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Globalization: What Did Paul Krugman Miss?

This is a very nice short framework-for-thinking-about-globalization-and-the-world piece by Paul Krugman: Paul Krugman (2018): Globalization: What Did We Miss? It is excellently written. It contains a number of important insights. But. I have, unusually, a number of complaints about it. I will make them stridenly: First, Paul Krugman claims that, in Heckscher-Ohlin models at least, from the early 1970s to the mid 1990s international trade put only a little bit of downward pressure on the wages of American “unskilled” and semi-skilled workers. I think that is wrong. I think that from the early 1970s to the mid-1990s international trade, at least working through the Heckscher-Ohlin channels, put less than zero downward pressure on the wages of American “unskilled” and semi-skilled

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This is a very nice short framework-for-thinking-about-globalization-and-the-world piece by Paul Krugman: Paul Krugman (2018): Globalization: What Did We Miss?

It is excellently written. It contains a number of important insights.


I have, unusually, a number of complaints about it. I will make them stridenly:

First, Paul Krugman claims that, in Heckscher-Ohlin models at least, from the early 1970s to the mid 1990s international trade put only a little bit of downward pressure on the wages of American “unskilled” and semi-skilled workers. I think that is wrong. I think that from the early 1970s to the mid-1990s international trade, at least working through the Heckscher-Ohlin channels, put less than zero downward pressure on the wages of American “unskilled” and semi-skilled workers.

As I see it, it is important to note that “emerging markets” and “global north” are not static categories. Japan, Spain, Italy, Ireland were low-wage countries in the 1970s. From the early 1970s to the mid-1990s the relative wage levels of the then-current sources of America’s manufacturing imports were rising more rapidly than new low-wage sources of manufacturing imports were being added. The typical American manufacturing worker faced less low-wage competition from imports in the mid-1990s than they had faced in the early 1970s.

As I see it, where manufacturing workers came under pressure (and they did) it was not from increased low-wage competition from abroad but rather from:

  1. fiscal policy failures that produced the Reagan (and then Bush II) deficits as Republican governance redirected dollars earned by foreigners from buying our exports to buying our bonds
  2. managerial failures in Detroit (and elsewhere in the U.S.) and successes abroad
  3. technological failures in Pittsburgh (and elsewhere in the U.S.) and successes abroad

As I see it, yes, we could have protected Detroit and Pittsburgh from the consequences of their managerial and technological failings—but it would have been at immense cost for the rest of the economy, a very unfavorable benefit-cost tradeoff. And we should not have elected Republicans and given them the keys to the economic policy car: that rarely works. But given that we did give the Republicans the keys, and given Detroit’s and Pittsburgh’s managerial and technological failings, globalization from the early 1970s to the mid-1990s was a wonderful thing for America as a whole: it provided us with enormous benefits in every scenario, and in the unfortunate scenario we were dealt by the Reagan Democrats and the Big Three auto executives of Detroit, globalization greatly reduced the damage.

Second, I agree with Paul Krugman when he writes as though the “hyperglobalization” from the mid-1990s to the financial crisis was a big deal (which it was):

This huge surge… Containerization was not… new… [but] t took time for business to realize… [the] possibilities…. [Plus] a broad move… toward outward-looking policies…. China made a dramatic shift from central planning….

But I disagree when he writes that “hyperglobalization” was in some sense a threat to blue-collar Americans’ economic and social position:

It’s clear that the impact of developing-country exports grew much more between 1995 and 2010 than the 90s consensus imagined possible, which may be one reason concerns about globalization made a comeback…

Why? For reasons that Paul recognizes and summarizes:

A fairly novel form of trade… break[ing] up value chains, moving labor-intensive parts of the production process overseas…. The factor content of North-South trade hasn’t risen nearly as fast as the volume…

Let’s unpack this. In the age of widely-separated intercontinental value chains, we can see that there are actually more types of “blue collar” manufacturing jobs than the skilled-craft, semiskilled-assembly line, and unskilled traditional classification. Most importantly, we can see that the blue-collar jobs that are traditionally called semiskilled-assembly line are actually divided into two. The first are those jobs that require relatively literate workers with substantial experience and tacit knowledge who plug into sophisticated and highly productive divisions of labor supported by very productive communities of engineering practice. The second are those jobs that plug into those divisions of labor supported by those communities of engineering practice, but that actually do not require relative literacy or involve a great deal of tacit knowledge or experience—jobs that are doable by virtually everybody with the standard mental structure and eye-brain-hand loop of the East African Plains Ape, and that we thus call “unskilled”, even though they involve tasks that are currently regarded as very hard AI problems.

