A vibrant and healthy economy will be continually in transition, as new technologies arise, leading to new production processes and new products, and consumer preferences shift. In addition, some companies will be managed better or have more motivated and skilled workers, while others will not. Some companies will build reputation and invest in organizational capabilities, and others will not. International trade is of course one reason for the process of transition.
But international trade isn't the main driver of economic change--and especially not in a country like the United States with a huge internal market. In the world economy, exports and imports--which at the global level are equal to each other because exports from one country must be imports for another country--are both about 28% of GDP. For the US economy, imports are about 15% of GDP and exports are 12%, which is to say that they are roughly half the share of GDP that is average for other countries in the world.
However, supporters of international trade have some tendency to oversell its benefits, while opponents of international trade have some tendency to oversell its costs. This tacit agreement-to-overstate helps both sides avoid a discussion of the central role of domestic policies both in providing a basis for growth and for smoothing the ongoing process of adjustment.
Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León makes this point in the course of a broader essay on "The Past Decade
and the Future of Globalization," which in a collection of essays called Towards a New Enlightenment? A Transcendent Decade (2018, pp. 247-265). It was published by Open Mind, which in turn is a nonprofit run by the Spanish bank BBVA. He writes (boldface type is added by me):
The crisis and its economic and political sequels have exacerbated a problem for globalization that has existed throughout: to blame it for any number of things that have gone wrong in the world and to dismiss the benefits that it has helped to bring about. The backlash against contemporary globalization seems to be approaching an all-time high in many places including, the United States.
Part of the backlash may be attributable to the simple fact that world GDP growth and nominal wage growth—even accounting for the healthier rates of 2017 and 2018—are still below what they were in most advanced and emerging market countries in the five years prior to the 2008–09 crisis. It is also nurtured by the increase in income inequality and the so-called middle-class squeeze in the rich countries, along with the anxiety caused by automation, which is bound to affect the structure of their labor markets.
Since the Stolper-Samuelson formulation of the Heckscher-Ohlin theory, the alteration of factor prices and therefore income distribution as a consequence of international trade and of labor and capital mobility has been an indispensable qualification acknowledged even by the most recalcitrant proponents of open markets. Recommendations of trade liberalization must always be accompanied by other policy prescriptions if the distributional effects of open markets deemed undesirable are to be mitigated or even fully compensated. This is the usual posture in the economics profession. Curiously, however, those members of the profession who happen to be skeptics or even outright opponents of free trade, and in general of globalization, persistently “rediscover” Stolper-Samuelson and its variants as if this body of knowledge had never been part of the toolkit provided by economics.
It has not helped that sometimes, obviously unwarrantedly, trade is proposed as an all-powerful instrument for growth and development irrespective of other conditions in the economy and politics of countries. Indeed, global trade can promote, and actually has greatly fostered, global growth. But global trade cannot promote growth for all in the absence of other policies.
The simultaneous exaggeration of the consequences of free trade and the understatement—or even total absence of consideration—of the critical importance of other policies that need to be in place to prevent abominable economic and social outcomes, constitute a double-edged sword. It has been an expedient used by politicians to pursue the opening of markets when this has fit their convenience or even their convictions. But it reverts, sometimes dramatically, against the case for open markets when those abominable outcomes—caused or not by globalization—become intolerable for societies. When this happens, strong supporters of free trade, conducted in a rules-based system, are charged unduly with the burden of proof about the advantages of open trade in the face of economic and social outcomes that all of us profoundly dislike, such as worsening income distribution, wage stagnation, and the marginalization of significant sectors of the populations from the benefits of globalization, all of which has certainly happened in some parts of the world, although not necessarily as a consequence of trade liberalization.
Open markets, sold in good times as a silver bullet of prosperity, become the culprit of all ills when things go sour economically and politically. Politicians of all persuasions hurry to point fingers toward external forces, first and foremost to open trade, to explain the causes of adversity, rather than engaging in contrition about the domestic policy mistakes or omissions underlying those unwanted ills. Blaming the various dimensions of globalization—trade, finance, and migration—for phenomena such as insufficient GDP growth, stagnant wages, inequality, and unemployment always seems to be preferable for governments, rather than admitting their failure to deliver on their own responsibilities.
Unfortunately, even otherwise reasonable political leaders sometimes fall into the temptation of playing with the double-edged sword, a trick that may pay off politically short term but also risks having disastrous consequences. Overselling trade and understating other challenges that convey tough political choices is not only deceitful to citizens but also politically risky as it is a posture that can easily backfire against those using it.
The most extreme cases of such a deflection of responsibility are found among populist politicians. More than any other kind, the populist politician has a marked tendency to blame others for his or her country’s problems and failings. Foreigners, who invest in, export to, or migrate to their country, are the populist’s favorite targets to explain almost every domestic problem. That is why restrictions, including draconian ones, on trade, investment, and migration are an essential part of the populist’s policy arsenal. The populist praises isolationism and avoids international engagement. The “full package” of populism frequently includes anti-market economics, xenophobic and autarkic nationalism, contempt for multilateral rules and institutions, and authoritarian politics. ...
Crucially, for globalization to deliver to its full potential, all governments should take more seriously the essential insight provided by economics that open markets need to be accompanied by policies that make their impact less disruptive and more beneficially inclusive for the population at large.
Advocates of globalization should also be more effective in contending with the conundrum posed by the fact that it has become pervasive, even for serious academics, to postulate almost mechanically a causal relationship between open markets and many social and economic ills while addressing only lightly at best, or simply ignoring, the determinant influence of domestic policies in such outcomes.
Blaming is easy, and blaming foreigners is easiest of all. Proposing thoughtful domestic policy with a fair-minded accounting of benefits and costs is hard.
A version of this article first appeared on Conversable Economist.
Timothy Taylor is an American economist. He is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a quarterly academic journal produced at Macalester College and published by the American Economic Association. Taylor received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Haverford College and a master's degree in economics from Stanford University. At Stanford, he was winner of the award for excellent teaching in a large class (more than 30 students) given by the Associated Students of Stanford University. At Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of Economics and voted Teacher of the Year by the master's degree students at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Taylor has been a guest speaker for groups of teachers of high school economics, visiting diplomats from eastern Europe, talk-radio shows, and community groups. From 1989 to 1997, Professor Taylor wrote an economics opinion column for the San Jose Mercury-News. He has published multiple lectures on economics through The Teaching Company. With Rudolph Penner and Isabel Sawhill, he is co-author of Updating America's Social Contract (2000), whose first chapter provided an early radical centrist perspective, "An Agenda for the Radical Middle". Taylor is also the author of The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know About How the Economy Works, published by the Penguin Group in 2012. The fourth edition of Taylor's Principles of Economics textbook was published by Textbook Media in 2017.