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.

Free trade is not the problem. Billionaires are the problem.

JDN 2457468

One thing that really stuck out to me about the analysis of the outcome of the Michigan primary elections was that people kept talking about trade; when Bernie Sanders, a center-left social democrat, and Donald Trump, a far-right populist nationalist (and maybe even crypto-fascist) are the winners, something strange is at work. The one common element that the two victors seemed to have was their opposition to free trade agreements. And while people give many reasons to support Trump, many quite baffling, his staunch protectionism is one of the stronger voices. While Sanders is not as staunchly protectionist, he definitely has opposed many free-trade agreements.

Most of the American middle class feels as though they are running in place, working as hard as they can to stay where they are and never moving forward. The income statistics back them up on this; as you can see in this graph from FRED, real median household income in the US is actually lower than it was a decade ago; it never really did recover from the Second Depression:


As I talk to people about why they think this is, one of the biggest reasons they always give is some variant of “We keep sending our jobs to China.” There is this deep-seated intuition most Americans seem to have that the degradation of the middle class is the result of trade globalization. Bernie Sanders speaks about ending this by changes in tax policy and stronger labor regulations (which actually makes some sense); Donald Trump speaks of ending this by keeping out all those dirty foreigners (which appeals to the worst in us); but ultimately, they both are working from the narrative that free trade is the problem.

But free trade is not the problem. Like almost all economists, I support free trade. Free trade agreements might be part of the problem—but that’s because a lot of free trade agreements aren’t really about free trade. Many trade agreements, especially the infamous TRIPS accord, were primarily about restricting trade—specifically on “intellectual property” goods like patented drugs and copyrighted books. They were about expanding the monopoly power of corporations over their products so that the monopoly applied not just to the United States, but indeed to the whole world. This is the opposite of free trade and everything that it stands for. The TPP was a mixed bag, with some genuinely free-trade provisions (removing tariffs on imported cars) and some awful anti-trade provisions (making patents on drugs even stronger).

Every product we buy as an import is another product we sell as an export. This is not quite true, as the US does run a trade deficit; but our trade deficit is small compared to our overall volume of trade (which is ludicrously huge). Total US exports for 2014, the last full year we’ve fully tabulated, were $3.306 trillion—roughly the entire budget of the federal government. Total US imports for 2014 were $3.578 trillion. This makes our trade deficit $272 billion, which is 7.6% of our imports, or about 1.5% of our GDP of $18.148 trillion. So to be more precise, every 100 products we buy as imports are 92 products we sell as exports.

If we stopped making all these imports, what would happen? Well, for one thing, millions of people in China would lose their jobs and fall back into poverty. But even if you’re just looking at the US specifically, there’s no reason to think that domestic production would increase nearly as much as the volume of trade was reduced, because the whole point of trade is that it’s more efficient than domestic production alone. It is actually generous to think that by switching to autarky we’d have even half the domestic production that we’re currently buying in imports. And then of course countries we export to would retaliate, and we’d lose all those exports. The net effect of cutting ourselves off from world trade would be a loss of about $1.5 trillion in GDP—average income would drop by 8%.

Now, to be fair, there are winners and losers. Offshoring of manufacturing does destroy the manufacturing jobs that are offshored; but at least when done properly, it also creates new jobs by improved efficiency. These two effects are about the same size, so the overall effect is a small decline in the overall number of US manufacturing jobs. It’s not nearly large enough to account for the collapsing middle class.

Globalization may be one contributor to rising inequality, as may changes in technology that make some workers (software programmers) wildly more productive as they make other workers (cashiers, machinists, and soon truck drivers) obsolete. But those of us who have looked carefully at the causes of rising income inequality know that this is at best a small part of what’s really going on.

The real cause is what Bernie Sanders is always on about: The 1%. Gains in income in the US for the last few decades (roughly as long as I’ve been alive) have been concentrated in a very small minority of the population—in fact, even 1% may be too coarse. Most of the income gains have actually gone to more like the top 0.5% or top 0.25%, and the most spectacular increases in income have all been concentrated in the top 0.01%.

The story that we’ve been told—I dare say sold—by the mainstream media (which is, lets face it, owned by a handful of corporations) is that new technology has made it so that anyone who works hard (or at least anyone who is talented and works hard and gets a bit lucky) can succeed or even excel in this new tech-driven economy.

I just gave up on a piece of drivel called Bold that was seriously trying to argue that anyone with a brilliant idea can become a billionaire if they just try hard enough. (It also seemed positively gleeful about the possibility of a cyberpunk dystopia in which corporations use mass surveillance on their customers and competitors—yes, seriously, this was portrayed as a good thing.) If you must read it, please, don’t give these people any more money. Find it in a library, or find a free ebook version, or something. Instead you should give money to the people who wrote the book I switched to, Raw Deal, whose authors actually understand what’s going on here (though I maintain that the book should in fact be called Uber Capitalism).

