“…when you shop

Always read the label

If the label says Made in China

Think about your job.”

The excerpt above is from the closing sequence of Death by China, a documentary by Peter Navarro highlighting the impact of US-China trade policies on reality across American cities. Indeed, one can safely say the manufacturing base and the diversity of what a country produces determines the living standard of its citizens. They arguably condition whether or not a country wins in the zero-sum game of world trade.  However, it is a policy that makes a country tick – more specifically, trade policy.

Speaking on China’s trade policy at the 2017 World Economic Forum in Davos, President Xi Jinping explains: “We have had our fair share of choking in the water and encountered whirlpools and choppy waves, but we have learned how to swim in this process. It has proved to be a right strategic choice.”  To illustrate how effective it has been, a study by the Economic Policy Institute opines that “the total U.S. goods trade deficit with China reached $324.2 billion in 2013.”  According to the report, “between 2001 and 2013, this growing deficit eliminated or displaced 3.2 million U.S. jobs.” The emphasis here is on jobs and how a particular trade policy has had a direct impact on the lives of Americans – 3.2 million of them! How come we hear little to nothing about this in the media?

The New York Times, in a related article, paints a clearer picture: “The jobs, mostly in manufacturing, represent about 13 percent of the 3.2 million jobs displaced over those same years that the study attributes to the United States’ goods trade deficit with China. Walmart’s Chinese imports amounted to at least $49 billion in 2013, according to the study, which was based on trade and labor data. Overall, the United States’ trade deficit with China hit $324 billion that year.” So when President Donald Trump ran on the campaign promise to renegotiate trade policies with China (and others) and stop foreigners from “stealing” American jobs and companies, he echoed what matters most to a large section of the American public. And they responded emphatically.

Despite the fact that President Trump had not articulated a concise strategy, it was an issue that a substantial number of Americans were suffering from, and they needed someone to do something about it. No doubt, negotiating trade policies that help grow America’s manufacturing base is pertinent to national security. It also touches every aspect of American life and is an issue that journalists can do better at reporting. For instance, what is the impact of the current trade policy with China on jobs and small businesses in America? Have industries and livelihoods been decimated by competition from cheap products imported from China? What is the impact of that to disposable income, the GDP, or even intellectual property?

When it comes to issues that affect the process of creating public value, it is often advised that citizens participate. But I strongly believe the onus is on journalists to simplify and connect the dots for the public when such issues are discussed in macro-terms. It is important because it affects the livelihoods of citizens. When simplified, it can inform public policy in the areas of education, technology, and development.  For Instance, if Silicon Valley claims to hire foreigners because of their technical expertise, America’s educational policy ought to focus on building capacity of young people around technological trends or they would risk losing decent jobs to H1B Visa holders. Put simply, if big data or blockchain technology is the next big thing, how is America reshaping for that?  Or why are journalists not reporting on the opportunity being missed? “Instead of expanding the H1B visa program, let’s reform it. Instead of outsourcing job creation, let’s place a premium on creating jobs here at home over the long run…let’s train American workers for needed professional and technical jobs,” concludes Chase Norlin, CEO of Transmosis, an organization founded by Silicon Valley Technology Entrepreneurs.

In a broader sense, the impact of trade policies on also influences public opinion and the polity. It is safe to say 2016 has shown that the consequences of trade policies cannot be overlooked in predicting outcomes of political processes – the Brexit movement and President Trump rode on “making better deals”.

Finally, understanding the broader implication of certain trade policies on healthcare, jobs, the cost of education, and immigration among others is pertinent to shaping society. Trade is a key component of the foreign policy triumvirate, which includes diplomacy and grand strategy. It is also what drives industrialization, competitiveness, and development.However, in balancing internal needs and external demands, the policies that countries adopt may make or break its economy – the implication of that has a negative impact on livelihoods of its citizens.

Therefore, journalists must not be swayed by agenda of the very people and institutions they are supposed to watch. They must also understand the policies and be cautiously optimistic in informing the public. Alternatively, they could trade places with those who can.