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Friday, December 28, 2007

Paul Krugman: Trouble With Trade

The consequences of increased trade with countries that are much poorer than we are:

Trouble With Trade, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: While the United States has long imported oil and other raw materials from the third world, we used to import manufactured goods mainly from other rich countries like Canada, European nations and Japan.

But recently we crossed an important watershed:... a majority of our industrial trade is now with countries that are much poorer than we are and that pay their workers much lower wages.

For the world economy as a whole — and especially for poorer nations — growing trade between high-wage and low-wage countries is a very good thing. Above all, it offers backward economies their best hope of moving up the income ladder.

But for American workers the story is much less positive. In fact, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that growing U.S. trade with third world countries reduces the real wages of many and perhaps most workers in this country. And that reality makes the politics of trade very difficult.

Let’s talk for a moment about the economics.

Trade between high-wage countries tends to be a modest win for all, or almost all, concerned. ... By contrast, trade between countries at very different levels of economic development tends to create large classes of losers as well as winners.

Although the outsourcing of some high-tech jobs to India has made headlines, on balance, highly educated workers in the United States benefit from higher wages and expanded job opportunities because of trade. For example, ThinkPad notebook computers are now made by a Chinese company, Lenovo, but a lot of Lenovo’s research and development is conducted in North Carolina.

But workers with less formal education either see their jobs shipped overseas or find their wages driven down ... as other workers ... crowd into their industries and look for employment to replace the jobs they lost to foreign competition. And lower prices at Wal-Mart aren’t sufficient compensation.

All this is textbook international economics:... economic theory says that free trade normally makes a country richer, but it doesn’t say that it’s normally good for everyone. Still, when the effects of third-world exports on U.S. wages first became an issue in the 1990s, a number of economists — myself included — looked at the data and concluded that any negative effects on U.S. wages were modest.

The trouble now is that these effects may no longer be as modest ... because imports of manufactured goods from the third world have grown dramatically... And the biggest growth in imports has come from countries with very low wages. ...

So am I arguing for protectionism? No..., keeping world markets relatively open is crucial to the hopes of billions of people.

But I am arguing for an end to the finger-wagging, the accusation either of not understanding economics or of kowtowing to special interests that tends to be the editorial response to politicians who express skepticism about the benefits of free-trade agreements.

It’s often claimed that limits on trade benefit only a small number of Americans, while hurting the vast majority. That’s still true of things like the import quota on sugar. But when it comes to manufactured goods, it’s at least arguable that the reverse is true. The highly educated workers who clearly benefit from growing trade with third-world economies are a minority, greatly outnumbered by those who probably lose.

As I said, I’m not a protectionist. For the sake of the world as a whole, I hope that we respond to the trouble with trade not by shutting trade down, but by doing things like strengthening the social safety net. But those who are worried about trade have a point, and deserve some respect. ["Wonkish" follow up here.]

    Posted by on Friday, December 28, 2007 at 12:33 AM in Economics, Income Distribution, International Trade, Unemployment | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (84)

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