Donald Trump won the electoral college at least in part by promising to bring coal jobs back to Appalachia and manufacturing jobs back to the Rust Belt. Neither promise can be honored – for the most part we’re talking about jobs lost, not to unfair foreign competition, but to technological change. But a funny thing happens when people like me try to point that out: we get enraged responses from economists who feel an affinity for the working people of the afflicted regions – responses that assume that trying to do the numbers must reflect contempt for regional cultures, or something.
Is this the right narrative? I am no longer comfortable with this line:
…for the most part we’re talking about jobs lost, not to unfair foreign competition, but to technological change.
Try to place that line in context with this from Noah Smith:
Then, in the 1990s and 2000s, the U.S opened its markets to Chinese goods, first with Most Favored Nation trading status, and then by supporting China's accession to the WTO. The resulting competition from cheap Chinese goods contributed to vast inequality in the United States, reversing many of the employment gains of the 1990s and holding down U.S. wages. But this sacrifice on the part of 90% of the American populace enabled China to lift its enormous population out of abject poverty and become a middle-income country.
Was this “fair” trade? I think not. Let me suggest this narrative: Sometime during the Clinton Administration, it was decided that an economically strong China was good for both the globe and the U.S. Fair enough. To enable that outcome, U.S. policy deliberately sacrificed manufacturing workers on the theory that a.) the marginal global benefit from the job gain to a Chinese worker exceeded the marginal global cost from a lost US manufacturing job, b.) the U.S. was shifting toward a service sector economy anyway and needed to reposition its workforce accordingly and c.) the transition costs of shifting workers across sectors in the U.S. were minimal.
As a consequence – and through a succession of administrations – the US tolerated implicit subsidies of Chinese industries, including national industrial policy designed to strip production from the US.
And then there was the currency manipulation. I am always shocked when international economists claim “fair trade,” pretending that the financial side of the international accounts is irrelevant. As if that wasn’t a big, fat thumb on the scale. Sure, "currency manipulation" is running the other way these days. After, of course, a portion of manufacturing was absorbed overseas. After the damage is done.
Yes, technological change is happening. But the impact, and the costs, were certainly accelerated by U.S. policy.
It was a great plan. On paper, at least. And I would argue that in fact points a and b above were correct.
But point c. Point c was a bad call. Point c was a disastrous call. Point c helped deliver Donald Trump to the Oval Office. To be sure, the FBI played its role, as did the Russians. But even allowing for the poor choice of Hilary Clinton as the Democratic nominee (the lack of contact with rural and semi-rural voters blinded the Democrats to the deep animosity toward their candidate), it should never have come to this.
The transition costs were not minimal.
Consider this from the New York Times:
As the opioid epidemic sweeps through rural America, an ever-greater number of drug-dependent newborns are straining hospital neonatal units and draining precious medical resources.
The problem has grown more quickly than realized and shows no signs of abating, researchers reported on Monday. Their study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, concludes for the first time that the increase in drug-dependent newborns has been disproportionately larger in rural areas.
The latest causalities in the opioid epidemic are newborns.
The transition costs were not minimal.
My take is that “fair trade” as practiced since the late 1990s created another disenfranchised class of citizens. As if we hadn’t done enough of that already. Then we weaponized those newly disenfranchised citizens with the rhetoric of identity politics. That’s coming back to bite us. We didn’t really need a white nationalist movement, did we?
Now comes the big challenge: What can we do to make amends? Can we change the narrative? And here is where I agree with Paul Krugman:
Now, if we want to have a discussion of regional policies – an argument to the effect that my pessimism is unwarranted – fine. As someone who is generally a supporter of government activism, I’d actually like to be convinced that a judicious program of subsidies, relocating government departments, whatever, really can sustain communities whose traditional industry has eroded.
The damage done is largely irreversible. In medium-size regions, lower relative housing costs may help attract overflow from the east and west coast urban areas. And maybe a program of guaranteed jobs for small- to medium-size regions combined with relocation subsidies for very small-size regions could help. But it won’t happen overnight, if ever. And even if you could reverse the patterns of trade – which wouldn’t be easy given the intertwining of global supply chains – the winners wouldn’t be the same current losers. Tough nut to crack.
Bottom Line: I don’t know how to fix this either. But I don’t absolve the policy community from their role in this disaster. I think you can easily tell a story that this was one big policy experiment gone terribly wrong.