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It’s definitely weird to be writing a post in response to a recent tweet-storm. But this was no ordinary tweeter. This was someone who’s getting attention from the Washington economic policy establishment as a new oracle on trade and globalization. That’s evidently because his work conveniently sums up many of the leading myths about the world economy and America’s approach to it that have been propagated by this group of interests. So his burst of social media activism provides a valuable opportunity to set the record straight.

The tweeter extraordinaire was Richard Baldwin. He’s not only an international economics professor at the University of Geneva in Switzerland, but the founder of the informative Voxeu.org economics research portal and president of the Centre for Economic Policy Research in London (not to be confused with the Center for Economic Policy and Research in Washington, D.C.). And he’s just come out with a book titled The Great Convergence: Information Technology and the New Globalization.

According to Baldwin, I have been guilty of a “Classic misthinking of globalisation” by supporting an overhauled U.S. trade policy featuring much more aggressive use of tariffs and other protectionist measures. But from the rest of his tweet-storm, a summary presentation he’s touting, and some other statements, it’s should be obvious that his own description of recent international economic trends and their main causes is way wide of the mark.

His fundamental mistake lies in neglecting the crucial role played in fostering today’s flows of goods, services, and capital by trade agreements and by the dramatically differing reductions in trade barriers from both a quantitative and, more important, a qualitative, standpoint. In particular, Baldwin ignores how various bilateral trade deals and decisions, and the multilateral pact that created the World Trade Organization gave multinational companies the essential condition they needed to justify the increasingly sophisticated production and job offshoring that has characterized globalization – guaranteed access to developed country, and especially the U.S. – market.

For the record, here’s the full string of tweets. (Some repeat previous tweets in the sequence.)

Classic misthinking of globalisation by @AlanTonelson

Recent globalisation driven by knowledge offshoring not freer trade

Tariffs don’t address the driving force

Could foster reshoring of some production but also more offshoring

The main problem is domestic: Protect workers, not jobs.

Jobs for U.S.-based robots

Trump tariffs raise cost of industrial import only in US (not Germany, Japan, China, Mexico, Canada)

Knowledge offshore drove 21st century globalisation

Tariffs don’t address globalisation’s driving force

US tariffs foster some reshoring and some more offshoring

So what is the right way to deal with angry middle class?

Protect individual workers, not individual jobs.

So what is the right way to deal with angry middle class?

Are you familiar with the concept of factor substitutability ? Changing relative prices changes decisions.

But think of it this way. Offshoring, especially the kind focused on by Baldwin, to developing countries, can serve 3 main purposes. It can help companies better supply overseas markets. It can help them better supply their home country market. Or it can seek both objectives.

The great expansion of U.S. trade, primarily with developing countries, that Baldwin rightly notes began around 1990 (with the end of the Cold War and the great strengthening of free market reforms in gigantic developing countries), was justified with many and varied arguments. The paramount rationale, however, was serving the huge, ballooning populations of the world’s Chinas, Indias, Mexicos, and Brazils.

Yet as documented exhaustively in my 2002 book, The Race to the Bottom (and of course many other studies), incomes in these so-called Big Emerging Markets were simply too low to enable their final consumption to rise much – at least compared with their production and productive capacity. No one was more aware of this situation than the emerging market countries themselves – unless it was the global corporations considering pouring investment into them.

That’s why the smartest of these countries understood that they could not possibly grow and develop adequately by supplying their own populations alone, however rapid their income gains. Their only real hope for satisfactory progress was serving markets “where the money is.” America’s relatively open market and consumption-led national economic structure was their best bet by far.

And that’s why the multinationals as well were so determined for Washington to negotiate free trade agreements with these countries. – not to lower foreign trade barriers and permit American businesses their workers to reach the third world’s billions of new actual and potential consumers, but to lock in lower or eliminated barriers to the U.S. market. See the end notes to this recent study for references to just some of the scholarly evidence.

Accomplishing this aim would ensure that their plan to supply well heeled American customers from super low-cost and virtually unregulated third world supply bases would actually make money. Alternatively put, if Washington were legally able to curb or cut off access to the United States for Corporate America’s third world factories, these new facilities would lose much of their value.

Bringing the United States into the World Trade Organization (WTO) was also instrumental in this scheme. Its new rules and especially its unprecedented enforcement authority have greatly weakened America’s legal scope to use its trade law system to turn back goods (including those from the multinationals’ factories) that have been dumped, illegally subsidized, or benefited from other predatory trade policies – including currency undervaluation. In this vein, securing Chinese membership was vital, too. It secured near-invulnerability to U.S. trade law for the multinationals’ favorite export platform.

So the crucial importance of tariffs should be obvious to all. Yes, the technological advances cited by Baldwin (and so many others) have facilitated offshoring – and made the offshoring of even sophisticated production possible from the standpoint of logistics and administration and quality control and numerous similar considerations. But much and possibly most of it couldn’t pass the bottom-line test without the U.S. market access that can be made or broken by tariffs. That is, technology was a necessary condition of offshoring. But it was hardly sufficient.

