The past few months have been bustling for U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk. Last October Congress passed free-trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama, the first to pass since 2007. And in this year's State of the Union address, President Obama put "places like China" on notice for blocking American exports and announced the creation of a new unit to investigate unfair trade practices.
Ambassador Kirk spoke with The Root about what these developments mean for American jobs, despite criticism about their limitations, and his appeal for black entrepreneurs.
The Root: With regard to this new trade-enforcement unit, what are some of the practices that you want to investigate?
Ron Kirk: One of the biggest complaints we hear about our trade policy — not only from people who were skeptical and critical of trade but also American businesses involved in it — was an intuitive sense that America has very much opened up our borders to goods and products from around the world, but other countries have not done the same.
For example, if a company from China, Africa or Brazil says, "The U.S. housing market's growing, and they're going to need steel," there are very few barriers for them to build or buy a company here. When we go to China, the government limits the number of places foreign investors can invest and, in many cases, won't allow a foreign company to own 100 percent of a business. All of those can skew the market.
There are other things that countries can do to make it more difficult to be competitive. What we're asking China, Europe, Canada, Mexico, all of our trading partners to do, is play by the same rules that we all took a covenant to do when we became members of a rules-based global trading system.
TR: What's happened since Congress passed trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama — what's been the upshot of those agreements?
RK: Once Congress approves a trade agreement, it's the responsibility of my office to make the necessary legal changes to conform to the agreement. There is no set time period for that — it can take as little as six months, and sometimes it will take two years. But recognizing that we have the potential to create over 70,000 jobs with these three agreements, President Obama challenged my office to expedite our work. So we have been working on an expedited timeline with our partners to get these agreements enforced sooner rather than later.
TR: According to reports by the U.S. International Trade Commission, the impact on jobs from these three deals will be "negligible," increasing gross domestic product by roughly 0.1 percent. Are they wrong?
RK: My mantra is that every job's worth fighting for. At a time when the number one concern on Americans' minds is where the jobs are going to come from, what the president has said to me and every member of the Cabinet is, "I'm not asking you to solve everything, but do what you can do." Will this cure all the ills of our economy and put everybody back to work? Absolutely not. But my responsibility as a trade ambassador is to take measures that are going to be accretive to our market.
I would not scoff at 70,000 jobs, particularly since people who are employed in export-related businesses tend to make 18 to 20 percent more than the national average. But for our farmers, ranchers, entrepreneurs, autoworkers that are going to benefit from that, I would challenge these critics to go to them and say that their jobs don't matter. Because we think they do.
TR: How does this job creation stand to affect African Americans in particular?
RK: These are jobs across the board in which African Americans are employed. But one of the things I've been preaching is not to just think of employment, but think of the opportunities for our African-American entrepreneurs to export. One of the great ways to grow your business is to look for customers abroad.
One of the other initiatives President Obama put into place was his national export initiative. We have done more to reach out and educate small businesses —which is where most African-American entrepreneurs play — on how they can find new customers by looking at selling their products or services in markets around the world. There is much more information on this at ustr.gov, and I would welcome readers to visit and follow up with us on how we can help them grow their business by going global.
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.