Election campaigns are always flooded with deceitful demagoguery and preposterous promises. But this year, candidates in both parties are making particularly cynical statements on the same subject -- international trade.
Donald Trump is leading the way, vowing in virtually every appearance to "bring back" millions of manufacturing jobs that have departed for China and other low-wage countries. After his primary victories this week, he said "we should not allow" companies to export jobs, but of course he never explained how he would accomplish that impossible goal.
Bernie Sanders has joined the anti-commerce chorus, saying in one recent debate, "Those trade policies, as much as any other set of policies, has resulted in the shrinking of the American middle class."
As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a massive deal with Asia negotiated by the Obama Administration, the "gold standard" in trade pacts. As a presidential candidate, she has disavowed her own words.
President Obama took note of this trend in an interview last year with The Wall Street Journal: "What we can't do, though, is withdraw. There has been a confluence of anti-global engagement from both elements of the right and elements of the left that I think (is) a big mistake."
He's absolutely right, it's a big mistake, but that has not stopped the pandering. A majority of Republican primary voters say trade "takes away jobs," and they have heavily backed Trump. Sanders continues to stir up anti-trade sentiment, even as his campaign continues to dwindle down.
The problem is the nature of trade. There are always winners and losers, and the losers are both more visible and better organized. It's easy to take pictures of a shuttered steel plant or furloughed furniture workers.
It's harder to depict the beneficiaries of trade -- the farmer who sells wheat to Japan, the mom who buys cheap sneakers from Bangladesh, the dockworker who loads and unloads those products.
Moreover, many of the workers losing manufacturing jobs belong to unions, and organized labor has become the most vociferous foe of new trade deals. But the volume of their voices cannot change reality.
The United States contains 5 percent of the world's population. As the second-largest trading nation after China, our prosperity depends heavily on selling goods and services to foreign customers.
"Economists are virtually unanimous that trade makes the world richer," writes The Journal. "By enabling countries to specialize, it makes workers more productive, gives consumers more choice and reduces cost."
The University of Chicago posed this statement to a panel of economists: "Freer trade improves productive efficiency and offers consumers better choices, and in the long run these gains are much larger than any effects on employment."
Eighty-five percent of the experts agreed with the statement, and a sizeable majority agreed strongly. Most also agree that campaign promises to "bring back" lost manufacturing jobs are deeply deceptive.
Those jobs disappeared for many complex reasons -- increased automation, more efficient supply chains, vast global forces that impel manufacturers to locate in low-wage countries. Accordingly, Princeton economist Alan Blinder told the Associated Press, Trump's promise to repatriate those jobs is "completely implausible. You can't turn back the clock."
Critics like Trump and Sanders also ignore the positive impact of imported goods on family budgets and inflation rates. One White House study estimates, "Middle-class Americans gain more than a quarter of their purchasing power from trade."
In addition, critics oversimplify the nature of international commerce. Increasingly, trade is about ideas and services, not toys and tractors. The U.S. enjoys vast advantages in this marketplace and can profit enormously from pacts that lower barriers to American insurers and lawyers, moviemakers and software developers -- while protecting their intellectual property.
Any moral or marketable pro-trade policy has to recognize a point Obama made to The Journal: the erosion of manufacturing jobs means "some people have been suspicious and feel burned from some of those experiences." And the people who "feel burned" have a right to both sympathy and subsidies.
Enhancing a program like Trade Adjustment Assistance, which aids displaced workers, can help. Intensified retraining in jobs that cannot be off-shored makes sense. A Vietnamese plumber cannot fix your leaky pipes; a Filipino nurse cannot give you a flu shot.
But the facts remain. The clock cannot be turned back. Lost manufacturing jobs will not return. On balance, trade remains a huge net benefit for this country. The candidates in both parties should be embracing that truth, not rejecting it.