Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., has made his mark in the Senate as an articulate defender of conservative principles.
He has been at the forefront of the debate over trade, tariffs, and protectionism.
Sasse appeared on a Heritage Foundation panel Friday focused on trade and the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, in terms of what it means for national security.
The Nebraska senator laid out six “theses” on how to frame issue of trade, a topic that he said media and politicians have badly misconstrued.
1.) Technology, not trade, is the main driver of job change, disruption.
The American people generally view trade in terms of job change and disruption, Sasse said, but this is a mistake.
“Technology, not trade, is overwhelmingly the driver of job change and job disruption in America,” Sasse said.
He said that leaders need to bring more clarity to this issue so that we can better understand the incredible changes happening globally.
Sasse compared the current economic changes to the last century and a half and how America transitioned from an agricultural to industrial society.
It’s “ridiculous” to make America like 1950 again, Sasse said, “in terms of large-scale industrial jobs, and no one is going to make America 1850 again in terms of agricultural jobs, and none of us would think that we would want that.”
“In 1900, 41 percent of workers worked on a farm,” Sasse said. “Today, it’s well under 2 percent. Total agricultural output is off-the-charts higher in terms of quantity and quality than 118 years ago.”
A similar change is happening to industrial jobs, according to Sasse, but politicians deceive the public into thinking they can bring them back them back through trade manipulation.
2.) Economically, trade has been “indisputably” good for America.
It’s “historical reality” that trade has benefited the United States enormously from the beginning, Sasse said, citing NAFTA in particular.
The NAFTA trade agreement has also helped Canada and Mexico, which Sasse called an “indisputably” good thing for all countries involved because “trade, when done right, is a win-win.”
Throwing up trade barriers adds costs to both consumers and producers, especially when there is additional trade retaliation.
3.) “Little public understanding of what a trade deficit means.”
“We have very little public understanding of what a trade deficit means, and not understanding what a deficit is has huge, negative consequences for our public deliberation,” Sasse said.
Sasse challenged those who understand trade to correct the record about what a trade deficit means.
When people say “trade deficit,” they are generally referring to a “trade product deficit” without thinking about the “trade services surplus” and “foreign investments surplus” that the United States almost universally has, Sasse said.
4.) American people not to blame for misunderstanding the trade issue.
The continual misunderstandings about trade come from leaders who don’t properly explain it to the American people, and this failure is going to make people look for “boogeymen” in response.
“What we are going through right now, in 100 years, may look as disruptive to the basic human community as industrialization and urbanization,” Sasse said.
By failing to put the changes the world is seeing in this context, politicians are doing a disservice to the people they lead, according to Sasse.
This town is radically failing to have any meaningful discussion about where we are in economic history. And so a lot of what feels like Washington breaking down is Washington breaking down at the basic level of policy deliberation, but more fundamentally, it’s Washington not having done the first thing of leading to help the American people to have a big, broad conversation about what we think about what sort of problems are amenable to political solutions, and what sort of problems are probably not amenable to political solutions.
5.) Commerce between peoples builds relationships.
“When you have lots of economic relationship between two countries, or a bloc of countries, when you have a lot of commerce between peoples, you end up building other kinds of relationships as well,” Sasse said.
The relationships often have major foreign policy and national security implications that follow in its wake.
“It turns out you are less likely to go to war with people that you know and like and have shared interest with,” he said.
Not only does this strengthen friendships, but it makes potential misunderstandings between countries easier to smooth over, Sasse said.
6.) China has a plan, but the U.S. does not.
It’s a huge problem that China has a concerted strategy when it comes to trade, and the U.S. does not, Sasse said.
“We are in a geopolitical competition, primarily with China,” Sasse said.
However, Americans should recognize that they have one major advantage that makes them different than China, Russia, Iran, and various other nations.
We need to ask ourselves, Sasse said, why China and Russia’s neighbors don’t like them.
The reason is because those countries don’t believe in universal human dignity and God-given rights in the way that Americans do.
“Nobody in Tehran, Moscow, or Beijing thinks about their economic and military ambitions by talking first about the dignity of their neighbors. They talk about how they can sow chaos among their near neighbors to create a buffer and a barrier for other people getting to them,” Sasse said
Americans believe the “opposite,” Sasse said, and this gives us some powerful natural strengths in the realm of trade that nations like China simply can’t match.