Import competition can throw Americans out of work. Even advocates of free trade like me will readily acknowledge that fact. And nobody needs to remind the people of Hickory, North Carolina.
On the front page of the Washington Post this morning, under the headline, “In N.C., damage not easily mended: Globalization drives unemployment to 15% in one corner of state,” the paper reports in detail how the people of that community are struggling to adjust to a more open U.S. economy:
The region has lost more of its jobs to international competition than just about anywhere else in the nation, according to federal trade-assistance statistics, as textile mills have closed, furniture factories have dwindled and even the fiber-optic plants have undergone mass layoffs. The unemployment rate is one of the highest in the nation–about 15 percent.
Nobody wants to lose their job involuntarily, but a story like this needs to be read in perspective. As I document in my new Cato book Mad about Trade, the large majority of Americans who lose their jobs each year are not displaced by trade. Technology is the great job disruptor, but Americans also lose their jobs because of domestic competition, changing consumer tastes, and recessions.
For every person who loses their job because of globalization, I estimate there are 30 who have lost their jobs for other reasons. I’m waiting for a front-page story on all the newspaper workers who have lost their jobs because of the Internet, or the 30,000 workers laid off by Kodak in the past 5 years because of the spread of digital cameras and plunging film sales, or the book stores and record stores that have shut down and laid off workers because of Amazon.com and iTunes.
Trade is not a cause of higher unemployment nationwide, either, as the Post story seems to imply. Imports have fallen sharply during the latest recession along with the trade deficit. In contrast, imports were rising at double-digit rates when the unemployment rate was below 5 percent. Like technology, trade can put people out of work, but it also creates new and generally better paying opportunities for employment, while raising our overall standard of living.