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The Peterson Institute’s new study of the benefits to Americans of globalization apparently leaves no doubt that the nation should promptly forget about any retreat from conventional trade liberalization policies and resume its aggressive pursuit of new trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Or does it? A close reading of the report reveals gaping holes in these claims.

According to authors Gary C. Hufbauer and Zhiyao Lu, between 1950 and 2016, “trade expansion” has enriched the overall U.S. economy by $2.1 trillion, and boosted America’s output per head and per household by just over $7,000 and $18,000, respectively. Even better, lower-income households probably gained the most (since the greatest trade liberalization progress has been made in the goods that comprise so much of their consumption).

Yet the phrase quoted in that previous paragraph points to the first big hole in the Peterson findings. “Trade expansion’s” benefits, the authors specify, entails much more than either signing new trade deals or otherwise reducing trade barriers. It also includes “technological advances in transportation and communications [that] have drastically slashed the economic distance between countries.”

Of course, there’s been a lot of the latter over the last 66 years. What share of expanded trade’s benefits has come from trade liberalization policy decisions and what share from that technological progress? Darned if the authors know.

The long time frame, in turn, reveals a second major problem with the central argument. Obviously over that last two-thirds of a century, the world economy, and America’s position in it, have changed in numerous and fundamental ways. One prominent example: For the first roughly three post-World War II decades, the United States was the only fully intact developed country. How could trade liberalization not have been a major net benefit? America produced countless products that the rest of the world desperately needed. And none of its important industries faced significant import competition until the 1970s. That doesn’t sound much like current circumstances.

And in fact, Hufbauer and Lu acknowledge this problem, noting, for example, that “compared to previous decades, increased trade since 2003 has not delivered substantial gains.” At this point, however, their analysis gets dicey. For example, they speculate that that low recent payoff resulted partly from “the lack of fresh policy liberalization on a large scale (the failure of the Doha Round)….” But that period actually saw a hugely important liberalization initiative completed – China’s accession to the World Trade Organization. And don’t forget the numerous free trade deals signed by the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, including with South Korea’s very large economy.

Moreover, although Hufbauer and Lu rightly note that the financial crisis and Great Recession also have marked the post-2003 period, they claim that “The decade that experienced the greatest gains from increased trade was 1970 to 1980.” That decade witnessed no less than two recessions (three if you count the 1980 downturn).

Undaunted, the authors contend that returning to the trade liberalization policy course will result in even more American wealth creation. But here’s where their discussion of the post-2003 period fails badly – and unmistakably. They never mention that, thanks largely to that aforementioned boost to incredibly lopsided U.S.-China the first decade of this century produced the greatest U.S. trade deficits and associated global economic imbalances in world history. They ended in the financial crisis and the nation’s worst economic downturn since the Great Recession.

Since America’s main trade partners – including China – seem either just as export-dependent, and/or just as import-and consumption-phobic as ever, it’s difficult to understand why a return to conventional trade diplomacy, combined with the cumulative and often lagged impact of past deals (as noted by Hufbauer and Zu) wouldn’t end in near-catastrophe again.

Another big problem: Former Treasury Secretary and chief Obama economic adviser Larry Summers, along with many others, worry that the United States has fallen into an economic trap they call “secular stagnation.” They speculate that the nation has become so incapable of generating healthy growth that it’s grown dependent on blowing up credit and consumption bubbles to at least produce (misleading) signs of economic life – and that these bubble’s inevitable bursting keeps creating financial crises and serious slumps. Do Hufbauer and Zu believe that the sandbagging of domestic manufacturing (which hasn’t grown in real terms since 2006) due to import competition and offshoring isn’t partly to blame? 

Finally, and similarly, American leaders have finally recognized that the economy is experiencing a major productivity growth slowdown. Can trade liberalization’s real economic impact be measured without considering the effect on productivity of allowing all that trade damage to manufacturing, which historically has led the nation in productivity growth?  

It’s definitely encouraging that a major think tank like the Peterson Institute is looking in detail at globalization’s impact on America’s economy.  Let’s hope that its next effort reflects some actual thinking.