Not everyone will like what it's carrying.

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Americans Get Free Trade's Dark Side

Noah Smith is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.
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Harvard economist N. Gregory Mankiw -- my doctoral adviser’s doctoral adviser -- is a great researcher, wickedly smart and possessed of exceptional intuition. His introductory economics textbook, which has earned him a reputation as America’s economics teacher, happens to be my favorite (with apologies to Paul Krugman and Robin Wells, whose book is also good). But I have to say, I don’t really like the way Mankiw presents economic ideas to the general public in the news media.

Mankiw likes to boil things down for public consumption. For example, take his recent article in the New York Times about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Now, I’m strongly in favor of the TPP. I think it’s going to do a lot of good. But Mankiw is being too simplistic when he defends it by repeating the same basic case for free trade that we’ve been hearing all our adult lives:

If Congress were to take an exam in Economics 101, would it pass?...Among economists, the issue is a no-brainer... 

Economists are famous for disagreeing with one another, and indeed, seminars in economics departments are known for their vociferous debate. But economists reach near unanimity on some topics, including international trade... 

The economic argument for free trade dates back to Adam Smith, the 18th-century author of “The Wealth of Nations” and the grandfather of modern economics. Smith recognized that the case for trading with other nations was no different from the case for trading with other individuals within a society.

(The standard case for free trade is really due more to the slightly more-recent David Ricardo, but Adam Smith is the bigger household name.) 

This case is really simple, and everyone knows it. If trade didn’t benefit both parties, they wouldn’t trade. If trade didn’t benefit both countries, they wouldn’t trade. So allowing voluntary trade is always good. 

But by simply restating this Econ 101 argument, Mankiw is failing to give his readers much credit. For one thing, some of the opposition to the TPP comes from people who support free trade, and who worry that the treaty’s intellectual property provisions amount to a restriction of trade. As Krugman points out, Mankiw ignores this. 

Mankiw’s second problem is that this same old case has failed again and again to persuade the general public. Yes, economists overwhelmingly favor the idea of free trade. But the public remains stubbornly skeptical. Is this because they are just not smart enough to get the Econ-101-David-Ricardo thing even after hearing it a hundred times? Or is it because people are irrational and biased?

In his article, Mankiw lists three biases that he blames for people’s refusal to accept the free-trade argument. These are “anti-foreign bias,” “anti-market bias,” and “make-work bias.” Essentially, Mankiw is telling you that you don’t believe the simple truth because deep down within you lurks a xenophobic socialist. Call me crazy, but I don’t think this is a beneficial, constructive way for economists to engage with the public.

Maybe the public is neither xenophobic nor socialist. Maybe people are perfectly smart and rational enough to understand the David Ricardo idea, and also smart enough to understand something else that economists have known for 200 years -- international trade doesn’t necessarily benefit everyone within a country.

That’s right -- trade creates winners and losers. Econ 101 says that the winners outnumber the losers in dollar terms, but not necessarily in people terms -- if the richest 1 percent of Americans gain $1 billion from a trade agreement and the other 99 percent lose $900 million, then Ricardo’s theory says the country benefited overall. That outcome is perfectly consistent with Econ 101.

Most pro-free-trade economists, if you confront them with this fact, will say that this problem can be solved if we use redistributive taxes to compensate the losers. This ignores that we often don’t know who the winners and losers are from any particular trade deal -- this is why you can’t buy insurance against the possibility of losing your job to a trade agreement. This also ignores that the tax system wasn't set up to carry out this compensation. And on top of that, many pro-free-trade economists, Mankiw included, are almost always opposed to tax increases.

In other words, Mankiw is giving the public a pro-trade argument that, even on its own merits, might be bogus. Econ 101 says that it’s possible that free trade might hurt the majority of Americans, and yet Mankiw doesn't seem to think the public needs to hear that fact.

Like I said, I am in favor of the TPP. And, like most economists, I think free trade has, on balance, been a big net positive for most Americans over the past century, relative to any alternative we might have pursued. But I think the American people are intelligent and grown-up enough to hear the basic case against free trade, as well as the case in favor.

Yes, Mankiw is smarter than most of us. That doesn’t mean we’re dummies.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Noah Smith at nsmith150@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net