For want of a single wire imported from Mexico, jet engines built by General Electric’s American workers in Ohio would fail to ignite. Nor would GE washing machines that are assembled in the United States function without printed circuit board assemblies from countries like the Philippines and China. Such imports — and thousands more — are vitally important to the 131,000 Americans who make those engines, washing machines, and other products of the GE Imagination. You’d think that Jeff Immelt, GE’s chairman and CEO, would be eager to point to the imported components that sustain his company’s American jobs. That Immelt would be eager to explain in such real-life terms, why international trade flows are so important to prosperity. But he isn’t.
Like President Barack Obama and many other U.S. business leaders, Immelt instead promotes the benefits of international trade using the language of mercantilism: trade is about creating American jobs, about promoting American exports. Pragmatic business leaders like Immelt and economic nationalists like Obama long ago have calculated that ordinary working Americans respond better to patriotic-sounding slogans than the simple truth about the connection between imports and exports. In Washington, D.C., exports are highly praised; imports are mentioned as little as possible.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic Ocean, more enlightened European thinkers in cities like Stockholm, Geneva and Paris have been busy explaining to their publics the all-important connection between imported components and finished manufactured goods.
The contrast between how trade is being talked about differently on the two sides of the Atlantic Ocean helps illuminate why, on the American side, public support for international trade has deteriorated so sharply in recent years. Here’s what’s going on: