International trade is a Good Thing. Our opinion leaders say it is. The Washington Post says it is. So trade is clearly a win-win process, right?
No, sorry. It isn’t.
“The trade story is not win-win but rather good news-bad news,” Economist John Bivens explains in a new book, Everybody Wins, Except for Most of Us, subtitled “What Economics Teaches about Globalization.”
Trade, he writes, is “good news for national incomes, bad news for many if not most individuals and families.” Why? “Because trade “redistributes their income away from them and up the income ladder.”
That’s not a secret. It’s a truth “predicted by standard economic theory and proven by empirical studies,” Bivens points out. Economic integration across borders does make countries “a bit richer,” but its “more powerful effects [are] on the distribution of income within each economy.”
Cheerleaders for free trade, however, fail to make the basic distinction between trade’s effect on national income and on family income
Bivens not only clearly explains the theoretical distinction but also calculates its practical effect on American workers in dollar terms. He finds that for a full-time median-wage earner in 2006 the annual trade-related losses totaled about $1,400; for a typical household with two earners, the loss was $2,500. He goes on:
“These losses are as high or higher than other economic costs commonly presented as much more damaging to American families, such as the cost of health care, spikes in gasoline and fuel oil prices, the cost of a child’s four-year college education, or the funds needed to remedy a possible shortfall in the future of Social Security.”
Does the incoming Obama administration fully understand what is at stake?
That’s not yet clear.
Clearly, Obama and some of his key people do understand that globalization is a serious issue, but it is another matter whether they grasp the gravity of the real harm to ordinary American workers (as well as to workers in poor countries) – and how globalization impacts specific problems, like health care. Without such an deep understanding, it will be easy to be frozen into inaction by charges of “protectionism.”
A foreign trade union friend asked me the other day whether I had a “channel” to the Obama administration. I don’t. If I did, I’d try to get Obama or his chief economic advisor to read at least the executive summary of Everybody Wins Except for Most of Us, just published by the Economic Policy Institute.