“These folks have to look at things differently before anything is going to change.”

The future of trade hinges on a broader conversation about social and economic displacement.

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The Trump Administration’s anti-trade deal rhetoric and policies have created an environment of uncertainty for Oregon businesses that export products abroad, panelists said yesterday during a discussion hosted by Oregon Business and WorldOregon. 

“It’s a really funky time, and one characterized by uncertainty,” observed Curtis Robinhold, executive director of the Port of Portland.

Less than a year ago, much of the discussion around free trade focused on renegotiating NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and bringing consumer, labor and environment groups into the trade deal process.  

Since then, talk of trade wars and tariffs have pushed these issues out of the spotlight.

The lack of certainty is creating problems that are not always easy to quantify, said Alexis Taylor, director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture. 

Taylor recently returned from a trade mission to China, where there are Port slowdowns nationwide. “What took two days now takes seven days. Our cherries can’t sit there for so long.”

Trade disputes are “brutal for businesses,” Taylor said, and open up opportunities for competitors. “We in Oregon don’t produce anything that someone else can’t do.”

Companies with partners in China may not be directly impacted by tariffs, said Shiau Yen Chin-Dennis, a partner at K & L Gates and chair of the Export Council of Oregon. “But the Chinese might make it more difficult to do things.  They might not sign agreements, contracts.”

Panelists debated the difference between trade-induced economic woes and problems set in motion by broader social, economic and technological forces.  

“It’s not just tariffs; it’s the disruption,” said Chin-Dennis.

As service sector jobs replace those in manufacturing and natural resource industries, “we need to talk about bigger question: the poor being left behind, education,” she said. “I’ve seen the human side, the emotional side, people unable to transition from nontechnological ag jobs to more service and technology oriented.”

Taylor said support for Trump’s policies is coming primarily from the rural ag sector. When asked what it would take to change the president’s stance on trade, she said: “These folks have to look at things differently before anything is going to change.”

To bring critics on board, advocates need to do a better job articulating the benefits of open commerce. They also need to differentiate between trade-related job losses and losses caused by broader market and workforce changes governments have yet to address via policy.

Sometimes technology and innovation are to blame, “and sometimes it’s because an air conditioner plant moved to Mexico,” Robinhold said.

The U.S. decision to pull out of trade deals makes it difficult to build worker and environmental protections, intellectual property rights and other concerns into international commerce agreements.

But there is room for optimism.

European allies are still ready to work with the U.S, Taylor said. And the Chinese are still invested in a long term relationship.

“They know this is a blip even if it’s going to be painful.”

Derrick Olsen, president of WorldOregon, moderated the panel discussion.