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Saturday, June 9, 2012

Is Globalization Good for America's Middle Class? Part 1

In this blog, I have frequently documented economic trends that have been bad for the middle class: Declining real wages, steadily falling bang for the healthcare buck, stagnant educational attainment, the gigantic cost of tax havens, etc. With this post, I want to begin exploring one possible reason for the economic insecurity of the middle class, namely globalization. Today, we will look at who wins and who loses from international trade, one of the key elements of globalization.

In some circles, one is likely to see a variant of the claim that "everybody" is better off because of freer trade. Even according to the most mainstream economic theory, this is simply false. The workhorse theory for determining the distributional effects of trade (i.e., who wins and who loses) is called the Stolper-Samuelson Theorem, first enunciated in an article by Wolfgang Stolper and Paul Samuelson in 1941.

To understand this theory, you need to know that economists think about national economies in terms of the amount of land, labor, and capital they have compared to all other countries in the world. These "factors of production" can be in relatively high supply compared to the rest of the world, in which case they are referred to as "abundant," or in relatively low supply compared to the rest of the world, in which case we call them "scarce."

The theorem can be stated in quite simple terms, but its consequences are not at all simple: As trade expands, owners of abundant factors of production benefit, and owners of scarce factors of production are harmed. Here, "benefit" means their real income increases, while "harmed" means their real income decreases.

Remember, trade can expand for two main reasons. First technological innovations can reduce the cost of transportation, making it first possible, then cheaper, to send goods long distances. For example, political scientist Ronald Rogowski, in his great book Commerce and Coalitions shows how the introduction of the steamboat made it possible to export North American wheat to Western Europe, displacing wheat from Eastern Europe. Second, policy changes like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) or the trade agreements embodying the World Trade Organization (WTO) reduce or eliminate costly barriers to trade and lead to its expansion.

The grain example helps show why trade creates winners and losers. The Midwest U.S. and Canadian Prairie provinces are a gigantic breadbasket made possible by low population density, which implies abundant land and scarce labor. Expanding trade gave these farmers new markets and higher incomes. In much more densely populated Europe, the reverse is true: labor is abundant and land is scarce. As a result, expanding trade in grains meant more import competition and lower income for European farmers..

Fast forward to today and we can ask what U.S. factor endowments are currently. As a rich country internationally, the United States is necessarily a capital abundant country. As a comparatively low population density country, it is land abundant but labor scarce. The answer is to our initial question is then quite clear: expanding trade is harmful to U.S. workers because imports of labor-intensive products and services from abroad create competition for American workers, reducing their real wages. As I have discussed before, U.S. real wages have remained below their peak for 39 straight years, just as the Stolper-Samuelson Theorem would predict.

What about all the cheap goods we now buy at Wal-Mart? It doesn't change this story at all, because the lower price of imported goods is already reflected in the inflation rate we use to calculate real wages.

Rogowski's book also argues that we can expect certain pattens of political coalitions to form, with the winners from trade on one side and the losers on the other. NAFTA illustrated this well, with capital and agriculture generally in favor of the agreement (minus a few small specialty agricultural products like oranges), while labor was strongly opposed. And of course, this only helps us understand economic reasons for support or opposition to trade agreements; for non-economic reasons such as the environment, we have to look elsewhere. Although beyond the scope of this post, Rogowski's analysis of the entire world through phases of rising and falling trade (i.e., the Great Depression) lends strong credence to his claims. You should definitely read his book sometime.

Economists are divided over how big this effect is. In the 1990s, when I first started teaching, the most common view of economists was that technological change was the driver increasing the premium for high skilled labor while reducing wages for low-skilled labor. Adrian Wood's 1994 book, North-South Trade, Employment, and Inequality, argued that trade was in fact the main culprit, (a good, ungated analysis is  Richard Freeman's "Are Your Wages Set in Beijing?"). Although this met with a lot of resistance at the time, Wood's view has gained a lot of traction among economists based on developments over the last 15 or so years. Paul Krugman, a particularly noteworthy example due to his Nobel prize, has gone from being a fanatic adherent of free trade to someone who sees trade as a big problem, though even today he is not quite willing to pull the plug on free trade.

One important point Rogowski makes (and Stolper and Samuelson did before him) is that the theory of comparative advantage tells us that the winners from trade gain more than the losers lose, which makes it possible in principle to compensate the losers and have everyone be better off. But he also argued that those who benefit economically from trade will see their political power increase, something that has certainly been borne out in the United States in the more than 20 years since his book was published. This makes it less likely that such compensation will occur, and we certainly haven't seen any policy in the U.S. that comes close to making everyone better off as a result of trade.

