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Welcome to STop, the Seattle Times Opinion blog where our editorial writers and editors share their evolving thoughts on a variety of issues. STop is a place where opinion writers and readers can exchange views and readers can learn more about how editorial positions are formed.

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May 12, 2005

Fumbling Rhetoric on Trade

One of my fascinations is the rhetorical tricks of pundits, particularly the ones I don't agree with. Here is a argument against the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) by Alan Tonelson, author of "The Race to the Bottom."

Tonelson begins his op-ed piece by arguing that the CAFTA countries are too small to bother with. He is writing for the San Diego paper, so he says CAFTA's output of $85 billion amounts to less than that of San Diego, $125 billion. That doesn't make it a bad agreement, but it establishes that by itself it is not a big deal in economic terms.

Then he writes: Yet even such tiny countries, half of whose populations fall below rock-bottom local poverty levels, can become major suppliers to the United States, especially if CAFTA-like trade deals attract export-oriented investment seeking penny-wage work forces. For example, from 1997 to 2004, U.S. goods imports from the CAFTA 6 rose by 38.8 percent, to $17.66 billion. Yet U.S. goods exports to these countries increased only 35.7 percent, to $14.98 billion during this period.

I would use the same statistics to say: "Even such tiny countries can become important sources of business. For example, from 1997 to 2004, U.S. goods imports from CAFTA rose 38.8 percent, and our goods exports rose in tandem by almost the same amount, 35.7 percent." He undermines the second figure with the qualifier “only,” but really, the percentages are about the same—and they suggest that Central America, though economically small, is growing and could be more important in the future.

Next, he writes: Worse, the biggest share of U.S. exports to the CAFTA 6 isn't traditional, job-creating exports at all - i.e., they aren't consumed in the purchasing countries. Instead, it consists of fabric sent to the region, stitched into final apparel and home furnishings products, and shipped right back to the United States. Rather than serving new foreign markets, these "exports" serve the same domestic market U.S.-based factories once supplied. The only difference: American workers are removed from the equation. Thus, CAFTA isn't a trade agreement at all - it's an outsourcing agreement.

Is it important or not? First, he has told us these are piddling little countries, worth less together than San Diego. Now he tells us they’re an important threat to American labor. Which is it?

Next he writes: The CAFTA countries can't benefit, either. The U.S. market for the labor-intensive goods they need to sell is already saturated with Third World imports thanks to previous outsourcing agreements. According to U.S. government and World Trade Organization reports, the recent expiration of global apparel quotas will start exposing Central Americans to even more competitive pressure from Asia and its vast supply of even cheaper labor.

Now he tells us they’re not going to threaten American labor. I want to yell at this guy: Make up your mind! You are in the column business; you have 750 words, or thereabouts, to make a point. Make it, and stick to it.

Respond to Bruce.

 
Posted by Bruce Ramsey at May 12, 2005 10:55 AM



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