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Trade With China Is A Really Big Deal

I was emailed Justin Lahart’s writeup of “The China Syndrome: Local Labor Market Effects of Import Competition in the United States” (PDF) by David H. Autor, David Dorn, and Gordon H. Hanson just earlier and I have to say that looking at the paper I don’t totally understand the fanfare the Wall Street Journal gave it. Here’s the abstract:

We analyze the effect of rising Chinese import competition between 1990 and 2007 on local U.S. labor markets, exploiting cross-market variation in import exposure stemming from initial differences in industry specialization while instrumenting for imports using changes in Chinese imports by industry to other high-income countries. Rising exposure increases unemployment, lowers labor force participation, and reduces wages in local labor markets. Conservatively, it explains one-quarter of the contemporaneous aggregate decline in U.S. manufacturing employment. Transfer benefits payments for unemployment, disability, retirement, and healthcare also rise sharply in exposed labor markets. The deadweight loss of financing these transfers is one to two-thirds as large as U.S. gains from trade with China.

This is interesting and important work, but it doesn’t overturn David Ricardo or whatever’s in the introductory textbooks. It says that imports from China create a broad-based consumer surplus and concentrated losses for producers of import-competing goods. The interesting empirical finding here is that the scale of the impact is really large. Some countries (Iceland, Israel, Denmark) are small so it’s always been obvious that international trade is very important to them but the traditional analysis of postwar America was that international trade just wasn’t that big a deal for the United States. But China is a huge country and it’s growing rapidly, so the scale of the trade impacts is much larger than we’ve traditionally seen.

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