Trade and Globalization
The U.S. Census Bureau reported that the annual U.S. trade deficit in goods and services increased from $504.8 billion to $566.1 billion from 2016 to 2017, an increase of $61.2 billion (12.1 percent). The rapid growth of the overall U.S. trade deficit reflects the failure of Trump administration trade policies to materially affect trade flows in its first year, and its failure to address currency misalignment and prolonged overvaluation of the U.S. dollar.
The U.S. goods trade deficit increased from $752.5 billion in 2016 to $810.0 billion in 2017, an increase of $57.5 billion (7.6 percent). The U.S. goods trade deficit is dominated by the trade deficit in manufactured products (including re-exports), which increased from $648.7 billion in 2016 to $699.8 in 2017, an increase of $51.1 billion (7.9 percent). Rapidly growing trade deficits in manufactured goods are a threat to future employment in this sector, which remains a large employer despite decades of policy-inflicted decline.
The U.S. trade deficit with China reached a new record of $375.2 billion in 2017, up from $347 billion in 2016, an increase of $28.2 billion (8.1 percent). China is a particular source of concern in trade in steel and aluminum, industries in which that country has accumulated massive amounts of subsidized, and often state-owned excess production capacity, over the past two decades. The president needs to promptly take trade action in pending national security investigations in these sectors.
The remainder of the goods trade deficit is composed of trade in petroleum and other energy products, and miscellaneous transactions. The United States also had a small trade surplus in agricultural commodities, which reached $22.1 billion (including re-exports) in 2017. The U.S. surplus in services trade declined from $247.7 billion in 2016 to $244.0 billion in 2017, a decline of $3.7 billion (1.5 percent).
The global punditry is all a twitter this week with the prospect of Donald Trump going to Davos—the chic winter gathering place of the world’s rich and powerful.
The media narrative is that this will be a titanic clash of opposites. Populist, “America First” Trump confronting the high-minded capitalist builders of the global economy.
“It’s going to be a hell of a show,” a Vox writer assures us. “Fox in the Globalist Henhouse?” headlines the New York Times. The internationalist intellectual Niall Ferguson explains that: “Trump is as loathed by the elites of Western Europe as he is by the elites of Manhattan.”
No doubt many of Manhattan’s rich and powerful would agree with Trump’s Secretary of State (the former CEO of Exxon) that the president is a moron. But so what? Rather than drain the Washington swamp he pumped it even more full of Wall Street financiers, international business interests and lobbyists from virtually every sleazebag business interest in the country.
The United States, Canada, and Mexico are currently in talks over changes to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Renegotiating NAFTA offers an opportunity to create a new labor template based on long overdue and urgently needed labor standards that are consistently enforced and upheld. In order to accomplish this, we need to update and strengthen current language (based on the May 10, 2007 template). Among other things, there should be fewer limitations on the kinds of labor violations that are covered, and each signatory must be in compliance with the standards set forth prior to joining the agreement. The following recommendations constitute some of the steps needed to achieve these essential improvements to the labor chapter:
- Incorporate explicit references to labor standards reflecting the conventions of the International Labour Organization (ILO), including those concerning the freedom of association, collective bargaining, discrimination, forced labor, child labor, and workplace safety and health.
- Remove the footnote explicitly limiting the terms of the chapter to the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.
- Eliminate the requirement that labor violations under the agreement must be in a manner affecting trade or investment between the parties.
- Eliminate the requirement that labor violations must be sustained or recurring.
- Verify that labor standards in the agreement are being honored and enforced by the signatories prior to the agreement going into effect.
Supporters of the Republican tax plan claim that business tax cuts, including cutting corporate tax rates and immediate expensing of non-structure investments will increase U.S. business investment and economic growth. However, this one-sided analysis ignores the impacts of financing the tax cut package by adding $1.5 trillion to federal budget deficits over the next decade. Past experience has shown deficit-financed tax cuts are associated with higher interest rates, an overvalued U.S. dollar and growing trade deficits.
A recent report from the Council of Economic Advisors claims that tax cuts and the immediate expensing of equipment (non-structural) investments will reduce the user cost of capital (UCC), “increasing firms’ investment, desired capital stock, and potential output.” In addition, they claim that lowering the UCC will lead “multinational corporations and foreign capital…to invest in the U.S. economy.” These arguments could have some merit if the plan were revenue neutral, and financed by closing loopholes and through other tax reforms. However, domestic and foreign businesses are unlikely to invest in the United States if there is inadequate demand for domestically produced goods. U.S. manufacturing and other traded goods industries (including agricultural products and other traded commodities) will be hard hit by the Republican tax plan, because it is financed through a large increase in the government budget deficit. Further, real-world evidence indicates that the UCC facing American corporations is already incredibly low yet business investment remains quite sluggish. In short, the UCC is not a current constraint on American investment, so efforts to reduce it further will miss the point in aiming to boost this investment.
Since the beginning of his presidential campaign, Donald Trump has railed against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as being a bad deal for working Americans. He promised that if he was elected, he would renegotiate NAFTA and secure a “much better deal for all Americans.”
