We need to be honest about free trade’s costs, and clearer about its benefits

August 6, JDN 2457607

I discussed in a post awhile ago the fact that economists overwhelmingly favor free trade but most people don’t. There are some deep psychological reasons for this, particularly the loss aversion which makes people experience losses about twice as much as they experience gains. Free trade requires change; it creates some jobs and destroys others. Those forced transitions can be baffling and painful.

The good news is that views on trade in the US are actually getting more positive in recent years—which makes Trump that much more baffling. I honestly can’t make much sense of the fact that candidates who are against free trade have been so big in this election (and let’s face it, even Bernie Sanders is largely against free trade!), in light of polls showing that free trade is actually increasingly popular.

Partly this can be explained by the fact that people are generally more positive about free trade in general than they are about particular trade agreements, and understandably so, as free trade agreements often include some really awful provisions that in no way advance free trade. But that doesn’t really explain the whole effect here. Maybe it’s a special interest effect: People who hate trade are much more passionate about hating trade than people who like trade are passionate about liking trade. If that’s the case, then this is what we need to change.

Today I’d like to focus on what we as economists and the economically literate more generally can do to help people understand what free trade is and why it is so important. This means two things:

First, of course, we must be clearer about the benefits of free trade. Many economists seem to think that it is simply so obvious that they don’t even bother to explain it, and end up seeming like slogan-chanting ideologues. “Free trade! Free trade! Free trade!”

Above all, we need to talk about how it was primarily through free trade that global extreme poverty is now at the lowest level it has ever been. This benefit needs to be repeated over and over, and anyone who argues for protectionism needs to be confronted with the millions of people they will throw back into poverty. Most people don’t even realize that global poverty is declining, so first of all, they need to be shown that it is.

American ideas are often credited with fighting global poverty, but that’s not so convincing, since most of the improvement in poverty has happened in China (not exactly a paragon of free markets, much less liberal democracy); what really seems to have made the difference is American dollars, spent in free trade. Imports to the US from China have risen from $3.8 billion in 1985 to $483 billion in 2015. Extreme poverty in China fell from 61% of the population in 1990 to 4% in 2015. Coincidence? I think not. Indeed, that $483 billion is just about $1 per day for every man, woman, and child in China—and the UN extreme poverty line is $1.25 per person per day.

We need to be talking about the jobs that are created by trade—if need be, making TV commercials interviewing workers at factories who make products for export. “Most of our customers are in Japan,” they might say. “Without free trade, I’d be out of a job.” Interview business owners saying things like, “Two years ago we opened up sales to China. Now I need to double my workforce just to keep up with demand.” Unlike a lot of other economic policies where the benefits are diffuse and hard to keep track of, free trade is one where you can actually point to specific people and see that they are now better off because they make more selling exports. From there, we just need to point out that imports and exports are two sides of the same transaction—so if you like exports, you’d better have imports.

We need to make it clear that the economic gains from trade are just as real as the losses from transition, even if they may not be as obvious. William Poole put it very well in this article on attitudes toward free trade:

Economists are sometimes charged with insensitivity over job losses, when in fact most of us are extremely sensitive to such losses. What good economics tells us is that saving jobs in one industry does not save jobs in the economy as a whole. We urge people to be as sensitive to the jobs indirectly lost as a consequence of trade restriction as to those lost as a consequence of changing trade patterns.

Second, just as importantly, we must be honest about the costs of free trade. We need to stop eliding the distinction between net aggregate benefits and benefits for everyone everywhere. There are winners and losers, and we need to face up to that.

For example, we need to stop saying thinks like “Free trade will not send jobs to Mexico and China.” No, it absolutely will, and has, and does—and that is part of what it’s for. Because people in Mexico and China are people, and they deserve to have better jobs just as much as we do. Sending jobs to China is not a bug; it’s a feature. China needs jobs particularly badly.

Then comes the next part: “But if our jobs get sent to China, what will we do?” Better jobs, created here by the economic benefits of free trade. No longer will American workers toil in factories assembling parts; instead they will work in brightly-lit offices designing those parts on CAD software.

Of course this raises another problem: What happens to people who were qualified to toil in factories, but aren’t qualified to design parts on CAD software? Well, they’ll need to learn. And we should be paying for that education (though in large part, we are; altogether US federal, state, and local governments spend over $1 trillion a year on education).

