National Press Club

WTO head calls trade 'pro-growth, anti-poverty' tool

October 10, 2016 | By Wesley G. Pippert |

WTO head Roberto Azevedo displays Club mug on stage with Club President Tommy Burr

WTO head Roberto Azevedo displays Club mug on stage with Club President Tommy Burr

Photo/Image: Marshall H. Cohen

The top official for the World Trade Organization argued at a National Press Club Luncheon Oct. 7 for freer trade but acknowledged that achieving it was having "a hard time."

"I'm here to make the case for trade," Roberto Azevedo, WTO secretary-general, said in prepared remarks. And during the questioning period, "This discussion needs to be clarified. It's easy to blame trade" for such things as job loss, he said.

But the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement, favored by President Obama but opposed by both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, drew few comments from Azevdo. When Club President Thomas Burr questioned him about TPP, Azevedo said "I am absolutely for agreements" that promote trade. It was then he added, "It doesn't surprise me at all these things are having a hard time."

Azevedo attacked arguments against trade but stopped short of calling them a canard. "We have to act to respond to people's concerns and to the very real problems they represent. But we should not do so by attacking trade -- or any other mythical scapegoat," he said.

"Most economists accept that trade has proved to be one of the most powerful pro-growth, anti-poverty tools in history," Azevedo said, adding that in recent decades trade has helped lift one billion people out of poverty in developing countries.

As for the charge that trade sends jobs overseas, Azevedo said, "actually trade is a relatively minor cause of job losses."

He said the evidence shows that more than 80 percent of job losses in advanced economies are caused by increased productivity through technology and innovation. And he warned that almost 50 percent of existing jobs in the United States are at "high risk" of automation.

"The reality is that jobs are at risk today due to technological advances that were thought nearly impossible just a few years ago," Azevedo said.

"Protectionism would do nothing to address the real challenges we face," he said, "and it would cause many more problems besides." The net effect of preventing imports would be to slow economic growth even more and cause the loss of jobs throughout the economy.

"Protectionism hits the poorest the hardest. Poorer consumers buy more imported goods," he said. Also, when the United States applied tariffs on Chinese truck tires in 2009, around 1,200 jobs were saved but at a cost of $1.1 billion in higher prices for consumers.

For Azevedo, a career Brazilian diplomat and secretary general since 2013, it was a return to Washington where he was assigned in the 1990s. He spoke to a relatively small audience during the annual meeting of the World Bank a few blocks away.

Burr, in a break from Press Club tradition, conducted the question and answer portion of the luncheon by conversing with the guest speaker in lounge chairs on the stage.