So it’s not surprising that earlier this week, the leader of a prosperous country engaged in NAFTA renegotiations demanded changes to increase workers’ leverage, provide a bulwark against downward wage pressure, and prevent his country’s manufacturing sector from being undercut by weak labor standards. But was this leader Donald Trump? Nope. It was Justin Trudeau of Canada.
Even more striking, the reported change that Trudeau’s government has requested to stem downward pressure on Canadian wages is one that beefs up American labor standards. Yes, the low-wage, low-standard country that Trudeau’s government is correctly concerned about as they renegotiate NAFTA is the United States.
The requested change is ambitious: Trudeau’s government wants an end to so-called “right to work” (RTW) laws in American states. This would clearly be good for American workers. In a nutshell, “right to work” laws have nothing to do with helping people find work—instead they simply ban contracts requiring that workers benefiting from labor union representation pay their fair share for this representation. This ban makes it extraordinarily difficult for workers to join together and form unions in RTW states. As a result, these states have substantially fewer union members and less collective bargaining. The economic evidence shows that RTW laws do not boost employment or economic growth, but do suppress wages.
The saying goes that even a stopped clock tells the correct time twice a day. This is a pretty good description of the Trump administration’s approach to trade policy: their analysis and motivations are almost never right, yet they occasionally hit on a decent idea. But then they move quickly off of it. This is illustrated perfectly in their recent moves regarding the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS).
News reports suggest that the Trump administration is preparing to withdraw from KORUS. The motivation for this seems more driven by Trump pique that the South Korean government is not rubber-stamping his preferred policy stance on the current tensions in the Korean peninsula, rather than on any coherent economic analysis.
Yet, it’s true that on pure economics, KORUS should be seen as a failure. The KORUS deal, approved in 2011, was supposed to result in rising U.S. exports. However, U.S. exports to Korea actually fell $1.2 billion between 2011 and 2016, while imports from South Korea soared—increasing the bilateral trade deficit by $14.4 billion and eliminating more than 95,000 jobs in the first three years alone.
The glaring omission in KORUS was failure to include enforceable provisions on currency policy. Korea is a well-known currency manipulator, and it also has the fourth largest current account trade surplus (the broadest measure of trade in goods, services, and income) in the world. Ending Korean currency manipulation and revaluing the won is the surest way to increase U.S. exports and stop the surge in Korean imports in the United States, demonstrating the value of this strategy for rebalance overall U.S. trade and helping to rebuild U.S. manufacturing. Recent estimates suggest that rebalancing U.S. trade will require Korea to revalue the won by at least 32.7 percent.
The first round of the Trump administration’s NAFTA renegotiations began in Washington wrapped up on Saturday. The negotiators will meet again in September in Mexico City and then again in October in Canada. The United States has not yet proposed any specific measures on important issues such as labor rights, currency manipulation, or rules of origin. By all accounts, these negotiations are more likely to hurt than help most working Americans, who would be better served by efforts to target countries with large, global trade surpluses such as China, the European Union (EU) and Japan. Rather than tinkering around the edges of NAFTA, the United States should begin a campaign to realign the U.S. dollar and rebalance global trade.
Over its first 20 years, growing trade deficits with Mexico and Canada from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) eliminated 850,000 U.S. jobs, most of them in manufacturing. (American workers suffered far more after China entered the World Trade Organization in 2001, including 3.4 million jobs lost through 2015 alone, due to growing trade deficits with that country.) And trade deficits and job losses are just the tip of the iceberg of the devastation wreaked by bad trade deals, which have also driven down the wages of all 100 million American workers without a college degree, who have suffered losses of just under $2,000 per year for each median wage, full-time worker. Roughly $200 billion per year is being taken from the pockets of working people and middle class families, because the super-rich and huge corporations have been able to game the system at their expense.
NAFTA has created the economic equivalent of a 14-lane freeway to Mexico, paving the way for the outsourcing of jobs and factories to Mexico. In the past twenty years, the U.S. has lost more than 87,000 factories (manufacturing establishments), wiping out nearly one-third of U.S. manufacturing production capacity. Tweaking NAFTA around the edges is not going to change those dynamics. As EPI founder Jeff Faux recently explained, NAFTA created “radical new rules for trade…that shifted the benefits of expanding trade to investors and the costs to workers.” The system that created this deal to benefit rich executives and multinational companies is still in place and, if anything, tilts even further in their interest in an administration led by former Goldman Sachs executives Gary Cohn (Trump’s chief economic advisor) and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.
Steel and aluminum trade restraints are good first steps, but not nearly enough to rebuild manufacturing
The Trump administration is poised to impose broad tariffs and/or quotas on imports of steel and aluminum products. As the issues are being pondered, battles are raging between metal-producing and consuming industries, and between the United States and its trading partners. Trade restriction in these sectors could relieve near-term pressure on thousands of jobs and, if done well, could buy valuable time that could lead to global solutions to chronic dumping and overcapacity problems centered in China and a few other countries. But tariffs and quotas in a few industries will never be sufficient to structurally rebalance U.S. trade or rebuild U.S. manufacturing, goals that have been clearly identified by the president and other members of his administration. In order to achieve these goals, the United States needs to realign the dollar to reverse the effects of more than two decades of unfair trade and currency manipulation on world trade and the global economy.
