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The Man Who Made Us See That Trade Isn't Always Free

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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Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist David Autor once referred to himself as an “ambulance chaser.” It was his self-deprecating way of admitting that his work tends to focus on the really big, urgent issues facing the modern economy.

Autor is one of the leaders of the empirical revolution in economics. Along with others like Stanford’s Raj Chetty and Harvard’s Lawrence Katz, Autor has been pioneering ways to make the economics discipline both more credible and more relevant. He has tackled subjects like monopoly power and the polarization of the job market. But perhaps his biggest bombshell has been his finding, along with co-authors David Dorn and Gordon Hanson, that opening the U.S. economy to trade with China hurt American workers a lot more than had previously been thought. Though that finding has been challenged by others such as George Washington University’s Jonathan Rothwell, it has already changed the way economists think and talk about the costs and benefits of free trade.

Not too long ago, free trade was the one thing that almost all economists agreed on. They might bicker about fiscal stimulus, or the right rate for the corporate tax, but when it came to trade they were in lock-step. Trade theorist Paul Krugman once wrote:

The economist’s case for free trade is essentially a unilateral case - that is, it says that a country serves its own interests by pursuing free trade regardless of what other countries may do.

If empirical studies can lead top mainstream economists to question this once-universal belief, then the profession really is shifting from theory to evidence. With this in mind, I recently contacted Autor to ask him how his research on China has altered his own thinking about the costs and benefits of trade.

Autor told me that he had been astonished by his own findings. Autor, like most top economists, was once an orthodox thinker on the trade issue. He had expected American workers would adjust well to the shock of Chinese imports, finding other jobs for similar wages after a short period of dislocation. That was largely what happened in the 1980s and 1990s in response to Japanese and European competition. Instead, he and his co-authors found that trade with China in the 2000s left huge swathes of the U.S. workforce permanently without good jobs -- or, in many cases, jobs at all.

This sort of concentrated economic devastation sounds like it would hurt not just people’s pocketbooks, but the social fabric. In a series of follow-up papers, Autor and his team link Chinese import competition to declining marriage rates and political polarization. Autor told me that these social ills make the need for new thinking about trade policy even more urgent. A large population of angry, unmarried men with deteriorating career prospects is a dangerous thing for any democracy.

So, I asked, how should trade policy be changed? Autor’s answers again surprised me. He suggested that the process of admitting China to the World Trade Organization back in 2000 should have been slowed down significantly. That would have given American workers and industries time to prepare for, and adjust to, China’s competitive onslaught. He also endorsed the border adjustment tax now being considered by Congress. That tax would probably benefit U.S. exporters at the expense of importers.

But Autor went quite a bit further. He told me that the U.S. government should focus attention on manufacturing industries, and even use industrial policy to bolster the sector.

Traditionally, economists have looked down their noses at “manufacturing fetishism,” but Autor says he thinks the sector is underrated. He praised Sematech, the government-organized consortium that worked to boost the U.S. semiconductor industry in the 1980s and 1990s. He also suggested that the U.S. government use military research spending and incentives for investments in automation. Autor cited another one of his papers showing that Chinese imports had made U.S. producers of those goods less innovative, and suggested that government policy could help reverse the trend.

This kind of talk is certain to make many economists uncomfortable. Top economists have toyed with the idea of industrial policy over the years. But explicit support for the manufacturing sector goes against decades of ingrained teaching. And a general shift from free-trade cheerleading toward a sober, nuanced weighing of trade’s costs and benefits is going to be a frightening proposition for many.

But if this change in outlook does happen, even marginally, it will be a testament to the power of empirical economics. When facts and evidence can convince sober, fair-minded researchers like David Autor to change their own bedrock beliefs about national economic policy, it means there has been a sea change in how the profession thinks. The new empirical era may contain far less comfortable certitudes than the theory-driven economics of the past, and that’s frightening. But only by first admitting ignorance can social scientists eventually start crawling their torturous way toward the truth.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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

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