Iowa's raucous trade caucus (commentary)

It looks like leading candidates from both parties will be trade protectionists.

February 8, 2016

4 Min Read
Iowa's raucous trade caucus (commentary)

Nobody knows who will win the Iowa caucuses on Monday, but judging from the latest polls, it looks like the top finishers in both parties will be trade protectionists.

This is astonishing—and disappointing.

In the Hawkeye State, we’ve always had vigorous debates about trade, even as our economy depends so much on the ability of farmers like me to sell what we grow to customers around the world. This year, however, it sometimes seems like the only disputes are over who will reject the most trade agreements, impose the highest tariffs, build the biggest wall and launch the biggest trade wars.

Too many candidates are spewing foolish talk on trade.


On the Republican side, Donald Trump almost never says anything favorable about the idea that goods and services should move freely across borders. Not only does he oppose the pending Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), but he also wants to pull out of trade agreements that we signed a generation ago. NAFTA is “a disaster,” he said last year, adding: “We will either renegotiate it or break it.”

Earlier this month, Trump went even further, declaring his support for slapping 45-percent tariffs on Chinese products entering the United States. This would raise the price of almost everything for ordinary consumers like you and me.

Trump apparently doesn’t recognize that these drastic steps would spark a devastating global trade war.

Ted Cruz isn’t much better. He used to be a free trader. “I am a full-throated advocate of free trade,” he said last year. “Free trade benefits America, produces jobs, produces economic growth, and it is good for our country.” He even wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that called for the passage of Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), so that U.S. trade diplomats could complete free-trade agreements.

Then he changed his mind. He became one of just five Republican senators to vote against TPA. In November, he promised to oppose TPP.

Among major Republican presidential candidates, TPP has only a few friends: Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, John Kasich, and Marco Rubio.

On the Democratic side, TPP has a friend in President Obama, but he’s not on the ballot this year.

Hillary Clinton once praised TPP as “the gold standard,” when she was President Obama’s Secretary of State. Last year, though, she flip flopped, denouncing TPP.

Bernie Sanders is even worse, which is to say he’s never liked free trade at all. He routinely votes against free-trade pacts in the Senate. “Look at the history of trade agreements,” he said last fall. “They have been, in my view, a disaster for the American worker.”

What nonsense. Here in Iowa, nearly 450,000 people have jobs that depend on trade, according to the Business Roundtable. We export more than $20 billion in goods and services.

You know what would be a disaster for workers? Trashing the free-trade agreements we currently enjoy and sabotaging the ones that will allow our economy to grow.

I’m an Iowan who knows how much we benefit from trade. About one third of my corn and soybeans ships overseas. The proceeds of my exports wind up in the pockets of my neighbors, when I go to my local hardware store, gas station, and supermarket.

Too many candidates take the benefits of trade for granted. This is a huge mistake. When I started farming 43 years ago, our ability to trade was severely limited. Over the years, our trade negotiators have slowly but surely expanded our ability to move goods and services across our borders.

We can’t just throw this away. Too much hard work has gone into making these exports possible.

What’s more, we have to seize new opportunities. With TPP, for example, American agriculture finally will penetrate Japan’s closed economy. We’ll also have a chance to boost our exports to Malaysia and Vietnam, where our market share is much lower than it should be.

If we turn our backs against trade, we’ll hurt our own economy—and we’ll spark the biggest agricultural boom in the history of South America, as farmers in Argentina and Brazil swoop in to take some of the business that should be ours.

I don’t expect free traders to win every election, but neither do I expect to see us routed in the Iowa caucuses. Let’s hope that on Monday, Iowa voters defy the polls, vote with our heads and not our hearts and show that not all of us embrace protectionism.

Tim Burrack is a member of the Global Farmer Network. He has been farming in northeast Iowa for almost 40 years raising corn, seed corn and soybeans. Pork production is also a major part of his family farm.

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