The conclusions in this post are based on the following key observations:
- U.S. steel and aluminum industries have been heavily injured by massive growth of excess capacity and overproduction in China and other countries. More than 13,000 U.S. jobs have been lost in aluminum since 2000—and 14,000 steel jobs disappeared in last two years alone.
- Surging imports of steel and aluminum and diminished domestic production capacity in these industries are a threat to national security because access to reliable sources of these metals is critical to supply of military equipment and critical infrastructure. If current trends persist, in time of war or other national emergency, the United States would find itself dependent on unstable import sources.
- Tariffs and quotas will save jobs in these industries from near-term threats and help domestic producers recover from unfair trade. In the best of cases, tariffs can be used to encourage other importers to develop common policy to address overcapacity and overproduction by China and other major exporters. But trade remedies can have negative consequences too. Increasing costs of steel and aluminum may reduce the competiveness of other domestic producers (both downstream producers of steel and aluminum products, as well as other users such as automakers and aircraft manufacturers), hurting consumers and reducing exports. Imposing trade restraints can also lead to retaliation by other countries, further reducing U.S. exports.
The Trump administration announced last week that it would sign two executive actions to launch a review of U.S. trade policy. A review of trade policy and its potential to harm U.S. workers is welcome and long overdue. However, the specifics of the review offered by President Trump mean that it is likely to fail to provide any help to American workers, in part because it asks the wrong questions.
The president’s first order requires Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and White House Trade Council to “identify every form of trade abuse and every nonreciprocal practice that contributes to the U.S. trade deficit,” according to the commerce secretary. The report is to be completed within 90 days, with an analysis of the detailed cause of the deficit “by country and major product.” But the trade deficit is not a “product by product” or a “country by country” problem. We know what it is caused by and what should be done about it.
The trade deficit is not a bilateral problem between the United States and individual countries. The U.S. trade deficit is a result of global trade imbalances. There are ten to twenty countries that have developed large, persistent, structural trade surpluses that are distorting trade flows worldwide. The top ten surplus countries are shown in Figure A below. In 2015, these countries, led by China, Germany, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, had a collective trade surplus of approximately $1.5 trillion. (The figures reported are current account balances, the broadest measure of trade in goods, services and income.) The United States’ current account deficit of $463 billion in 2015 accounted for less than one third of the total surplus accumulated by the big surplus traders. Other countries have also suffered from persistent, structural trade deficits, job losses, and downward pressure on wages, including Great Britain, Brazil, Australia, and Mexico. Attacking the root causes of global trade imbalances will benefit all deficit countries, and not just the United States.
President Trump is expected to outline plans for trade policy development in his speech to a joint session of Congress. He outlined some of those plans in remarks to the Conservative Political Action Conference, where he said “We’re going to make trade deals, but we’re going to do one-on-one, one-on-one, and if they misbehave, we terminate the deal.”
The United States had a global current account deficit (the broadest measure of all trade in goods, services and income) of $470 billion (2.5 percent of GDP) and a goods trade deficit of $750 billion (4 percent of GDP) in 2016. Meanwhile, a handful of countries have developed large, structural trade surpluses that reached $1.2 trillion, which have effectively transferred millions of manufacturing jobs from the United States and other countries to these surplus countries—have hampered economic recovery in much of the globe—and now threaten to destabilize the global economy again in coming years if not reduced.
This article was originally published in Quartz.
Donald Trump’s promise to renegotiate or tear-up the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement was a major reason why he won the support of working class voters in the Midwestern states that were crucial to his election. It’s also a trap.
As US president-elect, Trump quickly scored some points with his Rust Belt constituency after claiming to get the Carrier and Ford corporations to reduce the number of jobs they are sending to Mexico. He also clearly exaggerated the effect of his personal persuasiveness: Carrier was moved by a $7 million tax break from the state of Indiana and Ford might well have made its decision before Trump intervened. In any event, as the Wall Street Journal reports, other companies, such as Rexnord, Caterpillar, and Nucor continue to send jobs south of the border. Renegotiating NAFTA is therefore the first real test of Trump’s pledge to create good new jobs by negotiating better trade deals.
Will he deliver on this pledge? No. But the reason is not, as the conventional economic wisdom has it, because outsourcing work to low-wage countries is the inevitable result of immutable global forces that no president can reverse. The problem for American workers is not international trade, per se. America has been a trading nation since its beginning. The problem is, rather, the radical new rules for trade imposed by NAFTA—and copied in the myriad trade deals signed by the US ever since—that shifted the benefits of expanding trade to investors and the costs to workers.
Brad DeLong is far too lenient on trade policy’s role in generating economic distress for American workers
Brad DeLong posted a widely-read piece on Vox a couple of weeks ago effectively exonerating globalization and trade policy from accusations that it has contributed to economic distress for low- and moderate-wage American workers. He doubled-down on specific claims this week in a piece at Project Syndicate. Below I’ll assess some of his claims in a bit of detail, but here’s a “too-long; didn’t read” checklist of how I grade the accuracy of some of his main claims:
- Putting pen-to-paper on trade agreements contributed nothing to aggregate job loss in American manufacturing. This is almost certainly true.
