THE BLOG
03/14/2013 04:27 pm ET Updated May 14, 2013

Free Trade, Economic Growth and Population Aging - huh?

President Obama's announcement to enter into free trade talks with our European allies will create an agreement driving global economic growth and might also serve the positive (if unintended) consequence of domestic political consensus building. While it may not solve Sequester, it is a very substantial answer to the fiscal challenges that underpin the need for Sequester. And it is not insignificant that no lesser a Congressional Leader than the Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Senator Max Baucus, has put his political and policy weight behind it.

Free trade agreements -- leading to the reduction of barriers to goods and services across national borders, and thus a lever for economic activity, wealth creation and prosperity -- were a hallmark of the post-World War II political-economic landscape. And that was as true for regional deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement, ASEAN, or the creation of the EU itself as for the more celebrated global deals from the Kennedy Round of the Sixties to the literal creation of the World Trade Organization at the end of the last century.

Inside U.S. domestic politics, these free trade deals were also a consensus-building, non-partisan glue of comity, good will and cross-party agreement in those first decades of the Post-War era. And this remained largely true even as extremes in both parties -- notably labor protectionist on the Democratic side and economic isolationists on the Republican side -- came to view their particular interests at odds with expanding global economic activity. Nor are interests on the politics of free trade separate from one's view on the ability to compete. In the U.S., one can track political position on free trade with that sector's assumptions of its own global competitiveness; it's hard to remember the days when steel, textiles or consumer electronics were proponents of free trade.

Of course, even if the Obama Administration is serious about an American-European free trade agreement, and can overcome protectionist opposition on both sides of the aisle at home, there is the not incidental matter of where we can find sufficient consensus for the actual agreement itself with Europe! And then there is the sobering fact that the latest of the promised multilateral free trade talks, the Doha Round, has been stalled across more than one American administration and resisted by any number of our trading partners for over a decade now. One can be forgiven to wonder whether there is, indeed, a future for "Free Trade."

Yet, as with any agreement, the deal will take enough common interests to overcome the inevitable conflicts and tension. And in recent years, those commonalities have been found as much in less traditional frameworks across investment standards relating to topics like Intellectual Property (TRIPs), the Environment or even HIV/AIDS as in the more traditional and now largely achieved "tariff cutting" of the good old days.

This time, and particularly for America and Europe, that big common topic may be in how we can use free trade and investment talks to find common solutions to treat our aging populations, not as dependents as we came to assume this demographic in the 20th century, but as parts of a 21st century global economic growth and prosperity strategy. Recall how the S&P Global Aging Report in 2010 characterized global population aging as the most seminal of 21st century challenges: "No other force is likely to shape the future of national economic health, public finances, and policymaking as the irreversible rate at which the world's population is aging. The problem has been long observed and is well understood."

But if the S&P Report is right that the problem has been "long observed," it's less clear it has been long understood. And it is even less obvious that positive, common solutions have been sought. Since 2010, the challenge has become even more dramatic as we have observed two additional facts. First, it is now evident that population aging is truly a global phenomenon, with countries as disparate as Turkey, Brazil, Mexico and China aging even more rapidly (the percentage of their population over 60 increasing at a far greater rate than younger demographic segments) than the already "older populations" of Japan, South Korea, Europe and America. Second, that this 21st century trend for America, Europe and now the rest of the world (as countries modernize and urbanize) is due as much to low birth rates as the cause of the "aging population phenomenon" as the increased longevity we so cherish.

As the early outlines of a U.S.-European free trade dialogue is being crafted, American and European leaders ought to explore common trade agreement-type solutions to this 21st century challenge of the profound population shift from young to old. Surely, any agreement that hopes to enable economic growth and job creation, which is the metric we should use for a successful U.S.-European Trade Agreement, cannot ignore this huge and exploding opportunity of a whole demographic segment becoming economically engaged in ways unimaginable in the last century. And for the skeptics, recall the day when investment, intellectual property, environmental and health standards were considered wholly outside the scope of trade talks. Moreover, there many in the private and public sector already focused on the topic of America's "aging population" as a component of American foreign policy. It's a short step to move this now into the U.S./European Trade Talks. It will take creativity and commitment, but it's an opportunity for American and European leadership on a most critical topic of our time. One that will be appreciated by our friends across the rest of the globe who also face the challenges of their aging populations.