Before the coming of intercontinental global value chains, the distinction between these two types of semiskilled manufacturing jobs was of relatively little importance. Both paid relatively well for jobs requiring little formal education: both benefited from the requirement that workers be located near to engineers (and marketers, and executives) and from their participation in highly productive production processes, so both shared in the rents produced therein. But the truly unskilled portion—even though they were called “semiskilled” were not truly good jobs: they were boring, repetitive, and not very productive. An economy that could figure out a way to offshore those jobs would find that it had a global competitive advantage, and that would strengthen its truly valuable communities of engineering practice and ability to productively employ those relatively literate workers with valuable experience and tacit knowledge.

This was brought home to me most strongly in the years after the NAFTA debate. Opponents of NAFTA from Harley Shaiken and Thea Lee to Ross Perot had claimed it would be very damaging to the American automobile industry. Not so. And not just the firms executives, the shareholders, and the marketers were better off as a result than they would have been otherwise: the blue-collar workers with tacit knowledge and experience were better off as well from Detroit’s larger market share, and the truly unskilled portion—perhaps we should call them “polyester uniform”?—did not have jobs in the auto industry but had jobs about as good outside of it.

So, at least as I see it, the coming of “hyperglobalization” strengthened opportunities for U.S. workers without formal education to find jobs where their skills, experience, and tacit knowledge could be deployed in ways that were highly productive. What “hyperglobalization” did do was provide the top 1% and the top 0.1% with another lever to break apart the Dunlopian labor relations order, break the Treaty of Detroit, and redistribute the shared joint product from highly productive mass production backed by valuable communities of engineering practice upward in the income distribution. But there were many such levers in the U.S. from the 1970s to today. And “hyperglobalization” was, as I see it, one of the weakest and shortest of them. It gets blamed not because it was an important driver of the process, but because it allows one to blame others: brown people, yellow people, and, of course, the rootless cosmopolites.

Third, I quarrel with Krugman’s—and with Autor, Dorn, and Hanson’s (2013)—assessment of the China shock. Paul writes:

[While] trade deficits explain only a small part of the long-term shift toward… service[s]… soaring imports did impose a significant shock on some U.S. workers…. Fights over tariffs look very much as if they come out of a specific-factors world…. This is where the now-famous analysis of the “China shock” by Autor, Dorn, and Hanson (2013) comes in. What ADH mainly did was to shift focus from broad questions of income distribution to the effects of rapid import growth on local labor markets, showing that these effects were large and persistent. This represented a new and important insight…

Put me down as believing that, as I see it, Autor, Dorn, and Hanson’s focus on the stable absolute number of U.S. manufacturing jobs before the China shock of the 2000s and its drop as a result of the China shock is substantially misleading. One might look at the share of the workforce who have—and the share of those entering the workforce who get “good blue-colllar” jobs, in which we see not stability but rather a smooth decline in the proportion. One might look at individual towns, cities, and regions, in which case one sees patterns of regional industrial growth and collapse: the defense cycles, the collapse of New England textiles and leather, the rise of the Carolinas, the shift out of the Midwest to the falsely-called “right to work” states, plus the general desire of people after air conditioning to live in places where the winters are not so dire. It is not a new insight that such shocks to regional labor markets had effects that were large and persistent: anybody who had ever driven through Lowell or Fall RIver, MA knew that before Paul Krugman had published his first paper. It is, however, a very important insight.

Yes, the reduction in the share of the U.S. workforce in tacit knowledge and experience semiskilled blue collar jobs has been a big deal. But the overwhelming bulk of that is due to technology, not trade. Yes, there has been an additional reduction beyond technology. But the bulk of that has been a second-best compensation and adjustment for the disastrous Republican habit of running large budget deficits at full employment. Yes, the U.S. government should have done much more to support communities and workers who found themselves under the hammer. But for that blame the legacy influence of social darwinism on American politics: the U.S. government did little for Lowell or Fall River back in the day. And complaints about the failure to properly manage a process that is, globally, overwhemlingly positive-sum should be mailed to the address of the Reagan and Trump Democrats of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, not to poorer brown and yellow people in Mexico and in China.

Moreover, from the perspective of the country as a whole and from the perspective of many of the communities affected, the China shock was not a big deal for local labor markets. Yes, people are no longer buying as many of the products of American factories as Chinese imports flood in. But those selling the imports are turning around and spending their dollars investing in America: financing government purchases, infrastructure, some corporate investment, and housing. The circular flow will it: the dollars are of no use outside the U.S. and so the dollar flow has to go somewhere, and as long as the Federal Reserve does its job and makes Say’s Law roughly true in practice, it is a redistribution of demand for labor and not a fall in the demand for labor.

