Joe Nocera had a good piece discussing the plight of factory workers in the United States subjected to low cost competition from China and other developing countries. He argues that the government has done too little to help the workers and the communities that have suffered from such competition. However his prescription, that workers should get more skills, is somewhat misleading.

While it is always better to have a more skilled workforce, one of the main reasons that more skilled workers have done better in the era of globalization is that they have been largely protected from the same sort of competition faced by less-educated workers. While trade agreements were explicitly designed to put manufacturing workers in direct competition with the low-paid workers in the developing world, there has been no similar effort to subject our doctors, dentists, lawyers and other highly paid professionals to the same sort of competition.

Trade agreements could have focused on reducing barriers that make it difficult for qualified professionals from the developing world to work in the United States. For example, we could have fully transparent sets of standards to become a doctor or lawyer in the United States, with tests administered in other countries (by U.S. certified test givers). Anyone from Mexico, India, or China who passed these tests would have the same ability to work in the United States as someone who grew up in Kansas.

The potential benefits to consumers and the economy would run into the hundreds of billions of dollars annually. And this would have the effect of shifting income downward rather than upward. (Yes folks, we can design a mechanism to reimburse developing countries for the professionals they educated who come here, which would ensure they gain as well.)

Trade agreements did not put professionals into competition because they are a powerful enough lobby to block such actions. However it is important to be clear in our understanding. It was not "globalization" that redistributed income upward. It was a pattern of trade that was intended to put downward pressure on the wages of the bulk of the population while protecting those at the top.

 

Addendum:


Just a few quick points - doctors and lawyers (especially doctors) are not members of the middle class in the normal usage of the term. About 25 percent of doctors are in the one percent and the vast majority are in the top two percent. If the rest of us are going to get more, they must be among the group that gets less.

Second, lower wages for manufacturing workers have translated into lower prices. Part of it has gone to profits, but shirts and cars are cheaper than they would be if we didn't have low-paid labor doing much of the work.

Finally, there is no way that a lower valued dollar is going to bring us to developing country living standards as fans of arithmetic everywhere can verify. Imports are equal to roughly 20 percent of our GDP. Suppose a 30 percent drop in the dollar leads to a 20 percent rise in import prices (both very large changes). This implies that we can buy 4 percent less than we did previously. That still leaves us far ahead of Mexico and China. And for debt-phobia fans, we are saving this amount today by borrowing.

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