Consistent with the product life cycle model, it’s unmistakably true that a growing share of multinational investment in developing countries is serving those markets. But compelling evidence abounds that the export platform strategy remains crucial – both to the countries and to the companies. Among the strongest, as I’ve recently written: the howls of protest from the corporate Offshoring Lobby and from export platform countries sparked by President-elect Trump’s talk of tariffs on the output they plan to sell to the United States. If America wasn’t such an important destination, and if so much of the offshored production was sold locally, why would they be so concerned?

Two other key items of evidence for the importance of tariffs:

a. The recent acknowledgment by GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt that trade barriers and other localization moves were mushrooming around the world, and that his company would have no choice but to say “How high” when ever more protectionist governments say “Jump!” Immelt’s statement makes clear that economies much smaller and weaker than America’s will be able to lure his company’s production and jobs either through relatively simple restrictions of access to their market, or through various performance standards imposed on inbound foreign investment that will be enforced through tariffs.

b. The prevalence of these practices and their success in influencing corporate location decisions. Indeed, the only major power that abjures these measures is the United States. Obviously, if smaller and weaker economies can wield tariffs and other trade restrictions successfully, America’s inaction stems from inadequate will, not inadequate wallet.

Yet as Baldwin’s tweet-storm shows, he is also offering three related objections to tariffs that have nothing intrinsically to do with the advent and growth of what he calls “knowledge offshoring.” He argues that tariffs would disastrously raise the cost to domestic U.S. manufacturers of all the imported inputs they use in their final products. As a result, he adds, these American manufacturers would lose competitiveness to any number of foreign rivals. Finally, he repeats the widespread argument that even if significant production was reshored with tariffs, the job impact would be minimal because of soaring, labor-saving productivity advances in manufacturing.

But Baldwin seems unaware that intermediate goods, including of course capital equipment, make up a huge share of domestic U.S. manufacturing. Because output data is too general (in particular lumping together such intermediates with finished goods in many super-categories), the exact figure is difficult to calculate. But other statistics leave no doubt as to the scale.

As I’ve previously shown, what the Census Bureau calls “industrial supplies” and “capital goods” have comprised fully 62.5 percent of America’s total merchandise exports for the first ten months of this year. And as with the output figures, these statistics leave out products such as auto parts (which are included, but not broken out, under a separate heading).

These industries are also gigantic employers. My own tally of Bureau of Labor Statistics data reveals that their workers number 5.764 million. That’s slightly over 47 percent of all manufacturing employees. Moreover, just over 28 percent of the workers in these sectors are white-collar workers – meaning in turn that many of them are in research, engineering, and other STEM fields. These numbers, moreover, indicate that even if I’m whoppingly wrong, we’re still talking about lots of valuable production and workers. 

So tariffs would create enormous new opportunities for this immense sector of manufacturing – and comparable new demand for the kinds of folks nearly everyone wants to become bigger and bigger percentages of the American labor market.

In addition, Baldwin’s case against tariffs seems to assume that they’ll be geographically circumscribed – hence his claim about the competitiveness-harming impact of barriers against these intermediate goods. But this assumption is puzzling, to say the least. Of course tariffs limited to, say, China or Mexico would open new opportunities in the U.S. market or third country markets for other manufacturing powers. Yet this is precisely why the trade proposals being floated by the administration-in-waiting increasingly include world-wide restrictions.

Finally, although labor-saving productivity gains are surely responsible for much manufacturing job loss in recent decades, the benefits of reshoring manufacturing output shouldn’t be underestimated. Industry’s very productivity performance is clearly one big reason – how can a national economy not profit from regaining many of its most productive sectors?

The importance of existing industry for fostering new industries and related economic benefits and opportunities is another big reason. This new paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research presents findings indicating just how much technological advance is generated by incumbent companies (and presumably industries) rather than through the “creative destruction” emphasized by much of the economics profession. So a focus on manufacturing output means a focus on much of the economy’s capacity to continue creating genuine wealth – and sustainable prosperity.

Further, for all of its competitiveness issues, manufacturing still dominates American export flows. If free-trade-oriented analysts are right, and main purpose of exporting is earning the income to buy imports, how can sufficient income keep getting created if domestic manufacturing production keeps stagnating or shrinking – which has clearly been the case in real terms since the last recession began?

As indicated by some of the preceding paragraphs, however, much uncertainty – in my view, way too much – is still left by the official data analysts are forced to use to study the vital Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How Much issues raised by globalization. Nor does the information reported sporadically in the business press or reported (often partially and self-servingly) by the companies themselves add more than fragments to the existing picture.

Many of these uncertainties could be cleared up if offshoring companies were required by Washington to disclose much more information than at present about how their domestic and foreign operations compare, and how these comparisons have changed over time. After all, knowing the crucial details is critical to their success. And if the disclosure mandate was universal, no individual firm would gain competitive advantage from this new flood of proprietary facts and figures.

So I hope Baldwin – and others sharing his views – will join me in demanding such disclosure. We have nothing to lose but our (relative) ignorance.

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