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Policy Hub: Macroblog provides concise commentary and analysis on economic topics including monetary policy, macroeconomic developments, inflation, labor economics, and financial issues for a broad audience.

Authors for Policy Hub: Macroblog are Dave Altig, John Robertson, and other Atlanta Fed economists and researchers.

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May 1, 2007

I Asked, The Chairman Answered

A post removed from this one I was responding to the most recent blogland debate on free trade with this lament:

The missing ingredient in this most recent installment of the free-trade discussion is evidence in favor of one story or another, a task that is a good deal messier than writing down models.

As luck would have it, Ben Bernanke has stepped in to fill the void.  Mark Thoma has the whole thing, so I'll stick to the highlights:

According to one recent study that used four approaches to measuring the gains from trade, the increase in trade since World War II has boosted U.S. annual incomes on the order of $10,000 per household (Bradford, Grieco, and Hufbauer ["The Payoff to America from Globalization"). The same study found that removing all remaining barriers to trade would raise U.S. incomes anywhere from $4,000 to $12,000 per household. Other research has found similar results. Our willingness to trade freely with the world is indeed an essential source of our prosperity--and I think it is safe to say that the importance of trade for us will continue to grow...

If trade both destroys and creates jobs, what is its overall effect on employment? The answer is, essentially none... To see the irrelevance of trade to total employment, we need only observe that, between 1965 and 2006, the share of imports in the U.S. economy nearly quadrupled, from 4.4 percent of GDP to 16.8 percent. Yet, reflecting growth in the labor force, employment more than doubled during that time, and the unemployment rate was at about 4-1/2 percent at both the beginning and end of the period. Furthermore, average real compensation per hour in the United States has nearly doubled since 1965...

A recent study of twenty-one occupations that are most likely to be affected by outsourcing found that net job losses were concentrated almost exclusively in the lower-wage occupations and that strong employment gains have occurred in the occupations that pay the highest wages [Catherine L. Mann,  "Globalization of IT Services and White Collar Jobs: The Next Wave of Productivity Growth"]...

As I suggested in my earlier post, my instinct is to believe that the issue is not whether trade is a net gain but how to think about distributing those gains, which will almost surely arrive unevenly across the population.  Here, it seems that Bernanke and Alan Blinder find some common cause.  Blinder, via the Wall Street Journal:

Mr. Blinder's answer is not protectionism, a word he utters with the contempt that Cold Warriors reserved for communism. Rather, Mr. Blinder still believes the principle British economist David Ricardo introduced 200 years ago: Nations prosper by focusing on things they do best -- their "comparative advantage" -- and trading with other nations with different strengths. He accepts the economic logic that U.S. trade with large low-wage countries like India and China will make all of them richer -- eventually. He acknowledges that trade can create jobs in the U.S. and bolster productivity growth.

But he says the harm done when some lose jobs and others get them will be far more painful and disruptive than trade advocates acknowledge. He wants government to do far more for displaced workers than the few months of retraining it offers today. He thinks the U.S. education system must be revamped so it prepares workers for jobs that can't easily go overseas, and is contemplating changes to the tax code that would reward companies that produce jobs that stay in the U.S.

Bernanke:

Restricting trade by imposing tariffs, quotas, or other barriers is exactly the wrong thing to do. Such solutions might temporarily slow job loss in affected industries, but the benefits would be outweighed, typically many times over, by the costs, which would include higher prices for consumers and increased costs (and thus reduced competitiveness) for U.S. firms. Indeed, studies of the effects of protectionist policies almost invariably find that the costs to the rest of society far exceed the benefits to the protected industry. In the long run, economic isolationism and retreat from international competition would inexorably lead to lower productivity for U.S. firms and lower living standards for U.S. consumers (Bernanke ["Trade and Jobs"] ).

The better approach to mitigating the disruptive effects of trade is to adopt policies and programs aimed at easing the transition of displaced workers into new jobs and increasing the adaptability and skills of the labor force more generally...

