Gomory-Baumol Challenge to the Church of Global Free Trade

William Greider reviews Global Trade and Conflicting National Interests by William Baumol and Ralph Gomory who used to be a senior vice president at IBM. The challenge goes something like this:

At IBM back in the 1980s, Gomory watched in awe as Japan and other Asian nations captured high-tech industrial sectors in which US companies held commanding advantage. IBM invented the disk drive, then dropped out of the disk-drive business, unable to compete profitably. Gomory marveled at Singapore, a tiny city-state, as it lured American manufacturers with low-wage labor, capital subsidies and tax breaks. The US companies turned Singapore into a global center for semiconductor production. “It was an unforgettable transformation,” Gomory remembers. “And it was pretty frightening. “The offer that many Asian countries will give to American companies is essentially this: ‘Come over here and enhance our GDP. If you are here our people will be building disk drives, for example, instead of something less productive. In return, we’ll help you with the investment, with taxes, maybe even with wages. We’ll make sure you make a profit.’ This works for both sides: the American company gets profits, the host country gets GDP. However, there is another effect beyond the benefits for those two parties–high-value-added jobs leave the U.S.” China and India, he observes, are now doing this on a large scale. Microsoft and Google opened rival research centers in Beijing. Intel announced a new, $2.5 billion semiconductor plant that will make it one of China’s largest foreign investors. China’s industrial transformation is no longer about making shirts and shoes, as some free-trade cheerleaders still seem to believe. It is about capturing the most advanced processes and products.The multinationals’ overseas deployment of capital and technology, Gomory explains, is the core of how some very poor developing nations are able to ratchet up their technological prowess, take over advanced industrial sectors and rapidly expand their share in global trade–all with the help of US companies and finance, as they roam the world in search of better returns. The Gomory-Baumol book describes this as “a divergence of interests” between multinational firms and their home country. “This overseas investment decision may then prove to be very good for that multinational firm,” they write. “But there remains the question: Is the decision good for its own country?” In many cases, yes. If the firm is locating low-skilled industrial production in a very poor country, Americans get cheaper goods, trade expands for both sides and the result is “mutual gain.” But the trading partners enter a “zone of conflict” if the poor nation develops greater capabilities and assumes the production of more advanced goods. Then, the authors explain, “the newly developing partner becomes harmful to the more industrialized country.” The firm’s self-interested success “can constitute an actual loss of national income for the company’s home country.” American multinationals, as principal actors in this transfer of wealth-generating productive capacity, are distinctively free to make the decisions for themselves without interference from government. They want profit and future consumer markets. Their home country wants to maintain a highly productive high-wage economy. Without recognizing it, the two are pulling in opposite directions–the “divergence of interests” most US politicians ignore, evidently believing church doctrine over visible reality.

Technology transfers are often a good means for increasing productivity in less developed nations. Ah but those transfers of technology undermined IBM monopoly rights. As this David Altig critique of something from the Nattering Naybob economists often disagree as to whether protecting monopoly rights by patents are good in that they reward innovation or bad because they restrict competition.

This summary has me embarrassed that I have yet to read Global Trade and Conflicting National Interests:

In this book Ralph Gomory and William Baumol adapt classical trade models to the modern world economy. Trade today is dominated by manufactured goods, rapidly moving technology, and huge firms that benefit from economies of scale. This is very different from the largely agricultural world in which the classical theories originated. Gomory and Baumol show that the new and significant conflicts resulting from international trade are inherent in modern economies.
Today improvement in one country’s productive capabilities is often attainable only at the expense of another country’s general welfare. The authors describe why and when this is so and why, in a modern free-trade environment, a country might have a vital stake in the competitive strength of its industries.