Friday, July 10, 2009

International Trade: Comparative Advantage and Protectionism, part 2

That money saved is the usual macro-economic justification for off-shoring in the first place. Theoretically, that money saved creates a job elsewhere in the economy. This is where so many people trip up, unable to differentiate monetary effects from real economic effects. In real economic effects, production of the same output has become less efficient and capital destroyed.
The great lie told during this generation of outsourcing has been that these laid-off workers would move up the knowledge chain, into higher value-added occupations. However, we can see that this is empirically false.

The fact is, there is a natural limit to the amount of “knowledge economy” jobs that are available. Knowledge jobs (traditionally called white collar) are subsidiary jobs: they exist to support some other industry. Remove the base industry, and the knowledge job disappears with it.

The idea that you can have an entire economy based on knowledge jobs is silly, it does not even make sense. There are only so many accountants, teachers, lawyers, salesmen, and consultants needed for a given population. They are subsidiary jobs because all of these “knowledge-work” professions depend on other industries to create the wealth. Without a primary base of wealth-creating enterprises, white collar jobs are not required. The same thing goes for so-called service jobs. You can’t base an economy on retail, restaurants, hair stylists, and spas. All those jobs are possible in a wealthy and nicely diversified economy, but without a wealth-creating base, they wither and die as overall standards of living fall, because there is less real wealth circulating.

This is a simple truth: at the base of every economy are the wealth-producers, who create and build something tangible that improves our quality of life. Mining, farming, chemicals, steel, plastics, textiles, and manufacturing of all kinds, that is the basis of the modern economy. A huge chunk of white collar economic activity then develops to support those industries, trailing off into the salesmen and retail stores that move the wealth. Teachers, doctors, police, and government workers are necessary for civil society, but they do not create wealth, and their standard of living is dependent on the wealth-producing industries.

To help clarify the economic principle, let’s look at a practical example. A car factory in Michigan is shut down, with production moved to a car factory in China instead. Physical plant in Michigan is destroyed, and skilled workers are fired. Cars intended for the American market are now shipped in from China, consuming extra resources in the transportation process.

The process is only economically justified if the displaced workers can find a new activity that produces greater wealth than what they did before. Is that even possible? What are their options? In the real world, such displaced workers have to switch careers, becoming truck drivers, plumbers, laborers, or whatever. Does that increase wealth? Unfortunately not. Unless they are shifted to another wealth creating activity, they will merely become wealth-consumers, and compete with other workers in some service job. So, they lose their own high previous wage, and drive down wages in whatever field they go into, while adding nothing of wealth to the economy as a whole.

But what about the money the car company saved? Doesn’t that return somewhere in some efficiency to create a new job? Let’s follow the money trail and see. Ok, so assume the company’s dollar profits just went up by lowering labor costs. The dollars return to the US economy through executive salaries and stock owner dividends. From a class perspective, the rich just got richer and the poor got poorer, but is it good from a macroeconomic perspective?

The question is, what happens to those dollars when they enter the domestic economy? Of course, there are less dollars in the US economy at first, because the laid-off worker is not being paid. Say the worker was paid 100 dollars, but after outsourcing, 50 dollars go to the Chinese worker, and the remaining 50 dollars goes to corporate profits. However, the 50 dollars paid to the Chinaman have to come back to the US economy eventually, as dollars can’t be used in China. But when the dollars do get back to the US, there is less stuff to buy. Less goods are being produced because our industry was lost to outsourcing. A constant amount of dollars chasing fewer goods: a formula for inflation.

The only way to short circuit this process is to make sure the laid-off worker is moved into another productive industry. If the worker transitions to any non-wealth creating job, he will merely be adding to a fixed labor pool, with the effect of driving down wages. There is no way around this. If he becomes a laborer, we now have one more laborer, if he becomes a plumber, we have one more plumber, if he becomes an accountant, we now have one more accountant. In all cases, no new wealth is being produced, so wages can only be driven down as the fields are crowded with displaced workers.

We have the same amount of real wealth available, since the car he built is now build and imported from China. We are poorer in terms of resources however, if for no other reason than the increased transportation costs. We have the same amount of money in circulation, assuming that is kept constant. We just have more workers in other fields. This is known as downward mobility.

Even if he becomes a doctor, which would make him personally richer, the country overall is poorer. His dollar wage may have gone up, and the country gets a needed doctor, but our overall wealth went down. Doctors do not create wealth. Teachers do not create wealth, lawyers do not create wealth, government workers don’t create wealth… The list could go on and on. Unless our displaced worker finds another wealth-producing position to fill, our country got poorer.

Some have objected to protectionism on the grounds of scale, asking, so why doesn’t each state become protectionist, or it must be bad to move a factory from New York to Alabama, for example. Unfortunately, these questions reveal a poor understanding of comparative advantage in regional economies, so let us examine these claims.

Let’s say a factory owner sees a potential profit relocating a factory from high cost New York to low cost Alabama. How is that different from relocating to China? The key difference is the available movement of labor. If the displaced New York factory worker cannot find better employment in New York, he is free to move to Alabama himself and take advantage of its growing economy. Thus, in a regionally integrated economy like the United States, economic progress proceeds generally and in a healthy fashion.

Also, the white collar jobs that support the wealth-building activity are all created locally. So producing cars in Alabama will not only employ laborers and skilled factory workers, but also technicians, engineers, accountants, and lawyers. None of those jobs are available to Americans if the factory is located in China. The local wealth-creation supports higher wages for those positions, and drags up wages overall. This is a "drawing-upwards" of workers into higher standards of living, the opposite of what happens when displaced workers have to get retrained and placed into a labor pool with workers in an already-existing industry.

Americans spent 200 years of industrialization building up a high quality of life and standard of living, only to watch it petered away in the last generation through out-sourcing of industries and in-sourcing of cheap replacement labor. It shouldn’t be surprising that our average wage and quality of life have been deteriorating for the last 30 years.

The American wage supports an entire way of life, including a minimum wage, safety standards, environmental protections, health care costs, affirmative action set asides, and a retirement system. Allowing jobs to be out-sourced to low wage countries destroys those aspects of the American dream. Obviously, foreign workers who have none of those advantages can work by the hour for cheaper, but the true cost is borne by American society as a whole.

A rational economic policy for America would safeguard the foundations of our industrial strength. Trade should be open and free when based on true comparative advantage and fair competition. Imports from countries that do not support an equivalent standard of living should be penalized with a tariff, with the tariff revenue being used to support the American way of life that is undermined by the import. Corporations that export American professional jobs should face penalties such as a higher corporate tax rate based on what proportion of their workforce has been off-shored. Tariffs should be levied across the board on countries who engage in any currency manipulation for trade advantage or provide any export subsidies.

American economic policy should support domestic employment by focusing on a stable and profitable productive base, allowing imports and outsourcing only when it would provide a demonstrable benefit to the American standard of living.

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