Actually, Blinder's prescription is for a sort of labor version of industrial policy.  Again from the WSJ:

He thinks the U.S. education system must be revamped so it prepares workers for jobs that can't easily go overseas, and is contemplating changes to the tax code that would reward companies that produce jobs that stay in the U.S.

Bernanke does not indicate if he would favor so interventionist a strategy.  I would not, but it still looks like about the same page to me, and that page has more and freer trade written all over it.

April 29, 2007

What Are You Going To Believe -- Theory Or Your Own Lying Eyes?

The blogger epicenter of the free-trade debate is rumbling at Harvard, with Greg Mankiw and Dani Rodrik engaged in a terrific -- and important -- conversation about winners, losers, and how (or whether) economic theory divides the two.  You can check-in on the state of the debate at Angry Bear, where pgl provides the appropriate links.  It is highly recommended reading, but I think it ought to come with a few warning labels.  For example, Professor Rodrik responds to Professor Mankiw with this claim:

... there is no theorem that guarantees that the partial-equilibrium losses to import-competing producers “are more than offset by gains to consumers from lower prices.”

In a related vein, pgl opens his post with:

As we were applauding Dani Rodrik, Greg Mankiw was defending the Dan Drezner lower prices from free trade benefits everyone fallacy.

Let's be perfectly clear:  There are no theorems in economics that guarantee anything about the real world.  Economic models are not descriptions of physical realities but formalizations of stories about how social interactions deliver particular outcomes.  Different, equally coherent, stories deliver different predictions about the world.  The claim that "free trade benefits everyone" is not a fallacy, but a particular outcome based on a particular model.  Different models deliver different answers, so theory alone does nothing beyond eliminating stories that are internally inconsistent.

Or, perhaps, unconvincing.  The missing ingredient in this most recent installment of the free-trade discussion is evidence in favor of one story or another, a task that is a good deal messier than writing down models.  What makes matters worse is that adjudicating the issue is not a mere matter of counting up winners and losers.  In the court of determining what is "good" or "bad", economists have standing to address one question, and one question only:  Can someone be made better off without making anyone worse off?  That too depends on the model at hand, and in fact it's even worse than that.  The Rodrik-Mankiw debate revolves in part around a result known as the Stolper-Samuelson theorem. Greg Mankiw does a good job explaining Stolper-Samuleson and its relevance to the subject at hand, but I'll note one item from the Wikipedia description of the theorem

If considering the change in real returns under increased international trade a robust finding of the theorem is that returns to the scarce factor will go down, ceteris paribus. A further robust corollary of the theorem is that a compensation to the scarce-factor exists which will overcome this effect and make increased trade Pareto optimal.

In simple terms, there are losers, but the winners can win enough to more than match those losses.  All would be well with the world if the winners and losers could be easily identified, and an appropriate compensation scheme implemented.  But what if that is not feasible?  What is the right move then?  To protect the losers at the expense of significant opportunity cost to potential winners?  The other way around?  I've yet to encounter an economist trained to answer those questions, and you should be very suspicious of any who speak as if they are.

January 10, 2007

Hallelujah

Sometimes it's nice to hear a little good news.  From the Financial Times:

The transatlantic push to conclude the troubled Doha round of global trade talks got a wary welcome from the head and some members of the World Trade Organisation on Tuesday.

Details of any deal to reconcile the US and European Union positions remain elusive, but Pascal Lamy, director-general of the WTO, said the determination expressed this week by US president George W. Bush and José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, was a marked advance.

Similar expressions of enthusiasm from Mr Bush and other heads of government during the Group of Eight summit in St Petersburg last summer were not followed by concessions at the negotiating table, and the Doha talks were suspended in July amid bitter transatlantic recriminations.

But Mr Lamy said prospects were better. “The signs we are seeing now are qualitatively different from what we heard last year,” he told the Financial Times. “The political chemistry is beginning to work.”

And from The Wall Street Journal (page A1 of the print edition):

With Fidel Castro ailing and absent from the public stage, some influential Cuban intellectuals are laying plans for a more market-oriented approach to fortify the island's ailing communist economy...

