by Kenneth Thomas
Guest post: Why the World Should Care About America’s Middle Class
Tim Worstall, in his Forbes blog, attacks my series (here and here) on whether globalization is good for America’s middle class. Not on the basis that he disagrees with my conclusion (though he does), but because, he argues, there are much more important facts about globalization than a decline in the economic well-being of the middle class in America and Europe. In particular, he points to the great decline in poverty among developing nations that have embraced globalization:
This growth in incomes, in wealth, has been uneven, this is true. Largely speaking those places which have been taking part in globalisation, Indonesia, China, India, have been getting richer. Those that have not been, Somalia perhaps as an example, have not been.
Let’s leave aside the fact that these successful countries are hardly poster children for the kinds of so-called “free-market” policies that Worstall espouses, a point made particularly well by Dani Rodrik. And in the spirit in which Worstall granted my claims for the sake of argument, let’s grant his as well. (But if you want to get down into the weeds on the extent to which poverty reduction claims may be overstated, take a look at Robert Wade’s work.)
Here is the crux of Worstall’s argument:
So I would actually posit that whether the American, or European, or rich world, middle class benefits from globalisation is actually an incomplete question. Incomplete enough to be the wrong question. Almost to the point that the answer is “who cares?”.
The correct question is what is the distribution of all of the costs and all of the benefits of globalisation? To which my answer would be that a generation, perhaps even two generations, of stagnating lifestyles for the already rich, those middle classes, looks like a reasonable enough cost to pay for the other thing that is happening: the abolition of absolute human poverty in the rest of the world.
First, I think we should certainly care when hundreds of millions of people are suffering unnecessarily. Yes, unnecessarily, because contrary to Worstall’s claim, we are not trading off reduced economic well-being for hundreds of millions of middle class people for the lessened poverty of billions of other people. Indeed, the two are happening simultaneously, but as Ronald Rogowki pointed out in Commerce and Coalitions, it is perfectly feasible to have rich country winners compensate rich-country losers and still have all of them be better off from trade.
Politically, it is a hard row to how, as Rogowki pointed out: the winners from expanding trade increase their political power as a result of their increased income, making compensatory policies less likely. But ending globalization’s harm to the middle class in rich nations does not require us to take anything away from poorer people, not if you accept the theory of comparative advantage and the Stolper-Samuelson Theorem. It does require us to figure out a political solution to the problems faced by the losers, which as we can see in the United States is made more difficult by the decline of unions and by the Citizens United Supreme Court decision.
And second, we should care about the U.S. middle class (and Europe’s, for that matter) because how they react to their situation politically will have enormous consequences for the world economy and world politics. If the U.S. comes up with a “Smoot-Hawley” response to its economic problems, that would undo a lot of the gains Worstall sees as flowing from globalization, a point made recently by Dani Rodrik (via Mark Thoma). Even more ominously, in both the U.S. and Europe, we see increasing political polarization and the rise of nationalist political parties and movements, as noted by Paul Krugman. Economic decline is a scary thing, and people’s reactions to it can get downright ugly, to put it mildly.
For both of these reasons, then, what happens to the middle class in the U.S. and Europe will have repercussions far beyond those acknowledged by Worstall.
crossposted with Middle Class Political Economist