With some of the political stars in Washington lining up for approval of new trade negotiation authority for President Obama, along with passage of new Pacific Rim and Europe trade deals once they’re concluded, it seems opportune to see how the public’s feeling. Unfortunately, the latest data should remind us once again that polling on trade is just about the least reliable form of polling we have.
One big reason has to do with clashing results, most recently revealed in two surveys conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project. The Chicago Council’s findings came out in September, as part of its newest overall survey of public opinion on foreign policy issues, and should warm hearts (if such exist) in the offshoring lobby.
According to the Council, 65 percent of Americans regard “globalization, especially the increasing connections of our economy with others around the world [as] mostly good…for the United States” – up from a recent low of 56 percent in 2010, when the current economic recovery was still in its infancy. The share considering globalization defined this way as “mostly bad” was 34 percent – down from a recent (2010) peak of 41 percent.
Similarly, half of respondents favored “agreements to lower trade barriers provided the government has programs to help workers who lose their jobs” and 14 percent supported such deals even with no jobs programs. Those numbers are also up from recent 2010 lows of 43 percent and 13 percent, respectively.
Even better for the globalization cheerleaders, both the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and a comparable deal with Europe garnered 60-plus percent approval ratings.
Not so good for supporters of the trade status quo were the Pew results, which came out in October. A somewhat different tack was taken, as the poll examined U.S. And foreign views of trade and globalization. It’s true that, according to Pew, 68 percent of Americans agreed this year that “ growing trade and business ties with other countries was a good thing” – up from a recent low of 53 percent.
But the more specific the questioning, the more dimly Americans viewed trade. Indeed, only 20 percent believed that it “creates jobs” versus 50 percent convinced that it “destroys jobs.” And only 17 percent viewed trade as a force that raised wages, versus 45 percent seeing trade as a wage killer. (BTW, it’s interesting to see how these American opinions compare with those abroad.)
It should be clear that the phrasing of questions has much to do with the answers produced. Neither the Chicago Council nor the Pew survey used wording as tendentious as that in a Business Roundtable poll from March. It found 75 percent public support for “the United States negotiating trade agreements to open foreign markets for American-made goods and services to ensure fair and enforceable rules for U.S. trade with other countries?” That’s about as valuable as asking whether the public favors “policies to make everyone happy, secure, and wealthy.” More to the point — how many American trade deals have yielded those promised results?
But the more recent polls did nothing to inform Americans about the real-world choices presented by Washington’s trade policy, or about the deficit-boosting record and other consequences of two decades worth of signed trade deals and other decisions. So as they consider how to vote on trade agreements whenever they come up, lawmakers genuinely interested in voters’ views will have to discern them the old-fashioned way – by asking them directly.