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Straight Talk on Trade

Author(s): Dani Rodrik

From Project Syndicate:

Are economists partly responsible for Donald Trump’s shocking victory in the US presidential election? Even if they may not have stopped Trump, economists would have had a greater impact on the public debate had they stuck closer to their discipline’s teaching, instead of siding with globalization’s cheerleaders.

As my book Has Globalization Gone Too Far? went to press nearly two decades ago, I approached a well-known economist to ask him if he would provide an endorsement for the back cover. I claimed in the book that, in the absence of a more concerted government response, too much globalization would deepen societal cleavages, exacerbate distributional problems, and undermine domestic social bargains – arguments that have become conventional wisdom since.

The economist demurred. He said he didn’t really disagree with any of the analysis, but worried that my book would provide “ammunition for the barbarians.” Protectionists would latch on to the book’s arguments about the downsides of globalization to provide cover for their narrow, selfish agenda.

It’s a reaction I still get from my fellow economists. One of them will hesitantly raise his hand following a talk and ask: Don’t you worry that your arguments will be abused and serve the demagogues and populists you are decrying?

There is always a risk that our arguments will be hijacked in the public debate by those with whom we disagree. But I have never understood why many economists believe this implies we should skew our argument about trade in one particular direction. The implicit premise seems to be that there are barbarians on only one side of the trade debate. Apparently, those who complain about World Trade Organization rules or trade agreements are awful protectionists, while those who support them are always on the side of the angels.

In truth, many trade enthusiasts are no less motivated by their own narrow, selfish agendas. The pharmaceutical firms pursuing tougher patent rules, the banks pushing for unfettered access to foreign markets, or the multinationals seeking special arbitration tribunals have no greater regard for the public interest than the protectionists do. So when economists shade their arguments, they effectively favor one set of barbarians over another.

It has long been an unspoken rule of public engagement for economists that they should champion trade and not dwell too much on the fine print. This has produced a curious situation. The standard models of trade with which economists work typically yield sharp distributional effects: income losses by certain groups of producers or worker categories are the flip side of the “gains from trade.” And economists have long known that market failures – including poorly functioning labor markets, credit market imperfections, knowledge or environmental externalities, and monopolies – can interfere with reaping those gains.

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