Krugman: Trade Data Not Good Enough to Analyze Impact on Wages

Quite often, policy debates get mired in superficial, outdated, manipulated, or simply incomplete understandings of the facts. Getting relevant data is vital to coming up with intelligent approaches.

Unfortunately, Paul Krugman, who has tried getting to the bottom of whether trade has increased income inequality in the US, concludes that we don’t have the right information to do the needed analysis.

The corollary, of course, is that you can spout whatever you believe and no one will be able to disprove it….

The concluding section of a draft of Krugman’s paper, “Trade and Wages, Reconsidered” (hat tip Mark Thoma):

The starting point of this paper was the observation that the consensus that trade has only modest effects on inequality rests on relatively old data – that there has been a dramatic increase in manufactured imports from developing countries since the early 1990s. And it is probably true that this increase has been a force for greater inequality in the United States and other advanced countries.

What really comes through from the analysis here, however, is the extent to which the changing nature of world trade has outpaced our ability to engage in secure quantitative analysis—even though this paper sets to one side the growth in service outsourcing, which has created so much anxiety in recent years. Plain old trade in physical goods has become remarkably exotic.

In particular, the surge in developing-country exports of manufactures involves a peculiar concentration on apparently sophisticated products, which seems at first to put worries about distributional effects to rest. Yet there is good reason to believe that the apparent sophistication of developing country exports is, in reality, largely a statistical illusion, created by the phenomenon of vertical specialization in a world of low trade costs.

How can we quantify the actual effect of rising trade on wages? The answer, given the current state of the data, is that we can’t. As I’ve said, it’s likely that the rapid growth of trade since the early 1990s has had significant distributional effects. To put numbers to these effects, however, we need a much better understanding of the increasingly fine-grained nature of international specialization and trade.

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  1. Anonymous

    obel economics laureate Joseph Stiglitz, author of a new book that claims the Iraq war will cost the U.S. more than $3 trillion, said the final tally is likely to climb much higher than that.

    “It’s much more like five trillion,” Stiglitz said yesterday in an interview with Bloomberg Radio. “We were trying to make Americans understand how expensive this war was so we didn’t want to quibble about a dime here or a dime there.”

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