01/02/2014 02:31 pm ET Updated Mar 04, 2014

Advocates Should Focus on Our Real Competitiveness Problems

While I expect populist "public interest" groups to oppose trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), I have to say I was taken aback to see The Coalition for a Prosperous America come out in such staunch opposition to the TPP. CPA, a group that ITIF has had the pleasure of working with in the past, especially in the development of our Charter for the Revitalization of America Manufacturing, is a leading advocacy organization working to help restore U.S. manufacturing. But rather than spend their scarce political capital on supporting congressional enactment of the National Network of Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI), expansion of the R&D tax credit, or an array of other policies to create manufacturing jobs in America, they are focusing on killing the TPP.

Before discussing why I believe this opposition to trade agreements is a mistake, let me first make clear ITIF's support for U.S. manufacturing and manufacturing policy. There is perhaps no U.S. think tank that has done more to focus on the problems of U.S. manufacturing and the need for a national manufacturing strategy than ITIF. Nor is there another think tank that has done more to point out the egregious mercantilist trade practices by other nations, including China, and how they hurt the U.S. economy and workers.

Having said that, the CPA and other manufacturing advocates (such as the U.S. Business and Industry Council Educational Foundation) are not aiding U.S. manufacturers by opposing the TPP and similar agreements such as the Tansatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP). First, these agreements, if done right, will actually strengthen the ability of the U.S. government to fight mercantilism. To be sure, the WTO has proven a disappointment in this regard, in part because of its weak dispute resolution process and because of its unwillingness to truly "take on" mercantilist nations, especially developing ones. But that is precisely why agreements like the TPP and TTIP are needed. They can provide much higher standards with more enforceable provisions than the WTO rules enable. But this is only if U.S. trade negotiators are supported, not undermined, in their efforts to ensure that the agreements are a gold standard. Alas, too many U.S. "public interest" groups (such as EFF and Public Citizen) caught up in corporate animus and "info-communism" want a weak agreement, particularly in the area of intellectual property rights.

But even if ITIF and CPA don't agree on the merits of TPP and TTIP (see here for our position), there is a more fundamental reason why their efforts are misguided. Do they really think that they can stop globalization and U.S. global economic integration? All that their efforts do in this regard is alienate potential allies in the fight for the kind of manufacturing agenda that CPA and ITIF and many other organizations signed onto. For the stark reality, like it or not, is that there is absolutely no chance of a real U.S. manufacturing competitiveness agenda getting enacted without at least moderate U.S. corporate support. But by aligning themselves with an anti-trade agenda CPA and other organizations taking similar positions just alienate potential corporate allies who otherwise might be willing to lend their support to the passage of a national manufacturing competitiveness agenda.

I am sure it feels good for some on the left to vent their frustration on global trade and profit-hungry, multinational corporate off-shorers. But it is a futile and destructive impulse, for it makes any possible effort at a united front on competiveness between U.S. corporate interests, labor and advocacy groups like CPA impossible. So my call to Michael Stomo, head of CPA, is this: I urge you to continue your valuable work on issues like tax reform, manufacturing legislation and currency policy. But adding in the "poison pill" of anti-trade policy will only mean continued lack of any real progress in Congress on the type of important competitiveness and manufacturing issues described above.