The Electoral Consequences of Globalization

by Joseph Joyce

The Electoral Consequences of Globalization

The reasons for the election of Donald Trump as President of the U.S. will be analyzed and argued about for many years to come. Undoubtedly there are U.S.-specific factors that are relevant, such as racial divisions in voting patterns. But the election took place after the British vote to withdraw from the European Union and the rise to power of conservative politicians in continental Europe, so it is reasonable to ask whether globalization bears any responsibility.

The years before the global financial crisis were years of rapid economic globalization. Trade flows grew on average by 7% a year over the 1987-2007 period. Financial flows also expanded, particularly amongst the advanced economies. Global financial assets increased by 8% a year between 1990 and 2007. But all this activity was curtailed in 2008-09 when the global financial crisis pushed the world economy into a downturn. Are the subsequent rises in nationalist sentiment the product of these trends?

Trump seized upon some of the consequences of increased trade and investment to make the case that globalization was bad for the U.S. He had great success with his claim that international trade deals are responsible for a loss of jobs in the manufacturing sector. In addition, he blamed outward foreign direct investment (FDI) by U.S. firms that opened production facilities in foreign countries for moving manufacturing jobs outside the U.S. Among the firms that Trump criticized were Ford Motor, Nabisco and the Carrier Corporation, which is moving a manufacturing operation from Indiana to Mexico.

Have foreign workers taken the jobs of U.S. workers? Increased trade does lead to a reallocation of resources, as a country increases its output in those sectors where it has an advantage while cutting back production in other sectors. Resources should flow from the latter to the former, but in reality it can be difficult to switch employment across sectors. Daron Acemoglu and David Autor of MIT, David Dorn of the University of Zurich, Gordon Hanson of UC-San Diego and Brendan Price of MIT have found that import competition from China after 2000 contributed to reductions in U.S. manufacturing employment and weak U.S. job growth. They estimated manufacturing job losses due to Chinese competition of 2.0 – 2.4 million. Other studies find similar results for workers who do not have high school degrees.

Moreover, multinational firms do shift production across borders in response to lower wages, among other factors. Ann E. Harrison of UC-Berkeley and Margaret S. McMillan of Tufts University looked at the hiring practices of the foreign affiliates of U.S. firms during the period of 1977 to 1999. They found that lower wages in affiliate countries where the employees were substitutes for U.S. workers led to more employment in those countries but reductions in employment in the U.S. However, when employment across geographical locations is complementary for firms that do significantly different work at home and abroad, domestic and foreign employment rise and fall together.

Imports and foreign production, therefore, have had an impact on manufacturing employment in the U.S. But several caveats should be raised. First, as Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee of MIT and others have pointed out, technology has had a much larger effect on jobs. The U.S. is the second largest global producer of manufactured goods, but these products are being made in plants that employ fewer workers than they did in the past. Many of the lost jobs simply do not exist any more. Second, the U.S. exports goods and services as well as purchases them. Among the manufactured goods that account for significant shares of U.S. exports are machines and engines, electronic equipment and aircraft. Third, there is inward FDI as well as outward, and the foreign-based firms hire U.S. workers. A 2013 Congressional Research Service study by James V. Jackson reported that by year-end 2011 foreign firms employed 6.1 million Americans, and 37% of this employment—2.3 million jobs—was in the manufacturing sector. More recent data shows that employment by the U.S. affiliates of multinational companies rose to 6.4 million in 2014. Mr. Trump will find himself in a difficult position if he threatens to shut down trade and investment with countries that both import from the U.S. and invest here.

The other form of globalization that drew Trump’s derision was immigration. Most of his ire focused on those who had entered the U.S. illegally. However, in a speech in Arizona he said that he would set up a commission that would roll back the number of legal migrants to “historic norms.”

The current number of immigrants (42 million) represents around 13% of the U.S. population, and 16% of the labor force. An increase in the number of foreign-born workers depresses the wages of some native-born workers, principally high-school dropouts, as well as other migrants who arrived earlier. But there are other, more significant reasons for the stagnation in working-class wages. In addition, a reduction in the number of migrant laborers would raise the ratio of young and retired people to workers—the dependency ratio—and endanger the financing of Social Security and Medicare. And by increasing the size of the U.S. economy, these workers induce expansions in investment expenditures and hiring in areas that are complementary.

