A National Bureau of Economic Research working paper by David Autor, David Dorn and Gordon Hanson, titled “The China Shock: Learning from Labor Market Adjustment to Large Changes in Trade,” has created Piketty-like buzz in U.S. trade policy circles this year. Among the paper’s findings is that the growth of imports from China between 1999 and 2011 caused a U.S. employment decline of 2.4 million workers, and that wages and employment prospects for those who lost jobs remained depressed for many years after the initial effect.
While commentators on the left have trumpeted these findings as some long-awaited refutation of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, the authors have distanced themselves from those conclusions, portraying their analysis as an indictment of a previously prevailing economic consensus that the costs of labor market adjustment to increased trade would be relatively subdued (although I’m skeptical that such a consensus ever existed). But in a year when trade has been scapegoated for nearly everything perceived to be wrong in society, the release of this paper no doubt reinforced fears – and fueled demagogic rants – about trade and globalization being scourges to contain, and even eradicate.
Last week, Alan Reynolds explained why we should take Autor, et. al.’s job-loss figures with a pinch of salt, but there is an even more fundamental point to make here. That is: Trade has one role to perform – to grow the economic pie. Trade fulfills that role by allowing us to specialize. By expanding the size of markets to enable more refined specialization and economies of scale, trade enables us to produce and, thus, consume more. Nothing more is required of trade. Nothing!
Still, politicians, media, and other commentators blame trade for an allegedly unfair distribution of that pie and for the persistence of frictions in domestic labor markets. But reducing those frictions and managing distribution of the larger economic pie are not matters for trade policy. They are matters for domestic policy. Trade does its job. Policymakers must do their jobs, too.