Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Growing Trade Deficit with China Cost 2.3 Million Jobs

The Economic Policy Institute just released a report that estimates the jobs lost by each U.S. state due to trade with China.

The top line of the press release emphasizes the main findings.

WASHINGTON – As the nation’s economic woes mount, a new study details the devastating impact that the growing U.S. trade deficit with China is having on American jobs, wages and key industries. Between 2001 and 2007, 2.3 million American jobs were lost due to the China trade gap, including 366,000 last year, according to the report released today by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI).

Those displaced workers lost an average of $8,146 in wages last year, a total of $19.4 billion, as they took lower-paying jobs. China is also the predominant source of downward pressure on wages of other production workers, about 100 million Americans. Competition from low-wage workers in less developed countries and less bargaining power here at home pushed the median wage for full-time workers without a college degree – about 70 percent of the U.S. workforce – down about $1,400 in 2006.

The EPI used an input-output sector specific model of the U.S. economy to estimate these impacts. The full report contains some revealing arguments and text.

The authors note that the trade deficit with China is supported by a range of anticompetitive tactics.

A major cause of the rapidly growing U.S. trade deficit with China is currency manipulation. China has tightly pegged its currency to the dollar at a rate that encourages a large bilateral surplus with the United States. Maintaining this peg required the purchase of about $460 billion in U.S. treasury bills and other securities in 2007 alone.2 This intervention makes the yuan artificially cheap and provides an effective subsidy on Chinese exports. The best estimates place this effective subsidy at roughly 30%, even after recent appreciation in the yuan(Cline and Williamson 2008).

In addition, the report summarizes China's subsidy of key industries, and its suppression of workers rights.

One of the more intriguing results from this study is the balance between the wages of workers gaining from trade with China and the wages of workers in sectors loosing from trade with China. Typically, workers in exporting industries earn higher wages. In the case of our manipulated and distorted trade with China that isn't the case.

The growth of trade deficits with China shifts jobs from better-paid traded goods industries into jobs in non-traded sectors where wages are significantly lower on average. Moreover, average wages in import-competing industries were higher than those in export industries. Thus, the growth in the overall volume of trade (imports plus exports) with China substituted lower-paying export jobs for higher-paying jobs in import-competing industries. This somewhat surprising finding stands economic logic on its head. Economic theory would suggest that the United States should specialize in producing goods that intensively use high-skilled, highly educated (and highly paid) workers and import labor-intensive goods that use more low-skilled labor. In fact, low-wage commodity sectors were some of the largest exporters of goods from the United States to China.


Pete Murphy said...

Our enormous trade deficit is rightly of growing concern to Americans. Since leading the global drive toward trade liberalization by signing the Global Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in 1947, America has been transformed from the weathiest nation on earth - its preeminent industrial power - into a skid row bum, literally begging the rest of the world for cash to keep us afloat. It's a disgusting spectacle. Our cumulative trade deficit since 1976, financed by a sell-off of American assets, is now approaching $9 trillion. What will happen when those assets are depleted? Today's recession may be just a preview of what's to come.

Why? The American work force is the most productive on earth. Our product quality, though it may have fallen short at one time, is now on a par with the Japanese. Our workers have labored tirelessly to improve our competitiveness. Yet our deficit continues to grow. Our median wages and net worth have declined for decades. Our debt has soared.

Clearly, there is something amiss with "free trade." The concept of free trade is rooted in Ricardo's principle of comparative advantage. In 1817 Ricardo hypothesized that every nation benefits when it trades what it makes best for products made best by other nations. On the surface, it seems to make sense. But is it possible that this theory is flawed in some way? Is there something that Ricardo didn't consider?

At this point, I should introduce myself. I am author of a book titled "Five Short Blasts: A New Economic Theory Exposes The Fatal Flaw in Globalization and Its Consequences for America." My theory is that, as population density rises beyond some optimum level, per capita consumption begins to decline. This occurs because, as people are forced to crowd together and conserve space, it becomes ever more impractical to own many products. Falling per capita consumption, in the face of rising productivity (per capita output, which always rises), inevitably yields rising unemployment and poverty.

This theory has huge ramifications for U.S. policy toward population management (especially immigration policy) and trade. The implications for population policy may be obvious, but why trade? It's because these effects of an excessive population density - rising unemployment and poverty - are actually imported when we attempt to engage in free trade in manufactured goods with a nation that is much more densely populated. Our economies combine. The work of manufacturing is spread evenly across the combined labor force. But, while the more densely populated nation gets free access to a healthy market, all we get in return is access to a market emaciated by over-crowding and low per capita consumption. The result is an automatic, irreversible trade deficit and loss of jobs, tantamount to economic suicide.

One need look no further than the U.S.'s trade data for proof of this effect. Using 2006 data, an in-depth analysis reveals that, of our top twenty per capita trade deficits in manufactured goods (the trade deficit divided by the population of the country in question), eighteen are with nations much more densely populated than our own. Even more revealing, if the nations of the world are divided equally around the median population density, the U.S. had a trade surplus in manufactured goods of $17 billion with the half of nations below the median population density. With the half above the median, we had a $480 billion deficit!

Our trade deficit with China is getting all of the attention these days. But, when expressed in per capita terms, our deficit with China in manufactured goods is rather unremarkable - nineteenth on the list. Our per capita deficit with other nations such as Japan, Germany, Mexico, Korea and others (all much more densely populated than the U.S.) is worse. In fact, our largest per capita trade deficit in manufactured goods is with Ireland, a nation twice as densely populated as the U.S. Our per capita deficit with Ireland is twenty-five times worse than China's. My point is not that our deficit with China isn't a problem, but rather that it's exactly what we should have expected when we suddenly applied a trade policy that was a proven failure around the world to a country with one sixth of the world's population.

Ricardo's principle of comparative advantage is overly simplistic and flawed because it does not take into consideration this population density effect and what happens when two nations grossly disparate in population density attempt to trade freely in manufactured goods. While free trade in natural resources and free trade in manufactured goods between nations of roughly equal population density is indeed beneficial, just as Ricardo predicts, it’s a sure-fire loser when attempting to trade freely in manufactured goods with a nation with an excessive population density.

If you‘re interested in learning more about this important new economic theory, then I invite you to visit my web site at OpenWindowPublishingCo.com where you can read the preface for free, join in the blog discussion and, of course, buy the book if you like. (It's also available at Amazon.com.)

Please forgive me for the somewhat "spammish" nature of the previous paragraph, but I don't know how else to inject this new theory into the debate about trade without drawing attention to the book that explains the theory.

Pete Murphy
Author, Five Short Blasts

HyperThought said...

I agree that this was the most striking part of the report as well: "In fact, low-wage commodity sectors were some of the largest exporters of goods from the United States to China."

I always thought the 'cheap' goods came FROM China; now the Made in the U.S.A. label is going to mean 'cheap'? So sad!

Howard Richman said...


One of my friends buys scrap aluminum. Indeed, one of our growing exports to China is scrap metal. China sends manufactured goods to us in containers and takes back scrap metal from us in the same containers. That way they don't even have to pay much for transporting that scrap metal.


Howard Richman said...


I agree with what you wrote in your first paragraph, but I disagree that declining consumption as a result of population density is one of the causes. Consumers still have plenty of things that they want to buy. In China, however, the government keeps money out of consumers' hands, lending it to the United States and to Europe instead.