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On Trade and Living Standards

One of my favorite commenters, Ajay, writes:

Wow, when the chief economist at Businessweek is capable of writing a sentence like “if U.S.-based companies are doing their research and product development overseas and their production there as well, it’s tough to see how ordinary workers in the U.S. will gain,” it’s easy to see why this magazine was recently sold off for almost nothing, around $5 million, or around $15k per employee as one article estimated. The ordinary worker gains because they can buy goods for cheaper, it’s that simple.

Actually, it’s not that simple. If one nation improves its capabilities while others stand still, there’s nothing about the arithmetic of trade that requires that all nations benefit.

The simplest way to see this is to think about oil. Suppose that a very cheap substitute for oil was discovered in the U.S. Clearly U.S. standard of living would rise, and overall the average global standard of living would rise—but the standard of living in the oil producing countries of the Mideast would fall dramatically.

The parallel here—if China improves its R&D capabilities while the U.S. stands still, there is *nothing* about the arithmetic of trade in a multinational world that requires that Americans will benefit. Nothing.

I stand ready for people to argue with me.

P.S. Hopefully I’m not to blame for BW’s sale!

Added November 3: Novartis announced that it is going to invest $1 billion over the next 5 years for a new R&D facility in China. Just a few days earlier, the company announced that overall R&D expenditures were down by 6% over the previous year. You draw your own conclusion about the future path of spending.

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