It’s now been more than two weeks since my appearance on CNBC to discuss the pros and cons of U.S. trade policy, but one passage was so astounding that it’s worth spotlighting. It shows in microcosm how even knowledgeable major business journalists can get completely discombobulated when they’re presented with new information on the subject – even when that information is drawn straight from Econ 101.
As you may recall, my overriding point in this interview was reporting that the already slow American recovery is being weakened big-time by the rebound in that portion of the trade deficit most strongly influenced by trade deals and other trade policy decisions. In other words, I was talking about trade’s effects on U.S. output, and this point is taken from the way that the economy and its growth (or contraction) has been measured for decades – including by all agencies of the U.S. government.
Yet even though this observation should be completely uncontroversial to anyone who puts stock in this methodology, it’s almost never made in the trade policy debate. Since trade became a hot button issue – either during the 1980s, Japan’s protectionism began to slam major American industries, or during the debate over the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) during the early 1990s – most of the political and academic wrangling has focused on the impact on U.S. job and wage levels.
During this CNBC segment, I referred to these employment consequences – noting that whatever reduces growth usually weakens job-creation, too. But my emphasis clearly was on growth. Nonetheless, as the conversation segued into a discussion of U.S. manufacturing, which makes up the bulk of America’s two-way trade, co-anchor Sara Eisen stepped in (at the 4:15 mark) with a line of questioning that was a complete non sequitur:
“[B]ut Alan, aren’t you leaving out a key component here, which is technology? I mean, yes, it’s easy to blame it on trade. It puts a foreign face on it, as a USA Today editorial argues today. But technology really has revolutionized the way manufacturing has happened in this country, and maybe it’s made it more expensive to manufacture in this country as well but it’s also boosted productivity.”
Although they weren’t my main concerns on the program, Eisen’s mention of the technology point clearly shows she’d been thinking about those job effects – as opposed to the growth effects – all along. For technological progress has long been the main response from supporters of current trade policies to criticisms that stress manufacturing job loss. That is, trade enthusiasts claim that industrial payrolls have cratered in recent decades not mainly because of trade-related decisions in Washington, but because automation has enabled manufacturing companies to turn out more goods with fewer workers.
There’s no need to go over that ground here. My point is that – jobs weren’t my point! My paramount message was that already feeble economic growth itself was being further slowed by rising deficits. Technology of course has an impact on growth, and no doubt it’s so far been overwhelmingly positive even as employment can suffer – at least in the medium-term. But this subject is only tangentially related to trade.
My observation, however, was so foreign to Eisen that she not only couldn’t turn it into a coherent challenge. This unfamiliarity, along with the adversarial dynamics of talk shows, pushed her into making an argument that, on reflection, she surely would realize is absurd – that automation has made manufacturing in America more expensive. Of course, it’s exactly the opposite. Otherwise, why would businesses introduce these new technologies in the first place?
In other words, Eisen’s experience debating trade issues was so jobs-centric that she (a) fell back on an employment-related point to object to a growth-related claim, and then (b) used the employment-related point to portray America as a high-cost (and therefore presumably ever less competitive) manufacturing country because it’s increasingly using machines that reduce costs.
Eisen was right to challenge me: That’s her job. I just hope she and the rest of the business press – which is just as likely to have displayed such confusion – start using the growing newsworthiness of trade issues to get genuinely up to speed on the subject.