear majority has favored them: 

  • Asked to choose between three positions, 63% (Republicans 49%, Democrats 77%) chose one of two options in favor of agreements to lower trade barriers, with 51% choosing “I favor agreements to lower trade barriers provided the government has programs to help workers who lose their jobs,” (Republicans 37%, Democrats 67%) and 12% choosing “I favor agreements to lower trade barriers, but I oppose government programs to help workers who lose their jobs,” (Republicans 13%, Democrats 10%).  Just 31% chose “I oppose agreements to lower trade barriers,” (Republicans 43%, Democrats 20%). (2017, Chicago Council on Global Affairs)

Framed as a question about protecting American jobs or creating American jobs, a large bipartisan majority has favored increasing exports over restricting imports:

  • Asked, “which should be the larger goal for US trade policy: restricting foreign imports to the US to protect American jobs, or increasing American exports to other countries to create jobs in the United States?” 80% favored increasing exports, including 74% of Republicans and 84% of Democrats. (2018, Chicago Council on Global Affairs)

However, when the question has been framed as protecting American jobs or helping US consumers, a majority has favored restrictions:

  • Asked whether they, “think US trade policy should have restrictions on imported foreign goods to protect American jobs, or have no restrictions to enable American consumers to have the most choices and the lowest prices,” 60% choose to have trade restrictions, including 76% of Republicans. Democrats are divided, with 48% choosing trade restrictions, and 50% choosing no trade restrictions. (2018, Chicago Council on Global Affairs)

Respondents were reminded about the history of NAFTA:

As you may recall, the US, Mexico and Canada have had a free trade agreement since 1994 called the North American Free Trade Agreement or NAFTA. It lowered or eliminated tariffs on most products sold between the three countries, increasing the amount of trade. 

They were then asked whether they favored or opposed the US continuing to be in the agreement.  A bipartisan majority favored it (72%), including 55% of Republicans as well as 88% of Democrats.

In the same survey respondents were asked about the proposed revisions to NAFTA, including a renaming of the agreements as the United States, Canada, Mexico Agreement (USMCA), and a list of provisions related to auto parts, hourly rates for autoworkers, prescription drugs, dairy products, e-commerce and more.   Respondents evaluated arguments for and against these changes. The arguments in favor did slightly better overall than those against.

Finally, asked what their representatives in Congress should do in regard to USMCA, a bare majority of 53% said they should vote for it, including a robust 64% of Republicans. Thus with the changes to the free trade agreement with Mexico and Canada with the UMCA legislation, Republican support grew stronger.

Democrats, however, came down against the USMCA legislation, with a modest majority (54% opposed).  However the Democrats response to the pro and con arguments make it clear that their opposition to the USMCA legislation was driven by their support for greater free trade with Mexico and Canada, not opposition. The argument against the USMCA based on the negative effects of free trade with Canada and Mexico was rejected by a majority, while the argument that it compromises free trade principles was found convincing by a large majority.

Related Standard Polls
This is corroborated by subsequent standard polls. Less than half of Democrats approved of the changes to the US/Mexico/Canada free trade agreement in the USMCA legislation:

  • Asked, whether they “approve or disapprove of the new trade agreement between the United States, Mexico and Canada, sometimes referred to as the USMCA,” 55% approved, including 70% of Republicans, but just 44% of Democrats. (December 2019, CNN)

But a few months later a very large majority of Democrats confirmed their support for a North American free trade agreement by effectively saying that, even with the new changes, the agreement will be good for the United States.

  • Asked whether they, “think the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement will be good for the U.S. or bad for the U.S.,”80% said it would be good, including 88% of Republicans and 73% of Democrats. (February 2020, Gallup)

Respondents were presented the history of how the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT)  was established and later led to the establishment of the World Trade Organization to facilitate negotiation of trade rules and especially to deal with disputes.  The procedure for dealing with disputes was described.  A brief recap of the US experience with WTO dispute resolution process was provided, showing the US win-loss record as similar to that of other countries. They then heard arguments for and against the US continuing to be part of the WTO. 

