Headlines and tweets regularly scream about our economic differences with other countries and the need to bring about greater “fairness” in trade deals. President Trump has been particularly active in this regard, picking fights and slapping tariffs on products imported from our major trading partners.
But during this holiday season, as we reflect upon the past year and pray for blessings in the year to come, perhaps we can find a new lens through which to view trade.
In the Talmud, tractate Berachot, Ben Zoma expounded upon how grateful he was for all the people who contributed to his day. Commenting on a simple meal, he noted:
“How hard Adam must have labored so that he could eat a piece of bread; he had to plough, and sow, and weed, and tend, and harvest, and thresh, and winnow, and sift, and grind, and mix, and knead, and bake, and after that he could eat, whereas I am able to wake in the morning and find all this already done for me.”
And in contemplating the basic act of getting dressed, Ben Zoma remarked:
“And how hard Adam must have labored so that he could have a garment to wear; he had to shear the sheep, and bleach the wool, and beat it, and dye it, and spin it, and weave it, and wash it, and sew it, and after that he could be clothed, whereas I am able to wake in the morning and find all this already done for me.”
He concluded by admitting how difficult it was to quantify the help he received every day:
“How many workers wake up every morning to stand at the door of my house? I wake up in the morning, and find all these things before me.”
Ben Zoma’s core message was that we should be thankful for what we often take for granted. But the underlying theme was that our daily routine is made possible only through the contributions of many unseen helpers.
In today’s economy, this vast assembly of unseen helpers stretches beyond our communities. They constitute an enormous and intricate network of farmers, manufacturers, and service providers — often referred to as “global value chains” — that provide jobs to millions of workers in the U.S. and abroad.
Look around, and you will see evidence of these global value chains everywhere. Think for a moment about the complex supply chains that converge to produce an automobile in Tennessee using parts, materials, and labor from throughout North America and the world. Or, to find a modern example of Ben Zoma’s query, imagine the highly integrated team that turns a cotton seed from Texas into yarn in Georgia into fabric in China into a pair of jeans in Vietnam sold to a consumer in Virginia. It becomes even more complex when you include the ingenuity that went into product design, marketing, and quality assurance of those jeans by professionals in Hong Kong, New York, and California. Workers at one end rarely know the workers at the other end, but their joint efforts create products and services we regularly use.
How fortunate we are that we live during a time in which we can connect to every corner of the globe to meet our daily needs.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could fashion a trade policy that recognizes our partners in other nations who participate in the global value chains we depend upon? While there are certainly more people involved in these global value chains now than there were in Ben Zoma’s day, his wisdom and the sense of gratitude we must feel for all these unseen helpers remains timeless.
By Steve Lamar
Stephen Lamar is president of the Washington International Trade Association (WITA) and executive vice president at the American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA), where he advocates for commonsense trade policies. He is a member of Chabad Lubavtich of Northern Virginia in Fairfax..For more on global value chains and the jobs they add to the U.S. economy, visit usglobalvaluechain.com.