WASHINGTON -- The presidential primary exit polls in Wisconsin last week reconfirmed that the U.S. economy was the number one issue on the voters' minds, as it is across the nation. But the most troubling part of the polls' findings was what voters blamed for the economic downturn: free trade agreements that have opened up foreign markets across the globe to American goods and services.
Like a lot of other manufacturing states, Wisconsin has lost factory jobs as companies have downsized in a changing economy and moved some of their operations overseas. Many Wisconsin voters blamed trade for the economy's decline.
In fact, trade is one of the strengths in Wisconsin's economy. The Badger State's exports rose by 15 percent in 2006, following a 17.4-percent rise in 2005. Figures for last year are not in yet, but they are expected to be robust.
In dollar terms, Wisconsin's exports totaled $17.2 billion in 2006, up by 64 percent since 2001. Its largest export industries were in construction, farming, and industrial machinery, plus engines and power transmission equipment.
Wisconsinites manufacture forklifts, compressors, hydraulic jacks, tractors and bulldozers, and if you follow America's global export trade business, you know that U.S. agricultural and construction equipment has been selling like hotcakes overseas.
Who are they selling this stuff to? Canada was the largest importer of Wisconsin's products ($5.4 billion), followed by Mexico ($1.9 billion), China ($870 million), Japan ($739 million), and the United Kingdom ($686 million). But they also sell to many other countries, including Australia, Belgium, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Bangladesh. Oshkosh Truck signed a $4.9 million contract with the Egyptian Ministry of Defense last year. Harley-Davidson is roaring into China's motorcycle market, opening its first dealership in that country. These export industries are responsible for a lot of jobs and the people in Wisconsin who have them do not blame trade -- on which so many of their jobs depend -- for the rough patch the economy is going through.
A lot of things are responsible for the current economic downturn, but it is clear that the decline in the housing and credit markets and $100-a-barrel oil are the chief causes of what ails us as their repercussions ripple across the U.S. economy.
The voters of Wisconsin know what they see, of course, and the trend in lost factory jobs has not escaped them, even though U.S. manufacturing makes and sells more than ever before as a result of new technology and rising productivity.
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