- The aggregate job loss we have seen in manufacturing is due to automation plus declining domestic demand for manufactured goods, period. This is mostly false. Trade deficits, especially with China in the last 15-20 years, have contributed significantly to overall manufacturing job-loss..
- The source of these rising trade deficits is mostly an overvalued U.S. dollar, which has nothing to do with trade policy. It’s true that an overvalued dollar is what’s behind rising trade deficits, but saying that has nothing to do with trade policy is semantics. Call it macroeconomic policy if you want, but the way an overvalued dollar hurts Americans is through its impact on trade flows.
- The trade agreements we have signed are mostly good policy and have had only very modest regressive downsides for American workers. This is false.
- Globalization writ large has been tough on some American workers and policymakers have failed to compensate losers. This is true, but I think DeLong underestimates the number of losers and the size of their losses.
So, let me dive deeper into each one of these arguments:
The U.S. Census Bureau reports that the annual U.S. trade deficit in goods and services increased slightly from $500.4 billion in 2015 to $502.3 billion in 2016, an increase of $1.9 billion (0.4 percent). This reflects a $14.4 billion (5.5 percent) decline in the services trade surplus and a $12.5 billion (1.6 percent) decrease in the goods trade deficit. However, the small increase in the overall goods and services trade deficit, and its downward trend over the past decade, mask important structural shifts in U.S. trade.
Falling petroleum prices and rising domestic petroleum production and exports have obscured surging imports of nonpetroleum goods (NPGs) —the vast bulk of which are manufactured products—into the United States since 2013. The trade deficit in NPGs, which has the most impact on workers and communities, has increased sharply. The U.S. trade deficit in petroleum goods declined by $22.7 billion (32.8 percent) in 2016, while the trade deficit in NPGs increased by $16.4 billion (2.5 percent), continuing the sharp run-up in the NPG trade deficit since 2013.
The U.S. trade deficit in NPGs is now at an all-time high (shown with dark blue bars in the figure below) while the overall U.S. balance of trade in goods and services (shown with light blue bars) has fallen sharply from a peak of $761.7 billion in 2006 to $502.3 billion in 2016—obscuring the much larger (and more important) trade deficit in NPGs.
President Trump’s alternative facts have foreigners and bureaucrats, not the top 1 percent, reaping the gains from economic growth
It’s no secret that we at EPI have been skeptical about President Trump’s commitment to a policy agenda that would deliver the goods for low and middle-income Americans. His campaign proposals were nearly across-the-board great for high-income households and corporate business, but bad for most American workers. His nominees for key economic posts have been consistently hostile to policies that boost bargaining power for low and middle-wage workers. And now we have his inaugural speech, in which he specifies the groups he thinks have won and lost over recent decades in the American economy.
This speech is clarifying in that he identifies foreigners and “a small group in our nation’s Capital [sic]” as the big winners. Totally absent from his speech is the “small group” that has actually done very well and whose gains genuinely crowded-out potential growth for the vast majority of American households: the top 1 percent.
It’s unclear what evidence Trump could be referring to when decrying that “small group in our nation’s Capital” as the winners in recent decades. Since the recovery from the Great Recession began, for example, federal spending has grown more slowly than in nearly every other post-war recovery.
Last week, President-elect Donald Trump took to Twitter to claim that Masayoshi Son, CEO of SoftBank of Japan, had agreed to invest $50 billion in the United States toward businesses and create 50,000 new jobs, and that “Masa said he would never do this had [Trump] not won the election!” As usual, the claim that Trump negotiated this deal is disputed, since SoftBank had announced plans to create a $100 billion technology investment fund, together with a public investment fund of Saudi Arabia, in October, before the election.
Worse yet, this deal is lose, lose, lose for the domestic economy. First, this inflow of foreign capital will bid up the U.S. dollar, which will reduce the competitiveness of U.S. manufacturing by making imports cheaper and exports more expensive. This will increase the U.S. trade deficit and reduce employment in U.S. manufacturing. The U.S. dollar has gained about 25 percent in the past two-and-a-half years, and one-fifth of that increase has occurred since the election. As a result, the trade deficit in manufactured goods increased sharply in 2015 and is poised for another increase after the recent run-up in the dollar. Meanwhile, the United States has lost 78,000 manufacturing jobs since the first of the year due, in part, to the rising trade deficit.
Second, foreign investment in the U.S. economy is dominated by foreign purchases of existing U.S. companies. Between 1990 and 2005, foreign multinational companies (MNCs) acquired or established domestic subsidiaries that employed 5.25 million U.S. employees. The vast majority (94 percent) of jobs associated with those investments were in existing firms acquired by foreign MNCs. However, 4 million of those jobs disappeared through layoffs or divestiture of part or all of those companies, as shown in my 2007 paper, The Hidden Costs of Insourcing. A classic example was the acquisition of IBM’s PC business by Chinese computer maker Lenovo in 2005. Lenovo shut down PC production in the United States and substituted PCs made in China and elsewhere in Asia. So PC production jobs in the United States disappeared.