Together, the Cuban economists' proposals would cut down on state interference in businesses and aim to wring more productivity out of the island nation's economy. Among the steps under discussion: decentralizing control, expanding the power of managers at privately owned agricultural cooperatives, extending private ownership to other sectors, boosting investment in infrastructure and increasing incentives to workers.

None of the plans would shuck communism for capitalism or open the island further to foreign investment -- which economists outside Cuba say are critical for the island to prosper. But the fact that the government is permitting -- and perhaps even encouraging -- the debate suggests regime officials might find these kinds of changes acceptable, though it may take Mr. Castro's death to put them into action.

There are lots of devils in all the details of both stories, but hey, it's a new year.  Why not start it with a little hope?

November 26, 2006

Ideological Faceoff

From The New York Times:

FOR years, the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party, exercising a lock on the party’s economic policies, argued that the economy could achieve sustained growth only if markets were allowed to operate unfettered and globally...

This approach coincided with a period of economic prosperity, low unemployment and falling deficits. Over time, this combination — called Rubinomics after the Clinton administration’s Treasury secretary, Robert E. Rubin — became the Democratic establishment’s accepted model for the future.

Not anymore. With the Democrats having won a majority in Congress, and disquiet over globalization growing, a party faction that has been powerless — the economic populists — is emerging and strongly promoting an alternative to Rubinomics.

... They want to rethink America’s role in the global economy. They would intervene in markets and regulate them much more than the Rubinites would. For a start, they would declare a moratorium on new trade agreements until clauses were included that would, for example, restrict layoffs and protect incomes.

Oh, Lord.

The split is not over the damage from globalization. Mr. Rubin and his followers increasingly say that globalization has not brought job security or rising incomes to millions of Americans. The “share of the pie may even be shrinking” for vast segments of the middle class, Mr. Rubin’s successor as Treasury secretary under President Clinton, Lawrence H. Summers, recently wrote in an op-ed in The Financial Times. And the populists certainly agree.

But the Rubin camp argues that regulating trade, or imposing other market restrictions, would be self-defeating.

That seems right to me.  What's the counter?

The economic populists argue that the trade agreements themselves are the problem. They cite several studies showing that more jobs shifted to Mexico as a result of Nafta than were created in the United States to serve the Mexican market.

Hmm.  Doesn't that argue by way of attacking with a point the other side already conceded?  Perhaps we should focus on the actual claims made by those who argue globalization is a force for good?

And then there is this:

As the two groups face off, Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, contends that the populists are pushing much harder than the Rubinites for government-subsidized universal health care. They also favor expanding Social Security to offset the decline in pension coverage in the private sector.

Expanding Social Security?  Maybe "the people" weren't as upset about growth in entitlements (via Medicare's prescription drug benefit, for example) as we were led to believe?

Is there any room for agreement here.  Sure:

Apart from such differences, there are nevertheless crucial issues on which the groups agree. Both would sponsor legislation that reduced college tuition, mainly through tax credits or lower interest rates on student loans...

OK. I'm not sure access is the problem with our educational system, but at least that focuses on a real issue.

Both would expand the earned-income tax credit to subsidize the working poor.

Nice.

Both would have the government negotiate lower drug prices for Medicare’s prescription drug plan.

Uh-oh.  Price controls by any other name...

And despite their relentless criticisms of President Bush’s tax cuts, neither the populists nor the Rubinite regulars would try to roll them back now, risking a veto that the Democrats lack the votes to override.

That's interesting.

Here, I guess, is the bottom line:

The populists argue that the national income has flowed disproportionately into corporate coffers and the nation’s wealthiest households, and that the imbalance has grown worse in recent years. They want to rethink America’s role in the global economy. They would intervene in markets and regulate them much more than the Rubinites would. For a start, they would declare a moratorium on new trade agreements until clauses were included that would, for example, restrict layoffs and protect incomes.

I have a prediction: I won't lose much sleep thinking about which side in this debate I support.