Free Trade Is Good

The Korean/U.S. free-trade deal seems to be coming to fruition. An agreement reached in 2007 under President George W. Bush was never ratified. President Obama ran for office saying the unratified free trade agreements with Korea, Panama, and Colombia had flaws and needed renegotiating. The deal with Korea is the first to get President Obama’s seal of approval, although both Congress and the legislature in Korea must still approve it before it takes effect.

The two-year renegotiation yielded very little. The Koreans will liberate their auto market a bit more slowly; the United States will be able to keep tariffs on pickup trucks a bit longer.

The pork producers in America took it on the chin. The new deal delays tariff-free access to the Korean market the original agreement would have provided — basically the sop Korea demanded for going through the charade of an almost pointless renegotiation.

The President’s problem has been that unions, especially the United Auto Workers union, have been deeply opposed to expanded trade. The unions were big supporters of the President and he has not been eager to cross them.

Perhaps the deep losses the Democrats took in the recent mid-term elections have begun to sink in. The Republicans claim the election was a rebuke of President Obama’s policies. The President has said the voters were reacting to the bad economic climate. In either case, the President needs to act quickly to get the economy moving robustly if he hopes to win reelection.

Unions that work in one particular industry, such as the United Auto Workers, have interests different from those of the general public. Expanded trade, although it clearly hurts individual industries and workers on balance, is an enormous force for prosperity and job creation.

So the President’s sudden focus on trade is a very good sign for the economy. Passing the bills, though, will also require presidential leadership. In a time of recession many voters fear trade; they will need the President to reassure them this is a path toward prosperity.

The deli department is an intriguing actor when it comes to government relations. Other departments have an intense focus on the matter: The United Fresh Produce Association is a D.C.-based trade association with government relations as its centerpiece. The American Meat Institute is also in D.C. The Food Marketing Institute and the National Restaurant Association are highly focused organizations both in the D.C. area and both see government relations as their raison d’être.

Deli is not without representation. The International Dairy Deli Bakery Association, though based in Madison, WI, contracts with D.C. law firms and lobbyists to track issues.

The nature of the deli industry makes government relations a problematic activity. Most companies in produce, for example, are 100 percent produce companies. In the deli arena, a lot of suppliers have divisions that are giants within the deli space. Those same divisions, however, are but tiny fractions of the whole corporation. Important deli players, such as Tyson, Nestlé, and Conagra, have interests that go far beyond the deli — and these interests rule their own lobbying agendas.

It is very difficult for the deli industry to get together the kind of PAC money that often means political weight in Washington. Still, it is important the deli industry speak up, and an issue such as the importance of trade is a great place to start.

In our deli departments, the most delectable of the world’s foods are gathered. To stand in a modern deli, with its sushi bar, Mexican food bar, pizza program, rotisserie and fried chicken, massive displays of prepared foods and salads, sandwich programs, sliced meats and cheeses, smoked fish and specialty cheeses…to stand in the midst of such delicious bounty is to stand amidst a great triumph of civilization — the ingathering of so much, for so many at such reasonable costs.

Yet such a grand offering depends crucially on trade. Our producers in America must export so others can know the great cornucopia America produces, and we must import to bring the specialties that match our ethnically diverse population and to expose all our consumers to the best the world has to offer.

While we exchange food, we also exchange ideas and so it is, that right in America, we produce many foods in the style used in countries around the world.

All this exchanging is a great engine of economic growth and prosperity, creating jobs and entrepreneurial opportunity in America and around the world. Indeed all this trade may even help countries to understand one another better and this, combined with mutual dependency created through trade, may even be a force for world peace.

When the free trade agreements with Korea, Panama, and Colombia come up for a vote letting your representative or senator know your job depends on a world built around trade is a way of pushing for a world good for the deli and good for us all.