The candidates are trying to win the favor of unions and blue-collar voters in states like Ohio and West Virginia, of course, but their positions also reflect a widespread belief that free trade with developing countries, and with China in particular, is a kind of scam perpetrated by the wealthy, who reap the benefits while ordinary Americans bear the cost. It’s an understandable view: how, after all, can it be a good thing for American workers to have to compete with people who get paid seventy cents an hour? As it happens, the negative effect of trade on American wages isn’t that easy to document. The economist Paul Krugman, for instance, believes that the effect is significant, though in a recent academic paper he concluded that it was impossible to quantify. But it’s safe to say that the main burden of trade-related job losses and wage declines has fallen on middle- and lower-income Americans. So standing up to China seems like a logical way to help ordinary Americans do better. But there’s a problem with this approach: the very people who suffer most from free trade are often, paradoxically, among its biggest beneficiaries. The reason for this is simple: free trade with poorer countries has a huge positive impact on the buying power of middle- and lower-income consumers—a much bigger impact than it does on the buying power of wealthier consumers. The less you make, the bigger the percentage of your spending that goes to manufactured goods—clothes, shoes, and the like—whose prices are often directly affected by free trade.
Yes, it seems we have another edition of free trade benefits everyone through lower prices. Dani Rodrik addressed this argument directly over a one year ago:
Advocates of globalization love to argue that free trade lowers prices, and the argument seems sensible enough. Think of all the cheap goods from China that we can buy at Wal-Mart. But anyone who understands comparative advantage knows that free trade affects relative prices, not the price level (the latter being the province of macro and monetary factors). When a country opens up to trade (or liberalizes its trade), it is the relative price of imports that comes down; by necessity, the relative prices of its exports must go up! Consumers are better off to the extent that their consumption basket is weighted towards importables, but we cannot always rely on this to be the case.
And since Surowiecki mentioned Paul Krugman, let’s see what he had to say:
What all this comes down to is that it’s no longer safe to assert, as we could a dozen years ago, that the effects of trade on income distribution in wealthy countries are fairly minor. There’s now a good case that they are quite big, and getting bigger.
Hard to quantify is not the same thing as nearly zero. Of course, the Stolper-Samuelson theorem states:
An increase in the price of a good will cause an increase in the price of the factor used intensively in that industry and a decrease in the price of the other factor.
In fact, as the price of apparel declines from free trade with China, the wages of apparel workers fall by more than the prices of apparel so the real wages of apparel works decline. Somehow it seems that James Surowiecki never grasped this proposition.