Americans Still Positive on Global Trade

Despite five years of economic battering from the global economic downturn that began in 2008, most Americans continue to see benefit in greater global integration, according to the latest Pew Research poll.

That should be good news for US President Barack Obama’s administration as it seeks public approval for its Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, a mega trade deal under negotiation since 2010 with 12 countries, which is designed to promote innovation and economic growth across the length and breadth of most of the countries bordering the Pacific Ocean. The parties to the trade agreement are Australia, Brunei, Chile, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and the Vietnam as well as US. Chinese officials in recent weeks have been making statements about the possibility that Beijing would seek to join as well.

The pact has been under fire from environmentalists, organized labor and a flock of other interest groups. The administration had hoped to achieve ratification by the end of 2013 but failed as major details remain to be ironed out. Once the agreement is finalized, it must be ratified by the US Congress, which overall appears to be considerably less positive on global trade than the public as a whole as lobby groups pound away seeking protection for specific industries. Ratification attempts will probably start around mid-2015.

In all, since the downturn began, protectionism has continued to grow. According to a recent study by Nicholas Kwan, the research director for the Hong Kong Kong Trade Development Council, since 2008, a process of de-globalization has begun to take place that has cut cross-border trade flows by 30 percent, with new import restrictions cutting US US$600 billion from the total of world trade. That is the total of the entire exports of France, the world’s sixth-biggest exporting nation.

Some 77 percent of Americans say growing trade and business ties between the US and other countries is beneficial, according to the poll, conducted by Pew Research Center, a US-based nonpartisan think tank that conducts public opinion polling globally as well as demographic and other research.

US citizens appear to be growing increasingly disillusioned by global engagement despite their positive opinions about global trade. However, solid majorities of both Republicans (74 percent), Democrats (83 percent) and independents (74 percent) say increased international trade and business ties are good for the US Opinion remains as positive as it was first asked in 2002 despite long-running critics’ allegations that globalization has led to the flight of American jobs overseas, mostly to Asia and especially to China.

“When asked whether greater U.S. involvement in the global economy is a good thing because it exposes the US to new markets and opportunities for growth or a bad thing because it exposes the country to greater risks and uncertainty, 66 percent choose the former. One-quarter say greater participation in the global economy is a bad thing for the US,” the pollsters found.

Somewhat surprisingly, given the Democratic Party’s ties to organized labor, 70 percent of Democrats regard greater involvement in the global economy as beneficial because of the exposure of US business to new markets and opportunities for growth – greater than the Republican Party at 69 percent despite the GOP’s historic espousal of free trade.

About six-in-ten Americans say more foreign companies setting up operations in the US is mostly beneficial with the US economy, while 32 percent believe it would mostly hurt. It remains to be seen how long attitudes will prevail on those levels as a wave of Chinese companies purchases iconic American brands and properties. Today, according to a recent Forbes Magazine review, 71 of America’s Fortune 500 companies now have been taken over by Chinese concerns. Forbes itself is said to be on the block as a candidate for purchase by Fosun Group, China’s largest privately-owned conglomerate. A wave of anti-Japanese feeling swept the United States in the 1980s during the so-called endaka (high yen) period as Japanese interests snapped up major US brands including Rockefeller Center in New York and others.

Those polled, however, do vote against more US companies going overseas -- a 73 percent margin, in fact, against only 23 percent who say it would help.

Immigration, always problematical in downturns from populations who believe immigrants will take their jobs, produces a mixed picture, Pew found, with about as many believing more people from other countries coming to the US to work in high-skilled jobs would help the economy as say it would hurt (46 percent vs. 50 percent).

Immigration is a hot-button item in the US Congress, with the Republican Party badly split on the issue. Across the wider public, opinions are somewhat more negative when it comes to more people from other countries coming to the US to work in low-skilled jobs: 43 percent say this would help and 52 percent say it would hurt the U.S. economy.

For the most part, opinions don’t vary much across party lines, but Democrats are more likely than Republicans and independents to say more immigrants coming to the U.S. to work in low-skilled jobs would help the economy. More than half of Democrats (53 percent) say this is the case, compared with 31 percent of Republicans – an indication of the ferment in the GOP – and 42 percent of independents.

College graduates are more likely than those with less education to say that more foreign companies and workers coming to the US would mostly help the nation’s economy. Relatively small percentages across all education groups say that more American companies moving overseas would mostly help the U.S. economy. Views are somewhat mixed of the economic impact of increased low-skilled and high-skilled immigration but there is no evidence of a backlash against immigrants.

About half (49 percent) agree with the statement “immigrants today strengthen our country because of their hard work and talents,” while 40 percent say immigrants “are a burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing and health care.” This is unchanged from earlier this year, according to the poll.

In March 2011, about as many said immigrants were a strength as said they were a burden for the United States, while the opinion that immigrants were a burden prevailed in March 2006 and June 2010, Pew said. Anti-immigrant sentiment was especially widespread in July 1994, when 63 percent described immigrants as a burden and only 31 percent said immigrants strengthened the country.