This week, I began a three week crash course in global commerce and international trade law.
Not as a student, but as the teacher.
As a fourth-year Junior Achievement volunteer, I’ve been privileged to teach basic economic principles to kids from Kindergarten to third grade. It’s fun. And relatively simple.
But when they asked me to step up and teach sixth graders – many of whom are taller than I am – about international matters, I felt stress. Even a little queasiness.
The lessons and materials provided by Junior Achievement were terrific. We did a “treasure hunt” throughout the classroom to find out the countries of origin for many of the products the kids use every day. It was a great teaching opportunity for a business-minded public relations professional.
But when the discussion moved to international trade and the laws that govern it, I saw an even greater opportunity. The opportunity to relate these concepts to some of today’s real-life trade policy debates.
As we discussed some of the glossary words – tariffs, quotas, standards, sanctions and embargoes – I couldn’t help but seize the opportunity to point to recent headlines to help these kids understand that protectionist trade barriers generally cause more harm than good – even for those they are purportedly protecting.
As an example, I discussed the recent move by Congress to ban Mexico trucks from entering the U.S., even though cross-border transportation was part of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) negotiated among the U.S., Mexico and Canada some 15 years ago when I worked in media relations on Capitol Hill.
“Why did our government do it?” I asked the students. I explained to them that some groups in our country had complained Mexican trucks were unsafe and that government leaders felt compelled to do something to address those complaints. (I resisted the urge to tell them the whole story that: a) those complaining were labor unions, who view Mexican truckers as a threat to their jobs and used their political influence with Congressional Democrats to compel bad policy; and b) some studies that compared short-haul Mexican trucks to short-haul U.S. trucks actually found the Mexican trucks to be safer.)
“What do you think happened after that?" I asked next.
“I’ll bet Mexico was mad and used a trade barrier to get back at us,” responded one wise girl. Yes, even the 12-year-olds recognize that every action has a reaction – usually more punitive than the initial one. I explained to them that in response to what they viewed as a violation of our mutual free trade agreement, Mexican leaders did in fact impose steep tariffs on some 90 products the U.S. exports to Mexico, including all kinds of produce grown by farmers across the nation and grapes grown mostly in California. (Again, I resisted the temptation to point out to these innocent young minds that Mexico’s tariffs on grapes and wine were a clear shot at Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi who hails from California.)
“So do you think the trade barrier that our nation imposed on Mexico did more to help our country, or hurt it?” I asked.
“Hurt it!” was the overwhelming response from students, who understand that one protectionist act to shelter one special interest group can lead to a retaliatory protectionist reaction that winds up hurting a lot more people.
Hmm. Maybe it’s time to send some workbooks and stickers to Capitol Hill so our elected officials can get their own crash course on how global commerce and international trade really works.