When you look at where all the money from the tech-driven “new economy” is going, it’s not to the people who actually make things run. A typical wage for a web developer is about $35 per hour, and that’s relatively good as far as entry-level tech jobs. A typical wage for a social media intern is about $11 per hour, which is probably less than what the minimum wage ought to be. The “sharing economy” doesn’t produce outstandingly high incomes for workers, just outstandingly high income risk because you aren’t given a full-time salary. Uber has claimed that its drivers earn $90,000 per year, but in fact their real take-home pay is about $25 per hour. A typical employee at Airbnb makes $28 per hour. If you do manage to find full-time hours at those rates, you can make a middle-class salary; but that’s a big “if”. “Sharing economy”? Robert Reich has aptly renamed it the “share the crumbs economy”.

So where’s all this money going? CEOs. The CEO of Uber has net wealth of $8 billion. The CEO of Airbnb has net wealth of $3.3 billion. But they are paupers compared to the true giants of the tech industry: Larry Page of Google has $36 billion. Jeff Bezos of Amazon has $49 billion. And of course who can forget Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, and his mind-boggling $77 billion.

Can we seriously believe that this is because their ideas were so brilliant, or because they are so talented and skilled? Uber’s “brilliant” idea is just to monetize carpooling and automate linking people up. Airbnb’s “revolutionary” concept is an app to advertise your bed-and-breakfast. At least Google invented some very impressive search algorithms, Amazon created one of the most competitive product markets in the world, and Microsoft democratized business computing. Of course, none of these would be possible without the invention of the Internet by government and university projects.

As for what these CEOs do that is so skilled? At this point they basically don’t do… anything. Any real work they did was in the past, and now it’s all delegated to other people; they just rake in money because they own things. They can manage if they want, but most of them have figured out that the best CEOs do very little while CEOS who micromanage typically fail. While I can see some argument for the idea that working hard in the past could merit you owning capital in the future, I have a very hard time seeing how being very good at programming and marketing makes you deserve to have so much money you could buy a new Ferrari every day for the rest of your life.

That’s the heuristic I like to tell people, to help them see the absolutely enormous difference between a millionaire and a billionaire: A millionaire is someone who can buy a Ferrari. A billionaire is someone who can buy a new Ferrari every day for the rest of their life. A high double-digit billionaire like Bezos or Gates could buy a new Ferrari every hour for the rest of their life. (Do the math; a Ferrari is about $250,000. Remember that they get a return on capital typically between 5% and 15% per year. With $1 billion, you get $50 to $150 million just in interest and dividends every year, and $100 million is enough to buy 365 Ferraris. As long as you don’t have several very bad years in a row on your stocks, you can keep doing this more or less forever—and that’s with only $1 billion.)

Immigration and globalization are not what is killing the American middle class. Corporatization is what’s killing the American middle class. Specifically, the use of regulatory capture to enforce monopoly power and thereby appropriate almost all the gains of new technologies into into the hands of a few dozen billionaires. Typically this is achieved through intellectual property, since corporate-owned patents basically just are monopolistic regulatory capture.

Since 1984, US real GDP per capita rose from $28,416 to $46,405 (in 2005 dollars). In that same time period, real median household income only rose from $48,664 to $53,657 (in 2014 dollars). That means that the total amount of income per person in the US rose by 49 log points (63%), while the amount of income that a typical family received only rose 10 log points (10%). If median income had risen at the same rate as per-capita GDP (and if inequality remained constant, it would), it would now be over $79,000, instead of $53,657. That is, a typical family would have $25,000 more than they actually do. The poverty line for a family of 4 is $24,300; so if you’re a family of 4 or less, the billionaires owe you a poverty line. You should have three times the poverty line, and in fact you have only two—because they took the rest.

And let me be very clear: I mean took. I mean stole, in a very real sense. This is not wealth that they created by their brilliance and hard work. This is wealth that they expropriated by exploiting people and manipulating the system in their favor. There is no way that the top 1% deserves to have as much wealth as the bottom 95% combined. They may be talented; they may work hard; but they are not that talented, and they do not work that hard. You speak of “confiscation of wealth” and you mean income taxes? No, this is the confiscation of our nation’s wealth.

Those of us who voted for Bernie Sanders voted for someone who is trying to stop it.

Those of you who voted for Donald Trump? Congratulations on supporting someone who epitomizes it.