The moral of the Trump/Carrier deal is clear: if you’re useful to Trump, he might be willing to throw other workers overboard to help you
Donald Trump is getting lots of mileage out of the alleged deal that has been struck to keep a Carrier plant from moving to Mexico from Indiana. If any of the reporting about the deal is correct, however, Trump clearly sold out the working class that he claims his deal helped.
First, let’s be clear—if it’s true that 1,000 jobs are kept in the U.S. and these workers are not laid off, that’s great for them and any relief and gratitude they feel about this deal is justified. Losing a job is terrifying, particularly in a country where policy titled towards the already-rich keeps good jobs scarce and makes losing a job so economically devastating.
But, let’s also be equally clear that even if this was somehow a good deal from a public policy perspective, it’s an entirely not-scalable approach to solving the challenges of globalization. A world in which your job depends on whether or not you’re useful as a public relations prop for the President is not a recipe for broad-based security.Read more
The TPP is a back door for dumped and subsidized imports from China; it would enhance, not limit, China’s influence in the region
President Obama has built his closing case for the Trans-Pacific Partnership on a political argument, saying “…we can’t let countries like China write the rules of the global economy. We should write those rules.” But it is both arrogant and wrong to think that the United States has the power to shape the rules governing China’s relationship to TPP signatories. As of today, China has already established deeper trade ties than the United States with the TPP nations. Further, congressional approval of the TPP would actually lock in those advantages for China. China has a large trade surplus with the TPP countries, and crucial terms of the agreement (specifically weak rules of origin (ROO) requirements, which we’ll talk about in detail below) would provide a back-door guarantee for China and other non-TPP members to duty-free access to U.S. and other TPP markets. This would be especially significant for autos and auto parts, as well as other key products. TPP exporters are not going to turn away from their suppliers in China just because they signed a trade deal with the United States.
The United States has a massive trade deficit with China that has taken on added significance in the light of the proposed TPP agreement between the United States and 11 other Pacific Rim countries. While China is not party to the TPP, it is a major force behind a larger East Asian co-production system that uses unfair trade (dumping, subsidies, excess capacity, export restrictions, and more), coupled with currency manipulation and misalignment, to make U.S. goods more costly and thus less competitive in China, the TPP and in other markets.
The United States also had a large trade deficit with the TPP countries in 2015 that cost 2 million U.S. jobs. Flawed trade and investment deals, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), plus the currency manipulation and unfair trade by some TPP members account for many of those lost jobs (note that Mexico and Canada are TPP countries). In addition, analysis developed here demonstrates that a substantial share of these TPP job losses can be directly linked to trade between China and the other members of the TPP. Specifically, most of the TPP countries run large trade deficits with China while running large, offsetting trade surpluses with the United States. Thus, it appears that at least some TPP producers are buying parts and components from China and re-exporting them in the form of finished goods to the United States.
This blog was first posted at The Globalist.
During the 1993 U.S. congressional debate over the North American Free Trade Agreement, a Democratic Congressman with a solid pro-labor voting record asked me why I thought NAFTA would be bad for working people.
After I had given my answer, he responded: “Well, you may be right about the economics.” “But we have a 2000-mile border with Mexico. The President told me we need NAFTA to make it secure.”
Who can argue against national security?
NAFTA was the economic model for the ever more corporatist trade deals that followed, including the currently proposed 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The arguments for NAFTA also set the pattern for the debates over those deals. Whenever the economic case crumbles, “national security” becomes the fallback rationale.
After a quarter century of off-shored jobs and depressed wages in the wake of corporate-driven trade de-regulation, the claim that the Trans-Pacific Partnership will make life better for American workers is so discredited that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are opposed.
Today’s jobs report from the BLS showed that the U.S. manufacturing sector lost 14,000 jobs in August and has now lost 57,000 jobs since January of this year. This job loss is, in part, a consequence of the sharp rise of the dollar in 2014 and 2015, which has gained nearly 20 percent on a broad, trade-weighted basis, as shown below. The rising dollar has reduced the cost of imports, increased the cost of U.S. exports resulting in growing trade deficits. Growing exports support U.S. employment, but growing imports cost U.S. jobs, so the manufacturing decline was entirely predictable from the expected increase in the U.S. trade deficit, which responds to changes in the dollar with a lag of one to two years. Yet the U.S. government continues to do nothing about destructive exchange rate movements, whether they are caused by intentional currency manipulation or more recent, market-driven misalignments.
Data for the U.S. trade deficit in July were also released this morning. The trade deficit in manufactured products (Exhibit 1S) increased 3.1 percent, year to date, relative to the same period last year, despite a decline in the overall U.S. trade deficit. U.S. imports of petroleum products declined sharply in this period, while the trade deficit in non-petroleum goods (which is dominated by trade in manufactures) increased sharply. The single largest cause of the growing manufacturing trade deficit is malign neglect of currency manipulation over the past 20 years by the U.S. government.
