The Flawed Logic of Trade Adjustment Assistance

A recently posted article from Reuters contains quotes that are worth sharing, because they perfectly encapsulate what I think is the flawed logic behind trade adjustment assistance, the program that extends enhanced benefits to workers who lose their jobs because of import competition. There are many reasons to oppose this program, as I have outlined before.  And the fact the Obama administration is choosing to hold trade agreements hostage unless a stimulus-enhanced version of TAA is renewed is a strong indication that the grand bargain of trade policy — special benefits in exchance for trade liberalization — has broken down.

But one of the most important reasons to oppose TAA is that its very existence implies that “damage” is done when trade is liberalized:

“In large part, workers who lose jobs because of trade do so because of a policy decision by government. The government decided to allow imports, the government decided to allow a liberal investment policy,” [lobbyist Greg] Mastel said.

“I happen to agree with those policies, but you can’t deny they sometimes disadvantage groups of workers,” he said.

Howard Rosen, a visiting fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and executive director of the TAA Coalition, argued the roughly $1 billion annual cost for the program is tiny compared to large benefits the U.S. economy gets each year from trade liberalization.

Workers displaced by foreign competition have a harder time adjusting than other laid-off workers because they tend to be older and less educated and have higher earnings, Rosen said. [emphasis added]

A few things. First, a “policy decision” is made when government decides to respond to special pleading from domestic industry and protect the market by raising taxes on imports. The innocent consumers foot the bill for this, and the fact the tax is hidden and diffuse does not make it morally acceptable. Second, trade liberalization policies may “disadvantage groups of workers” but so do many other policy decisions — the decision to allow the growth of, say, e-commerce, for example. I happen to agree with those policies, too, but I don’t see Mr. Mastel lobbying for special benefits for bricks-and-mortar retail workers (actually, I shouldn’t give him any ideas). Governments make policy decisions every day about which industries die or survive, sometimes by policy commission, and sometimes by letting certain policies expire. There is nothing special about trade policy in that sense.

Similarly, Mr. Rosen’s objection can be countered by pointing out that perhaps the “higher earnings” trade-displaced workers received were artificially inflated by granting their industry a false, consumer-funded monopoly (in fact, by definition they almost certainly are). Why do we have to compensate them when that monopoly finally expires?

I was speaking to a trade policy wonk friend last week at a lunch about TAA, and he pointed out that “plenty of innocent people are harmed by trade liberalization.” I said to him, and I will repeat here, that plenty of innocent consumers have had their pockets picked for decades so that certain groups can collect rents. So you’ll excuse me if my sympathies are, to say the least, conflicted.