The argument in favor was found convincing by a majority overall, and among Republicans and Democrats. The counter argument was found convincing by far fewer—only 52%—with a significant partisan divide: 70% of Republicans found this argument convincing, which is more than with the argument in favor, and only 34% of Democrats did.

Finally, asked whether they approve or disapprove of the US continuing to be part of the World Trade Organization, 72% approved.  However, only a modest majority of Republicans approved (54%) while an overwhelming majority of Democrats (89%) did so.

Under the Obama administration, the US negotiated two large trade agreements — the Trans-Pacific Partnership (with Canada, Mexico, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Australia, and others) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (with the European Union). These deals would have further reduced tariffs on trade and increased protections for workers, the environment, and US intellectual property abroad. However, President Trump withdrew from these agreements before Congress could ratify them, leaving both deals in limbo.

Critics of global free trade say American manufacturing jobs have been lost in these deals. Wages are lower in places like Mexico, China, India, and Vietnam, and these countries also have weaker labor and environmental standards than the US. American consumers gain, as they can purchase many foreign-made goods at much lower prices than they could if these goods were produced in the US. Some say, pointing to America’s growing trade deficits, that NAFTA and trade with China has cost millions of jobs in the US. However, others say that automation better explains America’s steady or increasing manufacturing output despite fewer manufacturing jobs. In other words, the US actually manufactures more now, but does so despite employing people.

They were then presented a proposal and arguments for and against it, as follows:

Proposal: The US should rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trading arrangement between 12 countries, but not China.

Argument in Favor: The TPP will help encourage its members to look to the US, rather than China, for leadership on trade, worker protection, and environmental control. It will also make US goods more competitive, creating more jobs and lower prices for consumer goods.

Argument Against: The TPP does more to protect big business than workers or the environment. It will encourage companies to move manufacturing out of the US.

After receiving the briefing material, respondents deliberated on the proposals in-person. Finally, they were asked for their final recommendation. On a 0-10 scale, 74% favored the proposal (6-10), including 62% of Republicans and 88% of Democrats. 

Pre-Deliberation Poll
Before receiving any briefing materials or engaging in the deliberation process respondents were given the same poll question as those asked afterwards. Support increased substantially from the pre-deliberation poll to the post-deliberation poll, overall (47% to 74%), and among Republicans (23% to 62%) and Democrats (66% to 88%).

Related Standard Poll
A bipartisan majority has expressed support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership:

  • In 2016, respondents were told, “As you may know, the United States is now negotiating a free trade agreement with twelve Pacific nations called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (or TPP).” Asked whether they support the agreement, 64% were in support, including 61% of Republicans and 72% of Democrats. (2015, Chicago Council on Global Affairs)

MITIGATING THE NEGATIVE EFFECTS OF TRADE

A major aspect of the debate about international trade deals with the potential for mitigating the negative effects of trade, particularly on American workers and the environment. Proposals for mitigating such effects include having enforceable labor and environmental standards in trade agreements, increasing unemployment benefits to help American who lose their jobs as a result of trade, and working to make Americans more competitive in the global market.

As was discussed above, one possible negative effect from international trade is that lowering trade barriers can weaken labor standards or environmental standards. There are two ways that this can occur.

  • Companies in countries with lower labor and environmental standards may have lower production costs and are thus able to charge lower prices. This makes their products more competitive in international trade. It may also encourage other countries to lower their standards so they can compete. 
  • Companies in countries with higher labor and environmental standards may move their factories to countries with lower standards, to lower their production costs. Here too, this may encourage countries to lower their standards so that they are attractive to companies when they decide where to have their factories.

To discourage these things from happening, and to generally raise labor and environmental standards, there have been efforts through the UN to establish international labor and environmental standards. The UN has held a number of conferences on these issues and most countries of the world have agreed to certain international standards. 