And what if they can’t learn, can’t find another job somewhere else? What if they’re just not cut out for the kind of work we need in a 21st century economy? Then here comes my most radical statement of all: Then they shouldn’t have to.

The whole point of expanding economic efficiency—which free trade most certainly does—is to create more stuff. But if you create more stuff, you then have the opportunity to redistribute that stuff, in such a way that no one is harmed by that transition. This is what we have been failing to do in the United States. We need to set up our unemployment and pension systems so that people who lose their jobs due to free trade are not harmed by it, but instead feel like it is an opportunity to change careers or retire. We should have a basic income so that even people who can’t work at all can still live with dignity. This redistribution will not happen automatically; it is a policy choice we must make.

 

In theory there is a way around it, which is often proposed as an alternative to a basic income; it is called a job guarantee. Simply giving everyone free money for some reason makes people uncomfortable (never could quite fathom why; Donald Trump inherits capital income from his father, that’s fine, but we all inherit shared capital income as a nation, that’s a handout?), so instead we give everyone a job, so they can earn their money!

Well, here’s the thing: They won’t actually be earning it—or else it’s not a job guarantee. If you just want an active labor-market program to retrain workers and match them with jobs, that sounds great; Denmark has had great success with such things, and after all #ScandinaviaIsBetter. But no matter how good your program is, some people are going to not have any employable skills, or have disabilities too severe to do any productive work, or simply be too lazy to actually work. And now you’ve got a choice to make: Do you give those people jobs, or not?

If you don’t, it’s not a job guarantee. If you do, they’re not earning it anymore. Either employment is tied to actual productivity, or it isn’t; if you are guaranteed a certain wage no matter what you do, then some people are going to get that wage for doing nothing. As The Economist put it:

However, there are two alternatives: give people money with no strings attached (through a guaranteed basic income, unemployment insurance, disability payments, and so forth), or just make unemployed people survive on whatever miserable scraps they can cobble together.

If it’s really a job guarantee, we would still need to give jobs to people who can’t work or simply won’t. How is this different from a basic income? Well, it isn’t, except you added all these extra layers of bureaucracy so that you could feel like you weren’t just giving a handout. You’ve added additional costs for monitoring and administration, as well as additional opportunities for people to slip through the cracks. Either you are going to leave some people in poverty, or you are going to give money to people who don’t work—so why not give money to people who don’t work?

Another cost we need to be honest about is ecological. In our rush to open free trade, we are often lax in ensuring that this trade will not accelerate environmental degradation and climate change. This is often justified in the name of helping the world’s poorest people; but they will be hurt far more when their homes are leveled by hurricanes than by waiting a few more years to get the trade agreement right. That’s one where Poole actually loses me:

Few Americans favor a world trading system in which U.S. policies on environmental and other conditions could be controlled by foreign governments through their willingness to accept goods exported by the United States.

Really? You think we should be able to force other countries to accept our goods, regardless of whether they consider them ecologically sustainable? You think most Americans think that? It’s easy to frame it as other people imposing on us, but trade restrictions on ecologically harmful goods are actually a very minimal—indeed, almost certainly insufficient—regulation against environmental harm. Oil can still kill a lot of people even if it never crosses borders (or never crosses in liquid form—part of the point is you can’t stop the gaseous form). We desperately need global standards on ecological sustainability, and while we must balance environmental regulations with economic efficiency, currently that balance is tipped way too far against the environment—and millions will die if it remains this way.

This is the kernel of truth in otherwise economically-ignorant environmentalist diatribes like Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything; free trade in principle doesn’t say anything about being environmentally unsustainable, but free trade in practice has often meant cutting corners and burning coal. Where we currently have diesel-powered container ships built in coal-powered factories and Klein wants no container ships and perhaps even no factories, what we really need are nuclear-powered container ships and solar-powered factories. Klein points out cases where free trade agreements have shut down solar projects that tried to create local jobs—but neither side seems to realize that a good free trade agreement would expand that solar project to create global jobs. Instead of building solar panels in Canada to sell only in Canada, we’d build solar panels in Canada to sell in China and India—and build ten times as many. That is what free trade could be, if we did it right.

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