One small bit of comfort comes from Paul Krugman's book The Conscience of a Liberal (pp. 262-3). He provides us some reason to think that the Stolper-Samuelson Theorem isn't necessarily destiny, as he shows that the United State and Canada, two countries with the same factor endowments as each other, have distinctive differences in political outcomes, particularly with regard to unionization rates.

Overall, unfortunately, it looks like the answer to today's question is clear: freer trade has harmed, and is harming, the American middle class. But globalization is more than trade, and I will continue to analyze other elements of globalization in my next few posts.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

New Report Highlights Flaws of North Carolina Mega-Incentives

My new report for the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center, Special Deals, Special Problems--An Analysis of North Carolina's Legislature-Approved Economic Development Incentives, has just been published. It covers a range of issues I've emphasized here before as well as some basic considerations reporters really need to pay more attention to.

North Carolina has some of the best economic development practices in the country, in terms of online transparency, performance requirements, use of clawbacks for non-performance by companies, sunset clauses for tax expenditures, hard caps for many tax credit programs (see my report on these points), etc. The state publishes an economic development inventory I consider to be of very high quality and consistent with international definitions of a subsidy. The most recent edition shows that in the 2008-9 fiscal year the state spent about $1.2 billion on economic development, enough to hire 24,000 people at $50,000 a year in wages and benefits.

At the same time, however, the state has persistently had problems in overvaluing potential investments and consequently offering wildly excessive subsidies for them. The best known case is Dell in 2004, when Virginia offered the company a $37 million incentive package, while the state and local bid from North Carolina came to almost $300 million on a nominal basis ($174 million present value). Other deals discussed in the report are Google ($260 million nominal value, $140 million present value), Apple ($321 million over 30 years nominal value, no present value calculation available), and a provision in a 2011 special incentives bill to allow Alex Lee Inc. to keep $2 million it should have forfeited for not keeping job promises. This last case illustrates how special legislative deals weaken the state's performance requirements; this case will make future companies think that there may be no penalty for non-performance.

Reporters take note! This publication describes useful techniques for comparing the size of incentive packages regardless of project size or payout period of the incentive. From the European Union I borrow the term "aid intensity," which measures the size of the incentive relative to the amount of the investment or the number of jobs created. The idea is that a $1 million incentive would be large for a call center but a rounding error for an automobile assembly plant. As a result, we need a standardized way of comparing incentives.

While in this country one can sometimes find cost per job analyzed for some subsidy packages, the EU actually uses the subsidy/investment metric as its primary measure of aid intensity. In my last post I discussed a mall redevelopment which could conceivably have an aid intensity of 96%. For comparison purposes, we should note that the highest aid intensity allowed for large firms anywhere in the European Union, is 50%, and that is only allowed in the poorest regions of the EU, mainly in eastern Europe. (Richer regions have lower allowable maxima.) A region's maximum is cut by half for large projects over 50 million euro, and by 66% for spending over 100 million euro.

The other important concept is present value, a familiar one to accountants and economists, but not widely understood among the general public. The basic idea is simple: receiving a dollar today is worth more than receiving a dollar next year, which is worth more than receiving a dollar in two years, etc. Since incentive packages can pay out immediately (with a cash grant) or over a period of 30 or more years, we need to use present value to properly compare the size of incentives with different payout periods. This requires finding a a "discount rate" by which to reduce future payments. We then use the present value as the numerator in calculating aid intensity to be able to compare across different sizes of projects.

Using Google as an example, this $600 million project will receive $260 million over 30 years and create 210 jobs. As mentioned above, this is its nominal cost, before discounting the future dollars. Following the practice of a 1990s study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to compare subsidies among its then 23 members, I used a discount rate equal to the 10-year Treasury bond yield to come up with a present value of $140.6 million. Then the aid intensity is $140.6 million/$600 million, or 23%, and the cost per job at present value is $669,489. We can then use these two measures of aid intensity to compare the incentive to that given for other projects and inform our judgment of whether it was a better or worse deal than other states have made, in the current context where states make such deals all the time. Of course, I believe there should be limits placed on state and local governments so we can sharply reduce net incentive spending, which has few national benefits--but that is a long time in the future.

North Carolina provides an intriguing case study because it does so much right in economic development, but it makes special deals outside its statutory incentive programs. The result is high costs and weakened bargaining position in the future. It's a case we can learn a lot from.