And here is the kicker, as I see it: the types of people and the types of jobs funded by the imports of the China shock looks very much like the types of people and the types of jobs displaced from the tradeable manufacturing sector. Yes, some local labor markets got a substantial and persistent negative shock to manufacturing, often substantially cushioned by a boost to construction. Other local local labor markets got a substantial and persistent positive shock to construction. And on the level of the country as a whole the factor of production that is (truly) semiskilled blue collar labor does not look to me to have been adversely affected.

Until 2008.

Now we get to my fourth quarrel: the play is Hamlet. But where is the Prince of Denmark? Zero references to “recession”, “finance”, “financial crisis”, or “recession”. Yet, at least as I see it, the key thing that we missed about globalization was not its impact on factor prices in some Heckscher-Ohlin model or an shared rents in some specific-factors model but rather that when a big financial crisis and depression came “globaization”—and poor people elsewhere—would provide an excuse to distract blame. There was a lot of blame: Blame financiers who had no control over their derivatives books because they failed to manage. Blame financeirs who had control over their deiverative books but who thought, like Charles Price of Citigroup: “you have to keep dancing as long as the music is playing”. Blame Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan. Blame Treasury Secretary John Snow. They were at the heads of the agencies responsible for controlling systemic risk when the vulnerabilities emerged. And they did not no—control it, that is. Blame Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke. Blame Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. They were at the heads of the agencies responsible for controlling systemic risk while there was still time to shore up the system—and they did not.

The Prince of Denmark here is the Greenspan-Snow shock, not the China shock. What we missed about globalization was not its impact on blue-collar semiskilled workers with experience and tacit knowledge and communities, but how it would interact with attempts to shift resoponsibility and blame off of the appropriate properties.

And then, of course, ther is 2010: Barack Obama’s declaration in his State of the Union Address that the time for bold action to boost employment was over:

We took office amid a crisis, and our efforts to prevent a second Depression have added another $1 trillion to our national debt…. Families across the country are tightening their belts and making tough decisions. The federal government should do the same. So tonight, I’m proposing specific steps to pay for the $1 trillion that it took to rescue the economy last year…. Like any cash-strapped family, we will work within a budget to invest in what we need and sacrifice what we don’t. And if I have to enforce this discipline by veto, I will…

I have never found anybody working in economic policy in the Obama administration who thought that this large a shift this quickly was a good idea. Some have admitted to believing that it was a meaningless rhetorical nothingburger—after all, it excepted “spending related to our national security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security”, and you can do anything macroeconomic you want on the spending side in those categories. They were wrong. Others were strongly opposed. Others say that they were quiet, but certainly not boosters.

And, indeed it wasn’t a good idea.

If the Greenspan-Snow shock is the Prince of Denmark in this play, the idea that the crisis was over and the need for stimulative policy was at an end as of early 2010—call it the Obama-Geithner shock, perhaps—is King Claudius, or at least Queen Gertrude here.

And this gets me to my fifth quarrel with Paul Krugman here. As I see it, the most important thing we missed about globalization was how much it required support from stable and continuous full employment. That, I think, ought to have been the focus of his talk to the IMF.

It is now 81 years since John Maynard Keynes published:

Whilst… the enlargement of the functions of government involved in the task of adjusting to one another the propensity to consume and the inducement to invest would seem to a nineteenth-century publicist or to a contemporary American financier to be a terrific encroachment on individualism. I defend it… as the only practicable means of avoiding the destruction of existing economic forms in their entirety and as the condition of the successful functioning of individual initiative….

If effective demand is deficient… the public scandal of wasted resources… the individual enterpriser… is operating with the odds loaded against him. The game of hazard which he plays is furnished with many zeros…. The authoritarian state systems of today seem to solve the problem of unemployment at the expense of efficiency and of freedom. It is certain that the world will not much longer tolerate the unemployment which, apart from brief intervals of excitement, is associated and in my opinion, inevitably associated with present-day capitalistic individualism. But it may be possible by a right analysis of the problem to cure the disease whilst preserving efficiency and freedom…

True. Now as much as ever.

Bradford DeLong
J. Bradford DeLong is Professor of Economics at the University of California at Berkeley and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. He was Deputy Assistant US Treasury Secretary during the Clinton Administration, where he was heavily involved in budget and trade negotiations. His role in designing the bailout of Mexico during the 1994 peso crisis placed him at the forefront of Latin America’s transformation into a region of open economies, and cemented his stature as a leading voice in economic-policy debates.

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