 Sometimes, however, countries have signed the UN agreement and established such laws but have not enforced them or later lowered the standards. In other cases, they have not even established the laws. As mentioned, in cases where a country is not abiding by the standards it has agreed to, they may get an advantage because it becomes cheaper to produce certain products.”

They were then informed that, “There is some debate about whether the US, in any new international trade agreements, should make it a requirement that countries abide by the standards they have agreed to and do not lower their labor or environmental standards to attract business or to get a competitive edge and to have an effective system for enforcing the standards.”

Respondents were informed about the main international labor standards, established by the International Labor Organization, that trade agreements aim to enforce:

  • No child labor that is likely to harm the health, safety, or morals of children or prevent them from attending school
  • No forced labor where a person is coerced to work through the use of violence, intimidation, or threats of harm
  • Right to form and join unions
  • The elimination of discrimination in employment, for example based on gender, religion, ethnicity.

They then heard arguments for and against the US including in its new international trade agreements the requirements that:

  • countries abide by the labor standards they have committed to 
  • countries do not lower their standards to attract business or to get a competitive edge
  • there is an effective system for enforcing these requirements 

The argument in favor was found convincing by 85%, including 79% of Republicans and 93% of Democrats. The counter argument was found convincing by just 43%, with neither party having a majority finding it convincing. 

Finally, they were then asked whether they favor or oppose including in new international trade agreements requirements for labor standards and an effective system for enforcing them.  An overwhelming and bipartisan majority were in favor (89%, Republicans 86%, Democrats 93%).

...there have been a number of international conferences attended by UN member countries where the countries agreed to pursue certain environmental standards or goals related to such areas as air and water pollution, endangered species, greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation and others. Each country has agreed to bring their own laws in line with those standards or goals.

They were then told that, “There is some debate about whether the US should include in all of its new international trade agreements the requirements that:

  • countries abide by the environmental standards to which they have committed; 
  • countries do not lower their standards to attract business or to get a competitive edge; and
  • there is an effective system for enforcing these requirements. 

Respondents then evaluated arguments for and against the US including those requirements in new international trade agreements.  The argument in favor was found convincing by a very large bipartisan majority (86%, Republicans 79%, Democrats 94%). The counter argument was found convincing by less than half (45%).  This included a majority of Republicans (55%), which was not true of the argument against including enforceable labor standards. 

Finally, asked whether they favor or oppose including in new international trade agreements requirements for environmental standards and an effective system for enforcing them, an overwhelming and bipartisan majority were in favor (86%, Republicans 79%, Democrats 94%).

They were told how much the US spends on unemployment benefits, currently and during the Great Recession, as well as the average length that people can collect them (26 weeks), the average amount they collect (39% of earnings), and the average maximum amount that can be collected ($472 a week). 

They then evaluated arguments for and against increasing unemployment benefits as a way to mitigate the negative effects of increased trade. The argument in favor was found convincing by two thirds of respondents, including a very large majority of Democrats (83%), but only half of Republicans. The counter argument was found convincing by a similar number (64%), with the partisan divide reversed: Democrats were split (50%), while a very large majority of Republicans found it convincing (81%).

Respondents were asked about the possibility of increasing the amount of unemployment benefits.  They were told, on average people get 39% of their prior earnings. Asked to specify what the percentage should be, 78% increased the amount, including 70% of Republicans as well as 85% of Democrats. A majority (58%) recommended that unemployment recipients get 50% of their previous earnings or more, including 67% of Democrats. A majority of Republicans (53%) raised it to 45%.

When asked about the maximum amount of benefits that a person can receive there was also support for an increase.  Told that the maximum amount of benefits is on average $472 a week, and asked what it should be, seven in ten proposed an increase including six in ten Republicans, three-quarters of Democrats. The increase was rather modest though — a majority (65%) recommended $500 a week or more, as did majorities in both parties.overall and for both parties.

