Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Return of Austan Goolsbee

Last February, University of Chicago Economics Professor Austan Goolsbee got caught in the cross-fire of the Democratic primaries as Clinton and Obama ran as far as they could from NAFTA and other free trade agreements. Just a few days after Obama declared in a national debate he would "renegotiate NAFTA," Goolsbee, an Obama policy advisor, allegedly told the Canadians Obama's words were “more reflective of political maneuvering than policy.” (I wrote about it here). After that, Goolsbee receded from the limelight, and Obama appointed a new economic adviser, Jason Furman. But now, Goolsbee is back. He recently appeared on Fox TV and Charlie Ross, and he authored an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal defending Obama's tax policies.

I can't help but wonder (and hope) whether Goolsbee's re-emergence signals trade will once again take center stage in the 2008 election? And if so, will Obama's shift towards the middle continue (I wrote about Obama's "backtracking" on trade policy here)? I certainly hope so. In a recent interview, Goolsbee's had this to say on the question of why trade seems to have taken a back seat lately:

Q: Why has the campaign gone quiet on trade issues?

A: The biggest issue by far is taxes, alternative energy, health care and then if there's a fourth, it's probably issues with housing, the credit crunch and how to get the economy moving again. You might be putting excess importance on just trade. It's falling into the Republican trap to say that this involves trade agreements. It is more critical for us to address our fundamentals than arguing about whether we should sign a free trade agreement with Panama. That is an issue of symbolic importance.

As for whether Obama's views on NAFTA were moving toward the middle, Goolsbee seems to have learned his lesson well--the response was much more equivocal:

Q: Why does Obama want to amend NAFTA?

A: NAFTA's many things. It's a thousand pages long, it's riddled with loopholes. There are parts of it that are good. So his view from the outset is not that we should abolish NAFTA but that we should put environmental and labor agreements into the core of the agreement. NAFTA is not a state-of-the-art treaty. The most vocal proponents vastly overstated what it would do … rebuild manufacturing in the U.S., reduce illegal Immigration. If you're not going to open up the dialogue to all sides and take into account the people left out, you're not going to do any favors to the cause of open markets.

It seems reports of Obama's pro-NAFTA transformation (or at least rescission of his anti-NAFTA stance) have been greatly exaggerated?

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