By Tom Still

MADISON – Among the reasons North Carolina Sen. John Edwards polled well in last week’s Wisconsin presidential primary is that he thinks the North American Free Trade Agreement has been a raw deal. It was a semi-protectionist message that resonated with voters who are eager to blame the state’s economic troubles on those dastardly Canadians and Mexicans.

Let’s hope we’re really not that short-sighted. Free trade is a part of saving Wisconsin, not ruining it.

Edwards, the son of a mill worker, has been telling audiences that trade agreements such as NAFTA have hurt his state and much of the Middle South due to the loss of textile jobs to nations that pay their workers less. Had he served in the U.S. Senate when NAFTA was debated, Edwards said, he would have voted against it.

As the grandson of mill workers who lived just on the Virginia side of the North Carolina border, I have known people in the “textile belt” who lost jobs. It’s not always pretty, but it’s how an evolving economy functions over time. North Carolina has textile mills because lower production costs lured away New England mills in the 20th century. In the 19th century, the New England mills grew at the expense of mills in England. Innovation and market efficiencies lead to change.
On the same day Edwards was giving Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (who voted for NAFTA in 1993) a run for his money in Wisconsin, the Governor’s Economic Growth Council was told that state exports are running well ahead of the U.S. average. Wisconsin exports surged by 7.7 percent to a record $11.5 billion in 2003, as compared to a 4.4 percent export increase for the United States as a whole.
Canada (up 10.8 percent, to $4.3 billion) has long been Wisconsin’s No.1 trade partner. Mexico (up 7.8 percent, to $788 million) has steadily climbed the list to No. 3. Brazil and Chile rank among Wisconsin’s Top 20 trade partners. Without NAFTA, it would not be as easy for Wisconsin companies to move goods and services across borders.

Another example of importance of trade to the Wisconsin’s economy is China. State exports to China alone in 2003 increased 52.7 percent to $548.2 million, members of Gov. Jim Doyle’s economic advisory group were told last week.

“China is going to be a major economic player,” said Doyle, who will lead an 80-member state trade delegation to China in late March. “It’s our fastest-growing market by far, and the potential is unlimited.”

China’s thirst for imported goods and materials matches with some of the state’s historic and emerging strengths. Electrical machinery and equipment, medical devices, power generation equipment, oilseeds, plastics, vehicles and wood products are high on China’s shopping list. If not for China, there would be no market for some recycled materials that are now commanding decent prices.

Edwards voted for the legislation that granted China permanent, normal trade relations with the United States. But he claims he would have voted against NAFTA had he been a member of the U.S. Senate in 1993. In fact, there is little evidence on the public record that Edwards spoke out against NAFTA before 1997, when he was preparing to run for the U.S. Senate.

Candidate consistencies aside, the lesson for Wisconsin voters in the long campaign ahead is not to be fooled into thinking free trade is bad for the economy. Wisconsin cannot consume all of its goods and services within its borders – nor can they be consumed within U.S. borders alone. Wisconsin farmers, manufacturers, service providers and technologists must compete on a global stage. It’s painful when the state loses workers, but Wisconsin will create more jobs in the long run by staking out the high ground of “knowledge-based” jobs.

Instead of erecting trade barriers to save jobs that probably cannot be saved, the United States must seize opportunities to trade with the world. It’s best for Wisconsin, too.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.