However, when asked about the period of time that unemployment benefits can be collected, no majority increased it. They were told that the average amount of time an unemployed person is allowed to collect benefits is 26 weeks. Asked to specify what they thought it should be in an ordinary period when unemployment is not unusually high, just 28% increased the number of weeks (Republicans 15%, Democrats 39%). The largest number wanted to keep the current 26 weeks (37%), while one-third wanted to decrease the number of weeks (Republicans 49%, Democrats 21%). 

Members of Congress have introduced legislation that would increase spending on education and job training. Respondents were presented proposals from: 

  • the New Collar Jobs Act (H.R. 334) which would increase education and job training in cybersecurity;
  • the 21st Century Energy Workforce Act (H.R. 398), which would increase education and job training in the energy sector; 
  • the Apprenticeship and Jobs Training Act (H.R. 3368), which would offer tax credits to employers who provide apprenticeships.

Respondents were told that a proposed way to mitigate the negative effects of trade is by investing resources in: 

  • retraining workers whose skills are no longer in demand so they can get a new job
  • educational programs that prepare both students and people already working with new skills that are needed in the global economy

They were informed that the federal government spends about $6 billion annually on these programs and were presented with two debates about how much responsibility the government should have for providing such programs.  

The first debate was about how much responsibility the government has in providing job training to unemployed workers so they can find a job. Both arguments were found convincing by majorities, but the argument in favor of greater government responsibility did substantially better, with 78% finding it convincing, including majorities of Republicans and Democrats. The argument for less government responsibility was found convincing by 56%, including a majority of Republicans but a minority of Democrats.  

The second debate was about how much responsibility the government has in providing education and training for skills currently in demand, or likely to be in demand in the future. Both arguments were found convincing by nearly the exact same majorities as the previous arguments, with similar partisan differences. 

They were then presented three proposals for increasing the amount of job training.  

  1. The first proposal recommended increasing spending on training Americans for skilled jobs in cybersecurity. 
  2. The second proposal would increase spending on training for jobs in the energy industry. 
  3. The third proposal was to provide employers a tax credit of up to $5,000 to cover the costs of training a new employee in an apprenticeship program.

Related Standard Polls
In 2014 as the economy was recovering from the Great Recession, a series of poll questions have found bipartisan support for government programs to bring down unemployment: 

  • Asked whether they support, “long term education and training programs that help people change careers,” 65% were in support, including 56% of Republicans and 80% of Democrats. (July 2014, Rutgers University)
  • Asked whether they support a policy that would, “give tax credits to businesses that hire new workers,” 58% were in support, including 65% of Republicans and 60% of Democrats. (July 2014, Rutgers University)

However, when the question was not specific about the nature of the program, support was much lower.  

  • Asked whether they support, “government policies specifically designed to assist long-term unemployed who have been out of work for more than six months,” 51% supported and 29% opposed, with 22% not providing an answer. Among Republicans, a plurality of 46% opposed (35% supported, 18% no answer). Among Democrats, a majority of 70% were in support (15% opposed, 15% no answer). (July 2014, Rutgers University)

Status of Legislation
Three pieces of legislation were introduced in the 116th Congress and then reintroduced in the 117th Congress to increase education and job training:

  1. The New Collar Jobs Act, sponsored by Rep. Ted Lieu (D) would increase education and job training in cybersecurity. This bill was reintroduced by the same sponsor in the 117th Congress (H.R. 4389).
  2. The 21st Century Energy Workforce Act, sponsored by Rep. Donald Norcross (D) would increase education and job training in the energy sector has not made it out of committee. This bill was reintroduced by the same sponsor in the 117th Congress (H.R. 579).
  3. The Apprenticeship and Jobs Training Act (H.R. 3368), sponsored by Rep. Linda Sanchez (D) would offer tax credits to employers who provide apprenticeships -- $5,000 per apprenticeship. This proposal was reintroduced in the STEM K to Career Act (H.R. 4727) by Rep. Eric Swalwell (D) in the 117th Congress.