Inequality As Policy: Selective Trade Protectionism Favors Higher Earners

[Note: This item comes from friend David Rosenthal. DLH]

“Inequality As Policy: Selective Trade Protectionism Favors Higher Earners”
By Dean Baker, the co-founder of CEPR.
Oct 28 2016

Globalization and technology are routinely cited as drivers of inequality over the last four decades. While the relative importance of these causes is disputed, both are often viewed as natural and inevitable products of the working of the economy, rather than as the outcomes of deliberate policy. In fact, both the course of globalization and the distribution of rewards from technological innovation are very much the result of policy. Insofar as they have led to greater inequality, this has been the result of conscious policy choices.

Starting with globalization, there was nothing pre-determined about a pattern of trade liberalization that put U.S. manufacturing workers in direct competition with their much lower paid counterparts in the developing world. Instead, that competition was the result of trade pacts written to make it as easy as possible for U.S. corporations to invest in the developing world to take advantage of lower labor costs, and then ship their products back to the United States. The predicted and actual result of this pattern of trade has been to lower wages for manufacturing workers and non-college educated workers more generally, as displaced manufacturing workers crowd into other sectors of the economy.

Instead of only putting manufacturing workers into competition with lower-paid workers in other countries, our trade deals could have been crafted to subject doctors, dentists, lawyers and other highly-paid professionals to international competition. As it stands, almost nothing has been done to remove the protectionist barriers that allow highly-educated professionals in the United States to earn far more than their counterparts in other wealthy countries.

This is clearest in the case of doctors. For the most part, it is impossible for foreign-trained physicians to practice in the United States unless they have completed a residency program in the United States. The number of residency slots, in turn, is strictly limited, as is the number of slots open for foreign medical students. While this is a quite blatantly protectionist restriction, it has persisted largely unquestioned through a long process of trade liberalization that has radically reduced or eliminated most of the barriers on trade in goods. The result is that doctors in the United States earn an average of more than $250,000 a year, more than twice as much as their counterparts in other wealthy countries. This costs the country roughly $100 billion a year in higher medical bills compared to a situation in which U.S. doctors received the same pay as doctors elsewhere. Economists, including trade economists, have largely chosen to ignore the barriers that sustain high professional pay at enormous economic cost.

In addition to the items subject to trade, the overall trade balance is also very much the result of policy choices. The textbook theory has capital flowing from rich countries to poor countries, which means that rich countries run trade surpluses with poor countries. While this accurately described the pattern of trade in the 1990s up until the East Asian financial crisis (a period in which the countries of the region enjoyed very rapid growth), in the last two decades developing countries taken as a whole have been running large trade surpluses with wealthy countries.

This implies large trade deficits in rich countries, especially the United States, which in turn has meant a further loss of manufacturing jobs with the resulting negative impact on wage inequality. However, there was nothing inevitable about the policy shifts associated with the bailout from the East Asian financial crisis that led the developing world to become a net exporter of capital.



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