- Between 1991 and 2013, Chinese exports grew from roughly 2 percent of the world’s total to nearly 20 percent.
- ...There are two big differences of the last two decades relative to earlier periods. One is that a lot of our trade prior to China’s rise, a lot of it was North-North trade. You know, trading between wealthy nations. So you know, we sell aircraft engines to France and we buy cheese and wine and Renaults or maybe we buy Mercedes from Germany. And so it’s a lot of high-skill people trading high-skill goods and we’re trading on the basis of taste. Like, “I like your vehicles. You like my aircraft.” It’s not trying to see who can make the cheapest version of X, Y, or Z. We’re often focusing on a set of expensive goods in which we all are differently good at different subsets.
- So when the United States trades with the developing world, we’re going to typically export skill-intensive products: aircraft engines, electronics, movies, and TV programs and things that use a lot of highly educated labor. And we’re going to tend to import low-skilled or what we call labor-intensive products like you know footwear and textiles, leather goods, things that require a lot of hand assembly.
- TRADE BENEFITS US SKILLED WORKERS AND CONSUMERS: And so what does that do? Well, when we export those high skill-intensive goods we’re basically raising demand for skilled or educated workers in the United States. When we import those labor-intensive goods, we’re going to reduce demand for blue-collar workers, who are not doing skill-intensive production. Now we benefit because we get lower prices on the goods we consume and we sell the things that we’re good at making at a higher price to the world. So that raises GDP but simultaneously it tends to make high-skilled and highly educated labor better off, raise their wages, and it tends to make low-skilled manually intensive laborers worse off because there is less demand for their services – so there’s going to be fewer of them employed or they’re going to be employed at lower wages. So the net effect you can show analytically is going to be positive.
- BUT HARMS U.S. UNSKILLED LABOR: But the redistributional consequences are, many of us would view that as adverse because we would rather redistribute from rich to poor than poor to rich. And trade is kind of working in the redistributing from poor to rich direction in the United States. The scale of benefits and harms are rather incommensurate. So for individuals, you know, I have less expensive consumer items because of imports from China. But it hasn’t affected my employment or my wages. For many others – on the order of at least a million U.S. manufacturing workers – it meant the end of their jobs and in many cases the end of their industries.
BOTTOM LINE: Trade helped U.S. skilled workers (by increasing demand for their services) and consumers (by giving consumers cheaper goods), but hurt U.S. unskilled workers (by reducing demand for their services). In a frictionless world, they would move to their next best alternative (e.g., Texas or Tennessee), but instead they are moved out of the labor force and into the safety net (e.g., medicare, medicaid, early retirement, disability insurance, food stamps, and TANF).
Interesting closing thoughts by David Autor, which seems to echo President Trump's campaign:
I think the other thing that we have to recognize, and that economists have tended not to emphasize is that jobs aren’t purely income. They are part of identity. They structure people’s lives. They give them a purpose and a social community and a sense of relevance in the world. And I think that is a lot of the frustration that we see in manufacturing-intensive areas. We saw a lot of that actually in the recent election. People feel like their place in the universe, or at least in the economy, has really been kind of reduced, made less valuable. And I think that that’s costly even beyond the direct financial costs.