First, on the gains from trade policy (i.e., how much we should expect national income to rise if we sign trade agreements), Appelbaum refers to a piece from the Peterson Institute of International Economics claiming that trade liberalization added 7.3 percent of GDP to American incomes by 2005—about $9000-10,000 per American household. This is just not true. It’s a wildly inflated number that should not be in the policy debate (and if you need much smarter and better-credentialed people making the some point—here’s Dani Rodrik). This number is an effort to bully people into going along with today’s trade agreements by making them think the stakes are utterly enormous. In fact, even if it was correct (again, it’s not) this study would be irrelevant to today’s trade policy debates because the sum total of economic gains from all post-1982 trade agreements (this includes NAFTA, the completion of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the formation of the WTO, and the permanent normal trading relations with China) is estimated to be just $9 per household, meaning that 99.9 percent of the gains from trade estimated in the study happened before 1982. So even if trade liberalization really did spur mammoth gains at some point in the (distant) past, the effects were over by the early 1980s.Of course, there are things that shouldn't be a surprise and things that are actively covered up.
Second, on the distribution of gains and losses from trade, it is striking to me that so many economists who favor signing every trade agreement that comes down the pike can still feign surprise that expanded trade seems to be bad for most workers’ wages. Put simply, it is completely predicted in textbook trade economics that wages for most workers will fall and inequality will rise when the United States trades more with poorer trading partners. Yes, expanded trade is predicted to lead to higher overall national income, but it is also predicted to redistribute enough income within the United States that it can (and is likely to) make most workers worse-off. This should not be a surprise to anyone familiar with the topic.
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