Thomas Palley: Why Conventional Trade Theories Don’t Work Any More

Thomas Pally has an elegant little post, “Jack Welch’s Barge: The New Economics of Trade,” which explains why the Ricardian model of trade based on comparative advantage has been made irrelevant by the modern corporation’s ability to move capital and technology across borders. In fact, it puts corporate interests at odds with national interests. As a result. he makes recommendations that may sound radical, like eliminating the favorable tax treatment of foreign earnings, and making it illegal for US companies to reincorporate outside the US, but are logical given this perspective.

What makes this piece compelling is that it is such a straightforward yet devastating dismissal of the core logic of most of the thinking around free trade. Mind you, that isn’t to say that trade can’t be beneficial, but it isn’t the panacea that most advocates make it out to be. This line of reasoning also fits with the views of economists like Alan Blinder, who were once staunch defenders of open trade, but have changed their minds as they have seen that what works in theory may not operate as well in fact.

From Palley:

The classical theory of comparative advantage has driven US trade policy for the past fifty years. That policy, in combination with technical innovations that have lowered costs of transportation and communication, has opened the global economy. Yet paradoxically, this opening has rendered classical trade theory obsolete. That in turn has left the US economically vulnerable because its trade policy remains stuck in the past and based on ideas that no longer hold.

The logic behind classical free trade is that all can benefit when countries specialize in producing those things in which they have comparative advantage. The necessary requirement is that the means of production (capital and technology) are internationally immobile and stuck in each country. That is what globalization has undone.

Several years ago Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, captured the new reality when he talked of ideally having “every plant you own on a barge”. The economic logic was that factories should float between countries to take advantage of lowest costs, be they due to under-valued exchange rates, low taxes, subsidies, or a surfeit of cheap labor. Globalization has made Welch’s barge a reality. However, in doing so it has made capital mobility rather than country comparative advantage the engine of trade. And with that change, “free trade” increasingly trades jobs and promotes downward wage equalization.

The U.S. and European response to Welch’s barge has been competitiveness policy that advocates measures such as increased education spending to improve skills; lower corporate tax rates; and investment and R&D incentives. The thinking is increased competitiveness can make Europe and the US more attractive to businesses.

Unfortunately, competitiveness policy is not up to the task of anchoring the barge, and it can even be counter-productive. The core problem is corporations are globally mobile. Thus, government can subsidize R&D spending, but the resulting innovations may simply end up in new offshore factories. Moreover, competitiveness policy easily degenerates into a race to the bottom. For instance, if the US cuts corporation taxes, other countries may match to stay competitive. The result is no gain for the US, while profit taxes are lowered and tax burdens shifted on to wages, which widens income inequality.

Worse yet, capital mobility prompts countries to adopt unfair policies to increase their relative business attractiveness. These policies include disregard of environmental damage; suppression of labor to keep wages low; direct subsidies; and under-valued exchange rates. All are visible in China, which is the poster-child for such abuses.

A critical consequence of Welch’s barge is the creation of a “corporation versus country” divide. Previously, when corporations were nationally based, profit maximization by business contributed to national economic success by ensuring efficient resource use. Today, corporations still maximize profits, but they do so from the standpoint of their global operations. Consequently, what is good for corporations may not be good for country.

When companies raise profits by rearranging production according to global cost patterns, those shifts can lower country income. For instance, when Boeing transfers production to China, the US loses high value adding jobs and national income can fall. Moreover, though Boeing makes larger short-run profits on its Chinese production, even it may lose in the long run if it inadvertently creates a rival Chinese aircraft producer.

From an American worker perspective, the global economy has always had abundant supplies of cheap labor. In the past American workers were still able to compete and benefit from trade. The critical difference today is American corporations are taking their capital and technology offshore and equipping low-wage foreign workers. Those investments undermine American workers because that foreign production is intended for the US market.

The emergence of barge-like corporations has reduced the scope for effective competitiveness policy, increased the temptations for unfair policy, and created a wedge between corporate and national interests. This poses two critical policy challenges. First, there is need for rules against unfair competition, which is where exchange rate rules and labor and environment standards enter.

Second, there is need to close the wedge between corporation and country. In the U.S. that calls for such measures as ending preferential tax treatment of profits earned offshore; making it illegal for corporations to reincorporate outside the US to escape US tax laws; and new tax arrangements that encourage jobs and value creation within the US.

Addressing globalization’s challenges poses enormous analytical difficulties. Unfair competition must be prevented and companies re-anchored. But this must be done without losing the benefits of real trade based on comparative advantage or ending investment that fosters development.

These economic challenges are compounded by political difficulties. In Washington, elite policy thinking is funded and lobbied for by corporations. Consequently, corporations control trade policy at a time when corporate interests differ from the national interest. That is also increasingly true in Brussels. Fifty years ago what was good for GM may really have been good for the US. With Jack Welch’s barge, that may no longer hold.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Doug

    Tariffs on imports would, of course, invite regulators, legislators and those who work closely with them (corporations/lobbyists) to get to work on defining ‘imports’ as well as figuring out the size of tariffs and the tax treatment of tariffs. A fair and uncynical reading of the past few decades suggests a reasonably high probability that this would lead to tariff definitions, tariff rates and tariff tax treatments that are generous to the kind of ‘corporate barges’ described.

    The point being that the idea of tariffs on imports could well be an excellent suggestion for countering the phenomenon of the corporate barges. The implementation of that fine idea, on the other hand, is a different matter entirely.

  2. Dave Iverson

    Does this mean that we out-of-the-closet post-Keynesians are now gaining a bit more traction with our theory/practice?

    First, this summer’s widespread recognition that Minsky may have had some useful insights, and now this..

    Keep up your good posting.

Comments are closed.