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The idea that the more international trade a country engages in, the more strongly its productivity will grow, is widely accepted among economists. Indeed, no less than the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Central Bank (the eurozone’s version of America’s Federal Reserve) say so.

How then, can these august institutions and other believers explain the following: On the one hand according to the United Kingdom’s Royal Statistical Society, the country’s feeble annual average labor productivity growth of 0.3 percent over the last ten years was its “statistic of the decade”? Worse, it was the poorest decade for British productivity growth since the early 19th century.

Yet on the other hand, during this period, the United Kingdom’s openness to foreign trade – a data point created by adding a country’s imports and exports and then expressing this sum as a percentage of its entire economy, or gross domestic product (GDP) – has for the most part been hovering near post-1960s highs. In other words, the more foreign trade the UK has been engaging in, the lower its productivity growth seems to have become.

Nor is this phenomenon restricted to the UK. The same pattern can be seen in the United States, although the country’s openness to trade is much lower than the United Kingdom’s in absolute terms (not surprising, since we’re comparing an island with a continental sized economy). RealityChek regulars shouldn’t have to be reminded about America’s discouraging collapse in labor productivity growth.

What about trade? In fairness, America’s openness to trade has been falling recently. But no, that’s not President Trump’s “fault.” The decline began in 2011, when trade’s share of GDP hit a post-1960 high of 30.79 percent. As of 2017 (the latest data year available according to this source), it still stood at 27.09 percent – much higher than the period average of 19.29 percent.   

Also in fairness: Simply because openness to trade for these two big national economies has coincided with lousy productivity growth doesn’t mean that openness to trade causes the problem (or vice versa). It doesn’t even mean that openness to trade is the main productivity culprit, for many different characteristics of an economy influence any single characteristic.

But certainly in light of the American and British experiences, even if the conventional wisdom is right and trade openness does encourage productivity growth, it’s clearly a policy choice that’s often overwhelmed by other features of that same economy. P.S. – it ain’t just the Anglo-Americans. The World Bank’s databases also portray global trade at only slightly off its all-time high as a share of the global economy. And guess what? It turns out that global productivity growth has been crappy lately, too, whether we’re talking labor productivity or total factor productivity (a broader gauge that measures output from the use of many different inputs, not just labor).

As a matter of fact, it’s not difficult to think of ways in which more trade can undermine productivity growth – e.g., if import floods decimate the sectors of the economy that have historically been its manufacturing leaders, or if trade policy fosters their offshoring. (Strong cases can be made for both propositions when it comes to American domestic manufacturing.) 

So the case that trade fosters productivity growth is hardly a slam dunk.  And that’s one more reason to believe that the broader case for free trade isn’t, either.