If ever you wanted to see the faces of free traders in Washington pulsate like a lava lamp,
alternating between purple and red, casually drop the name Lou Dobbs over drinks and hors
It is remarkable that these very educated, smartly dressed and well connected folks who have
the facts, moral clarity and plain common sense on their side are being crushed so completely
in the free-trade debate. Sadly, they have yet to figure out one simple truth: you must
connect your vision with the American people. It is not the message but the messenger that
needs to be re-tooled.
Enter Lou Dobbs. He has effectively linked the “evils” of trade to everything wrong with
America. For answers on our economic insecurity, family disintegration and crumbling
infrastructure, Dobbs simply looks no further than to the container ships clogging our ports or
to the tractor trailer trucks heading north in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.
It is as if we are 19th century China and they are loaded with opium sent to weaken us by the
foreign devils. He has become a fuddy-duddy populist prankster complete with face-contorting
rants lecturing us nightly on a subject he knows frighteningly little about.
I do not see how Lou’s pontifications on withdrawing from our trade agreements are going to
make us more prosperous, safer or stronger. North Korea withdrew from world trade and now
millions of its citizens boil tree bark for their nutritional needs. Even Castro figured out Cuba
needed to trade with the outside world to survive.
Isolationism in America last reared its ugly head in the 1930’s and was fortunately
outmaneuvered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Otherwise we would now be dealing with
an outside world speaking only German and Japanese.
The latest battleground of America’s trade future is Colombia. At a time when we should be
investing every ounce of our energy to tear down the barriers to American exports in China,
Japan and India, instead we are side tracked on the U.S.-Colombian Free Trade Agreement
that should have quickly passed Congress with broad bipartisan support.
Any reasonable person in less than seven minutes should understand why this is good for
Colombia has enjoyed preferential-trade access to the U.S. market for the past seventeen
years as part of the Andean Trade Preferences Act, or ATPA. ATPA was created to provide
farmers and workers alternatives to being swallowed up in the omnipresent narco-industry
throughout the Andean region.
As a result, 93 percent of Colombian exports arrive in the United States duty-free. Colombia
wants the free-trade agreement because it would make this preferential-trade access
permanent while solidifying their commitment to democracy and economic freedom.
The last time ATPA came before Congress for renewal in June of 2007, it passed with an
overwhelming majority of 365 votes.
Now for a poke in your eye. Tariffs ranging from 7 to 80 percent currently apply to U.S.
products exported to Colombia, putting American exporters at a significant disadvantage.
The U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement would immediately eliminate tariffs on 80 percent of
our industrial and consumer products exported to Colombia. Eventually, 100 percent of U.S.
exports would enter Colombia’s market of 44 million potential customers duty-free.
The U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement levels the playing field by providing much greater
benefits to U.S. exporters, which face high tariffs, than it gives to Colombia, whose product
already arrive in the United States with very few restrictions.
A perfect illustration is the flowers that Colombia exports to the United States are duty-free,
whereas the tractors and fertilizers we send to Colombia to help to grow these flowers pay
The loss of jobs that Lou wishes to instill fear against is dark fantasy. The big winner in this
agreement and all agreements of this kind is squarely American exporters who will return the
favor by hiring more American workers.
The irony of Lou’s middle class anxiety and loss of manufacturing jobs argument is that we
need to immediately insist on more trade agreements and leave alone the ones we are
fortunate enough to have.
Since NAFTA was implemented, the U.S. added 30 million new jobs. The problem is not
NAFTA; it is that we do not have free-trade agreements with China, Japan, India and others.
Lou has used our trade agreements to whip up his populist fervor. He should know the United
States is already effectively a duty-free market. The average tariff on products entering the
U.S. is less than 3 percent. This is peanuts to pay to participate in the world’s most open and
The tragedy for the American middle class is Lou does not understand trade. After all, he has
never sold or exported anything in his life. He has never had the responsibility or privilege to
represent the American worker overseas, to fight their battles and sell their products. For if he
did he would know the world trading system is corrupt and skewed against them. This can
only be corrected by the implementation of comprehensive free-trade agreements.
So if our past, present and future trade agreements simply give American exporters access to
markets that our trade partners already have, why is Lou winning when such trade
agreements help regulate labor rights, defend unions, set safety standards, protect the
environment, secure our intellectual property and instill due process?
If the middle class has yet to embrace and fight for these agreements that will provide scores
of new jobs while giving up very little in return, part of the blame must go to trade supporters
who have been unable to articulate their vision in a passionate and reassuring way.
Most often the spokespeople debating for the free-trade agenda are seen as aloof and out of
touch. They come from the boardrooms of Fortune 500 companies, Wall Street, and elitist
Washington think tanks. Although their intensions are good, they have been easy targets for
Lou to discredit because of their ties to corporate motives.
Small and medium-sized companies are the backbone of the American economy and have not
been given a voice. They are responsible for over 70 percent of American exports. It will be
they that eventually correct our trade deficit through booming exports. It is their voice the
American people desperately need to hear.
As an American entrepreneur and exporter, I would welcome the opportunity to set Lou
straight – if he had the guts to have me on his show. The first thing I will tell him is to never
bet against American ingenuity. You will lose. The second thing I will tell him is to give us
more comprehensive trade agreements and we will put to work millions of our citizens.
Then again, the truth is the last thing demagogues want to hear.
Neal Asbury is president of Greenfield World Trade, exporting American-made products to 137