The one form of globalization that Trump has not criticized, with the exception of outward FDI, is financial. This is a curious omission, as the crisis of 2008-09 arose from the financial implosion that followed the collapse of the housing bubble in the U.S. International financial flows exacerbated the magnitude of the crisis. But Trump has pledged to dismantle the Dodd-Frank legislation, which was enacted to implement financial regulatory reform and lower the probability of another crisis. While Trump has criticized China for undervaluing its currency in order to increase its exports to the U.S., most economists believe that the Chinese currency is no longer undervalued vis-à-vis the U.S. dollar.

Did globalization produce Trump, or lead to the circumstances that resulted in 46.7% of the electorate voting for him? A score sheet of the impact of globalization within the U.S. would record pluses and minuses. Among those who have benefitted are consumers who purchase items made abroad at cheaper prices, workers who produce export goods, and firms that hire migrants. Those who have been adversely affected include workers who no longer have manufacturing jobs and domestic workers who compete with migrants for low-paying jobs. Overall, most studies find evidence of positive net benefits from trade. Similarly, studies of the cost and benefits of immigration indicate that overall foreign workers make a positive contribution to the U.S. economy.

Other trends have exerted equal or greater consequences for our economic welfare. First, as pointed out above, advances in automation have had an enormous impact on the number and nature of jobs, and advances in artificial intelligence wii further change the nature of work. The launch of driverless cars and trucks, for example, will affect the economy in unforeseen ways, and more workers will lose their livelihoods. Second, income inequality has been on the increase in the U.S. and elsewhere for several decades. While those in the upper-income classes have benefitted most from increased trade and finance, inequality reflects many factors besides globalization.

Why, then, is globalization the focus of so much discontent? Trump had the insight that demonizing foreigners and U.S.-based multinationals would allow him to offer simple solutions—ripping up trade deals, strong-arming CEOs to relocate facilities—to complex problems. Moreover, it allows him to draw a line between his supporters and everyone else, with Trump as the one who will protect workers against the crafty foreigners and corrupt elite who conspire to steal American jobs. Blaming the foreign “other” is a well-trod route for those who aspire to power in times of economic and social upheaval.

Globalization, therefore, should not be held responsible for the election of Donald Trump and those in other countries who offer similar simplistic solutions to challenging trends. But globalization’s advocates did indirectly lead to his rise when they oversold the benefits of globalization and neglected the downside. Lower prices at Wal-Mart are scarce consolation to those who have lost their jobs. Moreover, the proponents of globalization failed to strengthen the safety networks and redistributive mechanisms that allow those who had to compete with foreign goods and workers to share in the broader benefits. Dani Rodrik of Harvard’s Kennedy School has described how the policy priorities were changed: “The new model of globalization stood priorities on their head, effectively putting democracy to work for the global economy, instead of the other way around. The elimination of barriers to trade and finance became an end in itself, rather than a means toward more fundamental economic and social goals.”

The battle over globalization is not finished, and there will be future opportunities to adapt it to benefit a wider section of society. The goal should be to place it within in a framework that allows a more egalitarian distribution of the benefits and payment of the costs. This is not a new task. After World War II, the Allied planners sought to revive international trade while allowing national governments to use their policy tools to foster full employment. Political scientist John Ruggie of the Kennedy School called the hybrid system based on fixed exchange rates, regulated capital accounts and government programs “embedded liberalism,” and it prevailed until it was swept aside by the wave of neoliberal policies in the 1980s and 1990s.

What would today’s version of “embedded liberalism” look like? In the financial sector, the pendulum has already swung back from unregulated capital flows and towards the use of capital control measures as part of macroprudential policies designed to address systemic risk in the financial sector. In addition, Thomas Piketty of the École des hautes etudes en sciences (EHESS) and associate chair at the Paris School of Economics, and author of Capital in the Twenty-first Century, has called for a new focus in discussions over the next stage of globalization: “…trade is a good thing, but fair and sustainable development also demands public services, infrastructure, health and education systems. In turn, these themselves demand fair taxation systems.”

The current political environment is not conducive toward the expansion of public goods. But it is unlikely that our new President’s policies will deliver on their promise to return to a past when U.S. workers could operate without concern for foreign competition or automation. We will certainly revisit these issues, and we need to redefine what a successful globalization looks like. And if we don’t? Thomas Piketty warns of the consequences of not enacting the necessary domestic policies and institutions: “If we fail to deliver these, Trumpism will prevail.”


cross posted with Capital Ebbs and Flows