"Costly Trade With China"

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Interestingly, after a some robust debate among Serious Economists at Mark Thoma’s blog, Economist’s View, on the merits of trade (even Krugman contributed via e-mail), a study taking the opposite view appears at Economic Policy Institute.

The study argues that millions of jobs have been lost to China. Its methodology looks reasonable.

Mark Thoma was kind enough to supply a “textbook” answer from a recent Bernanke speech:

After all, the United States is a big country, and we can certainly achieve many of the benefits of specialization by trading within our own borders. How important is it for the health of our economy to trade actively with other countries? As best we can measure, it is critically important. According to one recent study that used four approaches to measuring the gains from trade, the increase in trade since World War II has boosted U.S. annual incomes on the order of $10,000 per household (Bradford, Grieco, and Hufbauer, 2006).2 The same study found that removing all remaining barriers to trade would raise U.S. incomes anywhere from $4,000 to $12,000 per household. Other research has found similar results. Our willingness to trade freely with the world is indeed an essential source of our prosperity–and I think it is safe to say that the importance of trade for us will continue to grow.

Now if you take 100 million households times say $8,000 per household, to haircut the $10,000 figure (and it also happens to be the midpoint of the range for further gains), you get $800 billion more in income. If you total the job losses cited (2.1 million) and divide that into the income gained, each job would have to be worth $380,000 for the country to come out worse,

Of course, one can argue other angles: this is only China, the job losses if you include other nations are larger, and there is an (arguable) income suppression due to outsourcing (the mere fact of outsourcing gives employers greater bargaining leverage).

To make the “Americans come out worse” charge stick, you’d either need to question the standard methodology on the magnitude of the income gains or be able to make an argument that connects wage stagnation to trade. If one could point to wage opportunity losses (meaning wage reductions that applied to much larger sections of the economy) you might get closer to making the math work.

But the big disparity with in the current calculus says there is lots of room to subsidize affected workers. The problem is it goes against our political ideology.

From the report:

Contrary to the predictions of its supporters, China’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) has failed to reduce its trade surplus with the United States or increase overall U.S. employment. The rise in the U.S. trade deficit with China between 1997 and 2006 has displaced production that could have supported 2,166,000 U.S. jobs. Most of these jobs (1.8 million) have been lost since China entered the WTO in 2001. Between 1997 and 2001, growing trade deficits displaced an average of 101,000 jobs per year, or slightly more than the total employment in Manchester, New Hampshire. Since China entered the WTO in 2001, job losses increased to an average of 441,000 per year—more than the total employment in greater Dayton, Ohio. Between 2001 and 2006, jobs were displaced in every state and the District of Columbia. Nearly three-quarters of the jobs displaced were in manufacturing industries. Simply put, the promised benefits of trade liberalization with China have been unfulfilled.

As a matter of policy, China tightly pegs its currency’s value to that of the dollar at a rate that encourages a large bilateral surplus with the United States. Maintaining this peg required the purchase of about $200 billion in U.S. Treasury Bills and other securities in 2006 alone.1 This intervention makes the yuan artificially cheap and provides an effective subsidy on Chinese exports; best estimates are that the rate of this effective subsidy is roughly 40%. China also engages in extensive suppression of labor rights; it has been estimated that wages in China would be 47% to 85% higher in the absence of labor repression. China has also been accused of massive direct subsidization of export production. Finally, it maintains strict, non-tariff barriers to imports. As a result, China’s exports to the United States of $288 billion in 2006 were six times greater than U.S. exports to China, which were only $52 billion (Table 1). China’s trade surplus was responsible for 42.6% of the United States’ total, non-oil trade deficit. This is by far the United States’ most imbalanced trading relationship. Unless and until China revalues (raises) the yuan and eliminates these other trade distortions, the U.S. trade deficit and job losses will continue to grow rapidly in the future.

Major findings of this study:

* The 1.8 million jobs opportunities lost nationwide since 2001 are distributed among all 50 states and the District of Columbia, with the biggest losers, in numeric terms: California (-269,300), Texas (-136,900), New York (-105,900), Illinois (-79,900), Pennsylvania (-78,200), North Carolina (-77,200), Florida (-71,900), Ohio (-66,100), Georgia (-60,400), and Massachusetts (-59,300) (Table 2A).

* The 10 hardest-hit states, as a share of total state employment, are: New Hampshire (-13,000, -2.1%), North Carolina (-77,200, -2.0%), California (-269,300, -1.8%), Massachusetts (-59,300, -1.8%), Rhode Island (-8,400, -1.8%), South Carolina (-29,200, -1.6%), Vermont (-4,900, -1.6%), Oregon (-25,700, -1.6%), Indiana (-45,200, -1.5%), and Georgia (-60,400, -1.5%) (Table 2B).

China’s entry into the WTO was supposed to bring it into compliance with an enforceable, rules-based regime, which would require that it open its markets to imports from the United States and other nations. The United States also negotiated a series of special safeguard measures designed to limit the disruptive effects of surging Chinese imports on domestic producers. However, the core of the agreement failed to include any protections to maintain or improve labor or environmental standards. As a result, China’s entry into the WTO has further tilted the international economic playing field against domestic workers and firms, and in favor of multinational companies (MNCs) from the United States and other countries, and state- and privately-owned exporters in China. This has increased the global “race to the bottom” in wages and environmental quality and caused the closing of thousands of U.S. factories, decimating employment in a wide range of communities, states, and entire regions of the United States.

The report, with charts, continues here.

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One comment

  1. Anonymous

    While I believe your own commentary implicitly speaks to what I’m about to say, I still believe that a core point needs to continue to be made very explicitly: all income figures that fail to explicitly account for the ‘two Americas’ are fundamentally misleading.

    The $10,000 increase in incomes since WWII — just like the 4 to 12K increase from further trade liberalization to come — are misleading. To be more accurately presented, we must now insist on two figures, not one. We must have a figure for the top __ % (make it 20 or make it 40 — that’s fine). And then a second figure for, at least, the lowest 60%.

    My hypothesis?

    If we took the top 40 vs bottom 60 split, the top 40 would be a positive number and the bottom 60 would be a negative number.

    If we took the top 20 vs. bottom 80, I’m guessing the bottom 80 still might be negative or only slightly positive. (And, then, even if slightly positive, more than offset by the job loss etc concerns your post raises).

    The bottom line — the truth obscured by failing to make this distinction in these numbers — is that one part of America has benefitted from trade with China by, in effect, beggaring their fellow Americans.

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