Cato's Dan Ikenson has written an excellent summary of trade issues, "Trade on Trial, Again." It's timely, considering the Trump's total confusion on the subject. Hint: running a trade deficit does not mean we are "losing." Here's a short version that hits what I think are the high points, but do read the whole thing:
Not long ago, a group of Cato scholars entertained the question of whether the intellectual debate for free trade had been won.
There was near consensus that it had — in 1776 with publication of The Wealth of Nations. In the 240 years to follow, efforts to poke substantive holes and refute Adam Smith’s treatise failed and, today, nearly all economists agree that free trade, by expanding the size of the market to enable greater specialization and economies of scale, generates more wealth than any system that restricts cross-border exchange.
[But] ... how much does it really matter whether the intellectual debate has been won when, in practice, free trade remains stubbornly elusive, and the process of U.S. trade policy formulation is distinctly anti-intellectual?
If the free trade consensus were truly meaningful, trade negotiations would be unnecessary. If free trade were the rule, trade policy would have a purely domestic orientation and U.S. barriers would be removed without need for negotiation because they would be recognized for what they are: taxes on consumers and businesses that impede the global division of labor and the creation of wealth.
[Unfortunately] ... The case for free trade is not obvious. The benefits of trade are dispersed and accrue over time, while the adjustment costs tend to be concentrated and immediate. To synthesize Schumpeter and Bastiat, the “destruction” caused by trade is “seen,” while the “creation” of its benefits goes “unseen.” We note and lament the effects of the clothing factory that shutters because it couldn’t compete with lower-priced imports. The lost factory jobs, the nearby businesses on Main Street that fail, and the blighted landscape are all obvious. What is not so easily noticed is the increased spending power of the divorced mother who has to feed and clothe her three children. Not only can she buy cheaper clothing, but she has more resources to save or spend on other goods and services, which undergirds growth elsewhere in the economy.
Consider Apple. By availing itself of lowskilled, low-wage labor in China to produce small plastic components and to assemble its products, Apple may have deprived U.S. workers of the opportunity to perform that low-end function in the supply chain. But at the same time, that decision enabled iPods and then iPhones and then iPads to be priced within the budgets of a large swath of consumers. Had all of the components been produced and all of the assembly performed in the United States — as President Obama once requested of Steve Jobs — the higher prices would have prevented those devices from becoming quite so ubiquitous, and the incentives for the emergence of spin-off industries, such as apps, accessories, Uber, and AirBnb, would have been muted or absent.
But these kinds of examples don’t lend themselves to the political stump, especially when the campaigns put a premium on simple messages. This is the burden of free traders: Making the unseen seen. It is this asymmetry that explains much of the popular skepticism about trade, as well as the persistence of often repeated fallacies.
The benefits of trade come from imports, which deliver more competition, greater variety, lower prices, better quality, and new incentives for innovation. Arguably, opening foreign markets should be an aim of trade policy because larger markets allow for greater specialization and economies of scale, but real free trade requires liberalization at home. The real benefits of trade are measured by the value of imports that can be purchased with a unit of exports — our purchasing power or the so-called terms of trade. Trade barriers at home raise the costs and reduce the amount of imports that can be purchased with a unit of exports.
Protectionism benefits producers over consumers; it favors big business over small business because the cost of protectionism is relatively small to a bigger company; and, it hurts lower-income more than higher-income Americans because the former spend a higher proportion of their resources on imported goods.
[Fortunately] ... Even if there were a President Trump or President Sanders, rest assured that the Congress still has authority over the nuts and bolts of trade policy. The scope for presidential mischief, such as unilaterally raising tariffs, or suspending or amending the terms of trade agreements, is limited. But it would be more reassuring still if the intellectual consensus for free trade were also the popular consensus.
As for the TPP Treaty, we don't need it, because we should not be imposing any barriers or conditions on our trade with Pacific nations. Or any nations, for that matter.