Steve Chapman
A national political campaign can be a good vehicle for educating the citizenry about vital issues -- whether fiscal balance requires tax increases, say, or the pros and cons of health care reform. By Election Day, Americans who have been paying attention will know more about such matters than they did when the race began.

They will know less, though, about international trade and its value to American consumers, producers and economic health. In this, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama call to mind what the 19th-century House Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed said of his foes: "They never open their mouths without subtracting from the sum of human knowledge."

As economist Daniel Ikenson of the libertarian Cato Institute says, "Both of them came to the conclusion it's easier to demagogue than to explain the benefits of trade."

Romney has run an ad asserting that the president "sold Chrysler to Italians who are going to build Jeeps in China." Like that's a bad thing? Chrysler and its workers were lucky to find a buyer with the means to turn it around, and undertaking production in the world's biggest auto market is smart business.

Romney's implication is that Americans lose when Italians invest in car production here and lose again when a U.S. company invests in car production in China. Not so. We gain employment opportunities when foreigners put money into our economy. We receive income when U.S. companies earn profits abroad.

It's not accurate to suggest, as Romney does, that Chrysler is closing down plants in this country to move production to China. It is actually increasing production from its U.S. Jeep plants. But carmakers generally locate production where the buyers are, which is why so many foreign companies have plants here.

Romney has plenty of help spreading misconceptions. Obama boasts that by acting to "make sure that China was not flooding our domestic market with cheap tires," his administration "saved a thousand jobs." What he doesn't say is that he forced Americans to pay more for tires.

Saved jobs? His measure did save as many as 1,200 jobs in the tire industry, according to the Peterson Institute for International Economics -- but at a cost of at least $900,000 per job. Does it make sense to spend $900,000 to save a job that pays, on average, $40,000 a year?

But that's not the full extent of Obama's feat. IIE says that since they had to spend more on tires, consumers had less to spend on other things. Overall, the tariff destroyed twice as many jobs as it saved.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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