China, which has been the most important currency manipulator over the past two decades, was responsible for nearly two thirds (61.3 percent) of the U.S. trade deficit in manufactured goods in 2015. The trade deficit with China increased in July. China has also distorted trade by generating massive amounts of excess production capacity in a wide range of industries, including steel, aluminium, glass, paper and renewable energy products. China’s capacity growth has been fueled by illegal subsidies and other unfair trade practices. A new report from Duke University explores the impacts of overcapacity in China’s steel industry.
The White House is making one last push for passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, most likely during the lame duck session of Congress, after the elections but before the end of the year. This is despite the fact that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton opposes the TPP, as did Bernie Sanders, her rival in the primary, and as do the majority of Democratic members of Congress.
Let’s review the basic facts. Growing imports of goods from low-wage, less-developed countries, which nearly tripled from 2.9 percent of GDP in 1989 to 8.4 percent in 2011 (as shown in Figure A, below), reduced the wages of the typical non-college educated worker in 2011 by “5.5 percent, or by roughly $1,800—for a full-time, full year worker earning the average wage for workers without a four-year college degree,” as shown by my colleague Josh Bivens.
Overall, there are nearly 100 million American workers without a 4-year degree. The wage losses suffered by this group likely amount to a full percentage point of GDP—roughly $180 billion per year. Crucially, trade theory and evidence indicate strongly that growing trade redistributes far more income than it creates. The modesty of net benefits from trade is highlighted by the U.S International Trade Commission report that recently estimated that the TPP would generate cumulative net gains of $57.3 billion over the next 16 years, or less than $4 billion per year.
This post originally appeared in Democracy.
This election will be different, not only because of the stark departure of Donald Trump’s candidacy from any usual political convention, but also because the current economic debate is unlike any in recent memory. This was further elucidated by the plans each candidate laid out in Michigan this week. It is noteworthy, first of all, that both candidates have joined in calling for greater infrastructure spending, have abandoned the traditional approach toward trade and opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), have proposed subsidizing child care expenses, have highlighted wage stagnation, and have each claimed to be able to provide faster economic growth than the other.
It would be pointless, however, to delve into precise policy details without first commenting on the disturbing nature of the Trump candidacy. Among the least of his campaign’s problems is that it fails to elaborate on any of its positions or provide any kind of science or data, that would allow a proper assessment of its proposals. Trump has offered many broad ideas about taxes, but the details are strikingly few. Similarly, Trump’s budget plans just don’t add up: He wants more military spending, more infrastructure spending, and no cuts to Medicare or Social Security, along with huge tax cuts—all while claiming he would still move toward a balanced budget. Of course, most problematic is Trump’s bigotry and misogyny, and the egregious character flaws he displays almost daily: authoritarianism, dishonesty, volatility, and a lack of compassion.
But setting all that aside for the moment…
A version of this article appeared in the Globalist.
U.S. trade policy of the last 20 years, if not dead, is on life- support. The economic case for the series of neoliberal trade deals since the North American Free Trade Agreement has collapsed in the wake of job losses, lower wages and shrinking opportunities for American workers. Voters are hostile, and both candidates for President oppose the latest proposed trade pact—the Trans Pacific Partnership.
But neoliberal trade deals have brought enormous profits to America’s multinational corporate investors. So, big business lobbyists and their champions in the Congress and the Administration are organizing to pass the TPP in the post-election lame duck session—regardless of who wins the election.
With their economic arguments discredited, they are now draping these trade and investment pacts with a mantle of moral superiority. American workers who complain are now told that they should be ashamed of themselves. Why? Because off-shoring their jobs helps workers in other counties who are even poorer.
Paul Krugman tells his New York Times readers that they should support “open world markets…mainly because market access is so important to poor countries.”
Yesterday, presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump gave a speech on trade, extensively citing EPI’s research which shows that trade deficits as a result of NAFTA and other trade deals, as well as trade with China, have cost U.S. jobs and driven down U.S. wages. It’s true that the way we have undertaken globalization has hurt the vast majority of working people in this country—a view that EPI has been articulating for years, and that we will continue to articulate well after November. However, Trump’s speech makes it seem as if globalization is solely responsible for wage suppression, and that elite Democrats are solely responsible for globalization. Missing from his tale is the role of corporations and their allies have played in pushing this agenda, and the role the party he leads has played in implementing it. After all, NAFTA never would have passed without GOP votes, as two-thirds of the House Democrats opposed it.
Furthermore, Trump has heretofore ignored the many other intentional policies that businesses and the top 1 percent have pushed to suppress wages over the last four decades. Start with excessive unemployment due to Federal Reserve Board policies which were antagonistic to wage growth and friendly to the finance sector and bondholders. Excessive unemployment leads to less wage growth, especially for low- and middle-wage workers. Add in government austerity at the federal and state levels—which has mostly been pushed by GOP governors and legislatures—that has impeded the recovery and stunted wage growth. There’s also the decimation of collective bargaining, which is the single largest reason that middle class wages have faltered. Meanwhile, the minimum wage is now more than 25 percent below its 1968 level, even though productivity since then has more than doubled. Phasing in a $15 minimum wage would lift wages for at least a third of the workforce. The most recent example is the effort to overturn the recent raising of the overtime threshold that would help more than 12 million middle-wage salaried workers obtain overtime protections.
