|Alan Larson, Under Secretary of State|
for Economic, Business, and Agricultural Affairs
Trans-Atlantic Consumer Dialogue Dinner
Radisson Hotel, Washington, DC February 10, 2000
Consumers and the Global Economy
Good evening. I am pleased to have the opportunity to meet with members of the Trans-Atlantic Consumer Dialogue (NTCD). Let me extend once again a warm welcome to representatives of consumer organizations and to counterparts from the European Commission and the Delegation here in Washington. I would like also to recognize the work of Assistant Secretary Bill Bader of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs for providing the initial United States Government funding that helped launch this important Dialogue.
Together, we are building a Dialogue process under the New Transatlantic Agenda (NTA) that enhances the relationship between our governments and deepens the relationship between our peoples. Though I have worked with many of you, I come before you today in something of a new capacity. As the new U.S. Government coordinator of the TACD, I look forward to receiving your recommendations and coordinating the U.S. Government's evaluation of these recommendations and their inclusion in the NTA. I want to work with you to enhance the TACD's relationship with the United States Government and its input into the Trans-Atlantic process. Your interests reach into multiple agencies and departments of the U.S. Government. The State Department's broad range of policy interests and experience in coordinating U.S. Government international positions on a wide variety of issues should serve your needs well.
The very existence of this Dialogue is indicative of the increasing internationalization of consumer issues. The creation of the Consumer Dialogue in 1998 was intended to expand on the already existing contacts between our governments, our regulators, and our consumer groups and to address the new consumer challenges in transatlantic relations posed by globalization. Your activities are representative of a much broader trend toward the emergence of a global civil society.
Global economic integration and freer international trade offers tremendous benefits for consumers. As an economist, I have been trained to evaluate an economy's performance based on its success in maximizing consumer welfare. As consumer leaders, you are familiar with the concept of "consumer sovereignty;" in an effectively functioning market system, the consumer rules, since it is consumer choice that drives the rest of the economy.
The trend toward greater and freer world trade has brought many benefits to citizens of the United States and the European Union, as well as most other countries. Consumers benefit from lower prices, greater selection, and often better quality and product safety. The great advances in auto safety, quality and fuel efficiency in the past two decades were spurred by many factors, including the work of consumer advocates and government regulators. But could these advances have been realized so quickly without free trade? The pressure of foreign competition spurred U.S. manufacturers to improve the safety, quality, and fuel efficiency of their vehicles.
As President Clinton put it in his recent speech at Davos, "Imports stretch family budgets; they promote the wellbeing of working families by making their dollars go further; they bring new technology and ideas; by opening markets, they dampen inflation and spur innovation." The great wit Ambrose Bierce once said: "A protective tariff is a tool to protect the benevolent businessman from the greed of his consumers." While freer trade is not, by itself, an adequate consumer policy, I hope in your work you will give full recognition to the contribution that freer trade makes to consumer well-being. Though global economic integration brings benefits, we cannot ignore the challenges it poses -- including for consumer policy. We value the input provided by the TACD as we work to address consumer interests. Over the next several days, there will be detailed discussion of the recommendations of your working groups, but I would like to touch on a few briefly.
Your Dialogue is valuable, because it provides a forum for serious, rational discussion of the complex problems involved in protecting consumers in a global economy. We will engage with you in a spirit of respectful dialogue. Where we agree, as on the need for greater transparency in the workings of the WTO and other international fora and on the widespread adoption of clear, transparent rules-based regulatory regimes, our cooperation will reinforce one another's efforts. Where we disagree, we will work to understand each others perspectives and seek common ground.
Global economic integration, in itself, is neither a panacea nor a curse. It is, however, a powerful phenomenon that incorporates many aspects of technological, economic, political, and cultural change. We cannot, nor should we wish to stop it. We can and must, however, shape it so it advances our prosperity and values.
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