Thinking harder about globalization

I’ve been thinking recently of how little credibility economists have with working class Americans (or so it seems to me).  In some sense, I’m not surprised.  Economists did a terrible job of predicting the Great Recession and didn’t have much new to offer when it came to fixing the mess.  I could hardly blame anyone for questioning how much faith to put in economic theories.

The Harvard Business Review has a great article this week by Joan Williams called “What So Many People Don’t Get About the U.S. Working Class” and she gives a lot of other reasons that white, middle class voters may distrust economists.  She writes “One key message is that trade deals are far more expensive than we’ve treated them, because sustained job development and training programs need to be counted as part of their costs.” 

I think that she is absolutely correct and that perhaps we have focused too much on the long run benefits of trade (wouldn’t be the first time) to the detriment of the short term costs on American workers.  I had a student once who argued that we should just elect economists as presidents and they can then enact the best policies.  Beside the fact that economists don’t come close to agreeing what the “best policies” are, there is also the issue that we live in a democracy and any policy (good or bad) needs popular support behind it.  I stress all the time to my students that they need to understand the economics and the politics in whatever country they are studying.  It is not enough to just know the economics.  You can recommend awesome, growth-producing policies, but if you can’t convince anyone that you are right, then you have nothing.

Somehow this is harder for me to do when it comes to thinking of US policy.  One of the best, and most honest, exchanges I’ve read about the effect of trade policy on the US middle class came in an interview with Angus Deaton.  The interviewer asks Deaton for his thoughts about globalization and the increasing mortality rate, a provocative finding described in The Atlantic in January 2016:

“Between 1998 and 2013, Case and Deaton argue, white Americans across multiple age groups experienced large spikes in suicide and fatalities related to alcohol and drug abuse—spikes that were so large that, for whites aged 45 to 54, they overwhelmed the dependable modern trend of steadily improving life expectancy. ”  

And this is Deaton’s response to the interviewer:

“But you asked me why this [the mortality rate]—what has this got to do with globalization, and I’m like, you know. And I’ve always taken the position which is—you know, I’ve done a lot of work over the years for the World Bank, and I think this is a pretty accepted, in those organizations, cosmopolitan position—globalization has dragged or pulled or liberated hundreds of millions of people from poverty, in India and China in particular. And those people were really poor to start with. So this is just like an incredibly major achievement in the world.

So when you think the world is going to hell in a handbasket, which it sort of is right now, you have to look back on those amazing achievements. And a lot of those have come from opening up markets, you know, from greater international trade, from all the things we know about. And the sort of cosmopolitan position is, OK, maybe some people in the U.S. and Western Europe were hurt by this process, but you know, they’re really well-off compared with the people in China and India who are being helped. So if you take this sort of positon, that we prefer to help people who are poorer than people who are richer, then this seemed like a pretty good thing.

And so, however, when you see these middle-aged people—and these are the people in the U.S. who are bearing the brunt of this—these are the people who used to have good factor jobs with on-the-job training. These are the people who could build good lives for themselves and for their kids. And all of that has gone away. The factory’s in Cambodia, the factory’s in Vietnam, the factory’s in China, wherever. And, you know, there’s been a lot of dispute between the right and left as to how badly off them are. You know, are the price indices correct, are median wages really falling, and so on. But when you actually see them killing themselves, you know, and the mortality rates are going up, then you think something really, really seriously has gone wrong. One of my colleagues—an anthropologist, Carolyn Rouse—has used the term these people have lost the narrative of their lives.

Now, Pamela asked me the question, you know, why? We don’t know why is the answer. And, of course, everybody has their theory, and that’s where—but, I mean, it’s hard to believe it’s not connected up with those 20 or 30 years of declining economic prospects for people with only a high school education in the United States. And, you know, somehow we’ve got to find a way—I’m not against globalization. I’m certainly not going to go for protectionist solutions or something. But we’ve got to find a way of sharing the benefits with those people, too—and if not with them, at least with their kids.”

Perhaps economists shouldn’t have been so surprised about working class support for Donald Trump.

*Note: The blog title derives from a good quote by Deaton on globalization and its short to medium term effects, saying “We’ve really got to think harder about this than we have.”