The British vote to leave the European Union is a watershed event—one that marks the end of an era of globalization driven by deregulation and the ceding of power over trade and regulation to international institutions like the EU and the World Trade Organization. While there were many contributing factors, the 52 percent vote in favor of Brexit no doubt in part reflects the fact that globalization has failed to deliver a growing standard of living to most working people over the past thirty years. Outsourcing and growing trade with low-wage countries—including recent additions to the EU such as Poland, Lithuania, and Croatia, as well as China, India and other countries with large low-wage labor forces—have put downward pressure on wages of the working class. As Matt O’Brien notes, the result has been that the “working classes of rich countries—like Brexit voters—have seen little income growth” over this period. The message that leaders in the United Kingdom, Europe, and indeed the United States should take away from Brexit is that the time has come to stop promoting austerity and business-as-usual trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (and the now dead Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) and to instead get serious about rebuilding manufacturing and an economy that works for working people.
Conservative austerity policies in Britain over the past two decades, which have slashed government spending and limited government’s ability to deliver public services and support job creation, fueled the anger towards elites that encouraged Brexit. At the same time, the neoconservative, anti-regulatory views of public officials in Brussels—who are disdainful of government intervention in the economy and who consistently pushed for the “liberalization of labor markets” and other key elements of the neoconservative model—left Europe unprepared for the Great Recession. It’s no surprise, then, that there has been a revolt against the EU. When the financial crisis hit in 2008, EU authorities, especially banking officials in Germany and other wealthy countries that have a dominant influence over the European Central Bank, reacted by blaming public officials in Greece, Spain, Portugal and other countries hardest hit by the crisis. The budget cuts they demanded led to further contractions in spending and soaring unemployment which still persists in much of southern Europe, putting further downward pressure on employment in the UK and setting the stage for widespread populist revolts from the left and right that have gained traction across much of Europe.
Yesterday, the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) released a long-awaited report on the projected economic impacts of the TPP agreement. The report is remarkable for its frank estimates of the costs of the agreement, and the minimal benefits it identifies. Overall, the ITC projects that by 2027, the TPP will increase U.S. exports to the world by $27.2 billion (1.0 percent, as shown in Table 2.2) and U.S. imports from the world by $48.9 billion (1.1 percent), increasing the U.S. global trade deficit by $21.7 billion. All else equal, this rise in the trade deficit would put downward pressure on U.S. GDP. Nonetheless, the report concludes that over the next 16 years, the agreement will increase U.S. national income by $57.3 billion, 0.23 percent. This GDP gain stems largely from the ITC’s adoption of the standard full-employment assumption in modeling the TPP’s effects. There may have once been a time where such an assumption was warranted, but it seems highly inappropriate to apply to an economy that has been operating beneath full employment for at least 8 years and counting.
Dean Baker notes that even if the too-rosy GDP estimate were correct, it means that, “as a result of the TPP, the country will be as wealthy on January 1, 2032 as it would otherwise be on February 15 2032.” Worse yet, the ITC has a terrible record of forecasting the actual impacts of trade and investment deals, both overall and at the industry level. There is little reason to believe that this study will yield better results than past ITC efforts if the agreement is approved and implemented. In practice, whatever the ITC forecasts, U.S. trade and investment deals been near-inevitably followed by growing trade deficits and downward pressure on the wages of U.S. workers. There is every reason to expect that the TPP agreement will reinforce these trends.
(This blog post is an update to a post from March 30, 2015).
When the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) was passed just over four years ago, President Obama said that the agreement would support 70,000 U.S. jobs. This claim was supported by a White House fact sheet that claimed that the KORUS agreement would “increase exports of American goods by $10 to $11 billion…” and that they would “support 70,000 American jobs from increased goods exports alone.” Things are not turning out as predicted. Far from supporting jobs, growing goods trade deficits with Korea have eliminated more than 95,000 jobs between 2011 and 2015.
Expanding exports alone is not enough to ensure that trade adds jobs to the economy. Increases in U.S. exports tend to create jobs in the United States, but increases in imports lead to job loss—by destroying existing jobs and preventing new job creation—as imports displace goods that otherwise would have been made in the United States by domestic workers. Thus, it is changes in trade balances—the net of exports and imports—that determine the number of jobs created or displaced by trade and investment deals like KORUS.
In the first four years after KORUS took effect, there was absolutely no growth in total U.S. exports to Korea, as shown in the figure below. Imports from Korea increased $15.2 billion, an increase of 26.8 percent. As a result, the U.S. trade deficit with Korea increased $15.1 billion between 2011 and 2015, an increase of 114.6 percent, more than doubling in just four years.
U.S.-Korea trade, 2011–2015 (billions of dollars)
Change, billions of dollars, and percent from 2011-2015
Imports: +$15.2 (26.8%)
Exports: $0 (0.0%)
Trade Bal.: -$15.1 (114.6%)
Source: Author's analysis of U.S. International Trade Commission Trade DataWeb
An interesting story in the New York Times this morning looks at the effect that job losses from trade have had on people’s political views. It’s no surprise that voters on the losing end of globalization are disenchanted with the political mainstream, as the Times puts it. They have every right to be.
