Is Global Free Trade Always Good?


As long as trade is at will by both parties, it is good, right?

Not necessarily.

Innovation has led to great developments in goods and services, and led to amazing increases in productivity and capacity utilization. International trade is distributing value more efficiently than ever.

Peter Weiss raises an important counterpoint:

“[clip] The dislocation is often painful and some people cannot make the transition for any number of reasons – I don’t minimize or ignore their pain, or loss. As people living in a community, however we define it, we should consider how we respond to them [clip]”

Throughout history, the waves of displaced workers have ranged from negligible to crisis levels. Displaced workers are typically older workers who are highly skilled in a shrinking industry, or people of all ages who do not have economically rewarding skills. The first set of people is generally easier to define because they had and lost their jobs, while the second set may be far more difficult to quantify.

In the transition to the industrial age, displaced farmers, craftsmen, and tradespeople went through fairly desperate poverty, but there was a large industrial complex forming, ready to hire people with a wide range of skills. In the information age, and with a far larger and more anonymous society, we are dealing with new dynamics. Automation is increasingly replacing labor in production, putting a greater emphasis on capital. The economically rewarding skill set is becoming more cognitive, scalable, and competitive. The highly scaled production of the globally efficient producers displaces less efficient producers throughout the rest of the world.

Why would this be a problem? Clearly, we already acknowledge that some trade should be illegal: monopolistic mergers are restricted by the Federal Trade Commission. Even overly concentrated industries may have restrictions on further consolidation. With information services and assets, marginal costs fall to about zero, and this economy of scale is a strong force for monopolies within each product or service class. Innovation can be stifled if monopolists prevail. However, this dynamic cannot be controlled globally by the US Federal Trade Commission.

But it goes further than that: whenever productivity rises faster than production, fewer workers are required in aggregate. Production may still be growing, but the non-working population and increasing concentration of wealth means that the median utility may shrink. Recent drops in interest rates has promoted refinancing and debt, enabling continuation of consumer spending, but factoring out this externality implies a scary economic reality.

I’m afraid I can’t offer a comprehensive solution, but as policy makers (or simple commentators), the goal should be maximizing the growth rate of the median utility, right? The Fed and international trade policy are currently influenced by an optimization problem that maximizes total GDP growth. Changing the nature of the optimization has the potential to imply that free trade might not always be good. Similar to the measures put in place to avoid the downsides of monopolistic trade in the US, legal and financial policy reform may be due in the next decades to enforce rules as a Global Trade Commission, and also to target disadvantages from productivity growth overwhelming production growth.

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