That is one of the conclusions in my new paper, "Made on Earth: How Global Economic Integration Renders Trade Policy Obsolete."
For hundreds of years, trade policy has been premised on the assumptions that exports are good, imports are bad, and the interests of domestic producers are tantamount to the "national interest." Though that mercantilist worldview has never been accurate, its persistence as a pillar of trade policy into the 21st century is especially confounding given the emergence and proliferation of disaggregated production processes, transnational supply chains, and cross-border investment. Those trends have blurred any meaningful distinctions between "our" producers and "their" producers and speak to a long chain of interdependent economic interests between product conception and consumption.
Still, trade policy places the interests of domestic producers above all else even though the definition of a domestic producer is elusive and even though actions on behalf of producers often harm interests along the product continuum, which include engineers, designers, financiers, processors, assemblers, marketers, shippers, retailers, consumers, and others.
In 2008, foreign nameplate automobile producers, employing American workers, paying American taxes, and supporting American businesses, communities, and charities, accounted for almost half of all U.S. light vehicle production. The largest "U.S." steel producer, Arcelor-Mittal, is a majority-Indian-owned company with headquarters in Luxembourg and Hong Kong. The largest "German" producer, Thyssen-Krupp, is completing a $3.7 billion green-field investment in steel production facilities in Alabama, which will create an estimated 2,700 jobs in that state.
So, who are "we"? And who are "they"?
Are these foreign-named or –headquartered companies not "our" producers because some of the profits they earn are repatriated or invested in operations outside the United States? If so, then shouldn’t we consider U.S. Steel Corporation, which earned 25 percent of its revenue last year on steel produced in Slovakia and Serbia, and General Motors, which has had success producing and selling cars in China, to be "their" producers? Why should U.S. Steel, General Motors, and the unions that organize workers at those companies dictate the parameters of U.S. trade policy, while Toyota, Thyssen and their non-union workers have no input? Why should trade policy reflect a bias in favor of producers—or worse, particular producers—at all? That bias hurts other interests—both foreign-based and domestic—in the supply chain.
Global commerce isn’t a competition between "us" and "them." It is instead a competition between entities that defy national identification because of cross-border investment or because the final good or service comprises value added from many different countries. This reality demands openness in both directions, which flies in the face of conventional trade policy wisdom, which seeks to maximize access for domestic producers abroad while minimizing access for foreign producers at home.
It is only for simplicity’s sake that a container full of iPods shipped from China and unloaded in Seattle registers as imports from China. But the fact is that only a few dollars of the $150 cost to produce an iPod is Chinese value-added. The rest is mostly value attributable to Japanese, Korean, Singaporean, Taiwanese, and American components and labor. Then iPods retail for about $300 and most of the mark-up accrues to Apple, which uses the profits to support innovation and higher paying jobs in the United States.
From a trade policy perspective, each iPod imported from China adds $150 to our bilateral deficit in "high tech" goods. It is regarded as a problem to solve. The temptation is to restrict.
But from a commercial perspective, each imported iPod supports U.S. economic activity up the value chain. Without access to lower-cost labor abroad—if rudimentary component manufacturing and assembly operations were required to take place in the United States—ideas hatched in American labs would be far less likely to make it beyond the white board. Much higher costs would make it far more difficult to create these ubiquitous devices that have, in turn, spawned new ideas and industries.
Essentially, the factory floor has broken through its walls and today spans borders and oceans, making Chinese and American labor complementary in this and many other industries. Yet, despite all of this integration, despite the reliance of producers in the United States and abroad on imported raw materials, components, and capital equipment, trade policy still pretends that access to the domestic market is a favor to grant or a privilege to revoke. Trade policy is officially ignorant of commercial reality.
Openness to trade in both directions is an imperative in the 21st century. Policies that do not try to channel incentives for the benefit of specific groups but rather provide the greatest opportunities for citizens to participate most effectively in our increasingly integrated global economy are the ones that will maximize economic growth and national welfare. People in other countries should be thought of more as customers, suppliers, and potential collaborators instead of competitive threats.
In the 21st century, instead of serving the exclusive interests of domestic producers, trade policy should be about welcoming investment and attracting and cultivating the human capital necessary to make the United States the location of choice for the world’s highest value economic activities.