But I’m tired of hearing from economists about the failure to support workers dislocated by globalization as a cause of anger and the policy action the elite somehow mistakenly forgot. Ignoring the losers was deliberate. In 1981, our vigorous trade adjustment assistance (TAA) program was one of the first things Reagan attacked, cutting its weekly compensation payments from a 70 percent replacement rate down to 50 percent. Currently, in a dozen states, unemployment insurance—the most basic safety net for workers—is being unraveled by the elites. Only about one unemployed person in four receives unemployment compensation today.
I’m also getting tired of hearing that job losses from trade are the result of the U.S. economy “not adjusting to a shock.” Trade theory tells us that globalization’s impact is much greater on the wages of all non-college grads (who are between two-thirds and three-quarters of the workforce, depending on the year), not just a few dislocated manufacturing workers. The damage is widespread, not concentrated among a few. Trade theory says the result is a permanent, not temporary, lowering of wages of all “unskilled” workers. You can’t adjust a dislocated worker to an equivalent job if good jobs are not being created and wages for the majority are being suppressed. Let’s not pretend.
It’s been pointed out to me that yesterday’s blog post about a story by NPR’s Chris Arnold targeted too much ire at Arnold himself rather than the phenomenon he was reporting about. I think that’s probably right, and so I apologize to him for that. I was using Arnold’s story as a jumping off point for a discussion of a larger issue, and should have made that more clear. I do think my larger points about the substance of the topic under debate hold. The damage done by trade to American workers is consistently underestimated and is often treated as a surprise when it shouldn’t be—it’s completely the prediction of standard trade theory. To the degree that Arnold’s story helps take this “surprise” excuse off the table for future debates over trade, it’s doing a service.
Some quick notes on why I think all of this is important, however. This is Arnold’s first paragraph:
Economists for decades have agreed that more open international trade is good for the U.S. economy. But recent research finds that while that’s still true, when it comes to China, the downside for American workers has been much more painful than the experts predicted.
I think Arnold reports this exactly right. Experts continue to portray the downside of expanded trade for American workers as having turned out to be unexpectedly large, but they are wrong to be surprised. Downward pressure on a large majority of American workers’ wages is completely predicted by mainstream economic theory. But I should have made clearer where my criticism here was aimed.
Yesterday, NPR’s Chris Arnold wrote the latest in what has become a very long line of “explainer” pieces about economic globalization and the presidential campaigns. Nearly all of these pieces seek to resolve an alleged puzzle: nearly all reputable economists argue that policy efforts to boost trade are good for the U.S. economy, yet many (if not most) American workers strongly oppose trade agreements signed in recent decades.
Arnold puts forward a pretty common solution to this alleged puzzle: “trade’s benefits are diffuse, but the pain is concentrated.” In this view, the only losers from trade are those workers directly displaced by imports. Every other consumer in the economy benefits from lower prices. But because the losers are small and concentrated, they can organize to oppose trade agreements. And while the winners are numerous and widespread, the benefits (e.g., slightly more affordable clothing and DVD players) are hard to notice, so no one organizes to support these agreements.
This is a common way of describing the effects of using policy to expand trade, but on the economics, it is certainly not correct. In textbook trade models, using policy levers (lower tariffs, for example) to boost trade with poorer countries will indeed cause total national income in the United States to rise. But these same textbooks also predict that the resulting expansion of trade will redistribute far more income than it creates. And the direction of this redistribution is upward. So it is perfectly possible to have policy efforts to expand trade lead to higher national income yet leave the majority of workers worse off. Importantly, the losers in these textbook models are not just workers directly displaced by imports—they’re all the workers in the entire economy who resemble the trade-displaced in terms of education and credentials.
This post originally appeared in The Globalist.
The presidential primary campaigns of both political parties have exposed widespread voter anger over U.S. global trade policies. In response, hardly a day has recently gone by without the New York Times, the Washington Post and other defenders of the status quo lecturing their readers on why unregulated foreign trade is good for them. The ultimate conclusion is always the same—that voters should leave complicated issues like this to those intellectually better qualified to deal with them. Trade experts, according to Binyamin Appelbaum of the Times have been “surprised” at the popular discontent over this issue. Their surprise only shows how disconnected the elite and the policy class that supports it is from the way most people actually experience the national economy. The United States has always been a trading nation. But until the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, trade policy was primarily an instrument to support domestic economic welfare and development.
A lop-sided deal: Investment vs. jobs
Starting with NAFTA, pushed through not by a Republican president, but by the Bill Clinton in 1994, it became a series of deals in which profit opportunities for American investors were opened up elsewhere in the world in exchange for opening up U.S. labor markets to fierce foreign competition. As Jorge Castañeda, who later became Mexico’s foreign minister, put it, NAFTA was “an agreement for the rich and powerful in the United States, Mexico and Canada, an agreement effectively excluding ordinary people in all three societies.” For 20 years, leaders of both parties have assured Americans that each new NAFTA-style deal would bring more jobs and higher wages for workers, and trade surpluses for their country. It was, they were told, an iron law of economics.