December 3, 2009

U.S. Seen as Less Important, China as More Powerful

Section 8: Views of Free Trade

Council on Foreign Relations members continue to express much stronger support for free trade agreements than does the general public. Nearly nine-in-ten (88%) CFR members say that free trade agreements like NAFTA and the policies of the World Trade Organization have been a good thing for the United States; just 5% say they have been a bad thing. Attitudes among Council members have been remarkably stable on this question, with favorable views of free trade consistently registering at 85% or higher. Among the general public, opinion is more mixed. Currently, 43% say free trade agreements have been a good thing for the U.S., while 32% say they are bad for the country and 25% offer no opinion.

Public attitudes toward free trade have not turned more negative this year despite an economic recession and the unemployment rate hovering at about 10%. In fact, positive views of free trade have rebounded somewhat from April 2008. At that time, public support for free trade had hit a low point with more calling it a bad thing (48%) for the U.S. than a good thing (35%). The decline was driven in part by a drop in support among Democrats. In April 2009, and in the current survey, a favorable balance of opinion toward free trade returned with more calling it a good thing for the U.S. than a bad thing.

In the new survey, partisans take roughly the same view of free trade and its impact on the country. Pluralities of Democrats (47% good thing, 27% bad thing), Republicans (43%-36%), and independents (41%-36%) call free trade agreements a good thing for the United States. In April 2008 – when the public expressed greater skepticism toward free trade – there were wider differences between partisans. At that time, Democrats (34% good thing, 50% bad thing) and independents (35%-52%) saw free trade as a bad thing for the United States. Republicans were divided, with about as many calling it a good thing for the country (42%) as a bad thing (43%).

There is little difference in opinions about free trade agreements across demographic groups. Nearly identical percentages of college graduates (44%) and those with no more than a high school degree (43%) say free trade agreements are good for the country. A similar pattern is seen across income groups. One notable exception is that younger people are much more favorable toward free trade than are older people: 62% of those under 30 view free trade agreements as a good thing for the U.S., compared with just 29% of those ages 65 and older.

Free Trade’s Impact on Personal Finances

While, on balance, the public sees free trade agreements as a good thing for the country as a whole, Americans are more negative when it comes to free trade’s effect on their personal finances. More (40%) say that free trade agreements have probably or definitely hurt their personal financial situation than say they have probably or definitely helped their financial situation (33%).

Opinions on trade’s effect on personal finances vary somewhat across socioeconomic lines. In general, those with higher levels of education and income and young people are more likely to say that free trade agreements have helped their financial situation.

For example, by a narrow 38% to 33% margin, college graduates say their finances have been helped by free trade agreements. By contrast, the balance of opinion is reversed – by wider margins – among those without a college degree, with more saying they have been hurt rather than helped financially. Similarly, those with family incomes of $75,000 a year or more are slightly more likely than lower income families to say that free trade agreements have definitely or probably helped the financial situation of their family. And almost half (46%) of those under 30 say they have been helped by free trade, compared with just 23% of those 65 and older.

Partisan gaps on this question are generally modest. As many Democrats say they have been helped (36%) as hurt (36%) by free trade agreements. Slightly fewer Republicans and independents say that they have been helped by free trade agreements (30% and 31%, respectively). However, the balance of opinion among Republicans and independents tilts negative, with both groups more likely to say they have been hurt (42% and 45%, respectively), rather than helped, by free trade.

Downsides of Free Trade

Despite embracing free trade as a good thing for the United States broadly, the public expresses largely negative views of free trade when asked about its impact on several specific aspects of the economy. Majorities or pluralities say that free trade agreements lead to job losses, lower wages, and slower economic growth in America. On the other hand, more than half (54%) say trade agreements are good for the people of developing countries.

While still negative on balance, views of trade’s effect on several aspects of the economy have improved somewhat since April 2008 – a time when public views of free trade were particularly critical.

In the current survey, by a 53%-13% margin, more Americans say trade agreements lead to job losses in the U.S. than say they create jobs; 19% say the agreements don’t make a difference. Similarly, 49% think wages of American workers are lower because of free trade; just 11% think they are higher, while 24% say wages are unaffected by trade agreements. In addition, more say free trade agreements slow the economy down (42%) than say they make the economy grow (25%).

The public is more divided over the impact of free trade agreements on the price of products sold in the U.S. About as many say free trade agreements make prices higher (33%) as say they make them lower (32%). On this question, partisan groups stake out slightly different positions: Republicans are divided with nearly equal percentages saying free trade agreements make prices higher (35%) as say they make them lower (33%). Opinion among Democrats is slightly more pessimistic with 38% saying free trade leads to higher prices, while 26% say trade agreements lead to lower prices. More independents think free trade agreements lead to lower prices for products sold in the U.S. (40%) than think they result in higher consumer prices (27%). On most other measures, the balance of opinion among partisan groups is the same, though small differences exist in the magnitude of opinions.

And while skeptical about free trade’s effect on elements of the domestic economy, a majority of the public believes that trade agreements have been a good thing for the people of developing countries: 54% say this, while just 8% say free trade agreements have been bad for the people of developing countries.