Trade Not to Blame for a ‘Lost Decade’

For American workers and families trying to get ahead, the decade just behind us was a stinker. As a front-page Washington Post story over the long weekend summarized:

For most of the past 70 years, the U.S. economy has grown at a steady clip, generating perpetually higher incomes and wealth for American households. But since 2000, the story is starkly different. …

According to the story, the Aughts (2000-09) were the first decade since World War Two with no net job creation, and the first in which median household income was actually lower at the end than at the beginning.

It won’t be long before critics of trade will try to blame the poor economic performance on trade agreements and globalization. This has been a standard line of attack, and I address it at length in my new Cato book, Mad about Trade: Why Main Street America Should Embrace Globalization. For now, just a few quick-hit observations:

The two recessions that book-ended the past decade were both “Made in the USA.” The first was triggered by the popping of the dot-com bubble, the second by the bursting of the housing bubble. Trade was not the cause of either recession. In fact, trade and globalization were charging ahead full steam in the 1990s, when everybody agreed the economy was doing well.

There is also the temptation to extrapolate short and medium trends into a long-term decline in living standards. As the Post reporter Neil Irwin rightly noted,

The miserable economic track record is, in part, a quirk of timing. The 1990s ended near the top of a stock market and investment bubble. Three months after champagne corks popped to celebrate the dawn of the year 2000, the market turned south, a recession soon following. The decade finished near the trough of a severe recession.

The U.S. economy has endured equally long stretches of poor performance in the past. For example, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was actually lower in 1982 as it was in 1966—16 years stuck in neutral. Real median household income was lower in 1983 than it was in 1969—14 years of no net gains. Yet the economy recovered and scaled new heights.

During difficult economic times, trade helps us weather the storm by offering lower prices and more choice to consumers struggling to make ends meet. When domestic demand sags, U.S. companies can find customers and profits in more robust markets abroad. Foreign investment in the United States helps to keep interest rates down, keeping more Americans in their homes and keeping credit markets open.

Our policy makers will only make our economy worse if they reach for the snake oil of higher trade barriers.