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Twenty years after its establishment, the World Trade Organization finally reached its first global trade deal last night at the meeting of the world’s trade ministers in Bali. The successful agreement foiled expectations that this meeting, like all others of the Doha Round, would end in failure and acrimony. Media outlets have been reporting the Peterson Institute’s estimate of $1 trillion in higher global output as a result of the deal, but what’s most interesting about the deal is that it happened only because the member states decided to focus on a narrow slice of the issues under discussion in the Doha Round. The deal focuses mostly on streamlining customs procedures to facilitate timely cross-border transportation, along with measures to eliminate tariff and quota barriers against exports from “least developed countries” to richer countries, to reduce agricultural export subsidies (here the deal merely makes a “strong political statement” and doesn’t require specific changes in law), and to permit developing countries’ governments to stockpile food.

Why did it happen? Ten days ago, after talks in Geneva, WTO head Roberto Azevedo warned that global trade talks would collapse if ministers did not narrow down the scope of their deliberations to issues on which consensus was achievable. Global trade talks have been bogged down over the last 20 years over severe distributional issues: developing-country governments want sharp cuts in rich-world agricultural subsidies, tariffs, and quotas, while rich-country governments want their poorer counterparts to cut trade barriers on services, beef up intellectual-property enforcement, and liberalize foreign investment. None of those big issues were solved in Geneva and Bali. A narrow deal on customs procedures happened because the distributional and enforcement issues here are far less severe. Few governments have any interest in holding up traffic at the border longer than necessary. Simplifying customs procedures is more like a coordination game than a Prisoner’s Dilemma: everyone benefits if forms are standardized and simplified. Rich-country governments also promised poor-country governments help with hiring customs officials to help speed up processes.

The conventional wisdom in international relations is that a broad scope of issues helps international organizations solve distributional problems, all else equal, because broad scope makes it easier for governments to trade off gains to one side on one dimension with gains to the other on another dimension. But all else was not equal here: some issues faced much lower distributional conflict than others, and on those it was relatively easy for governments to reach agreement. They chose to go for a small deal rather than a big one because, frankly, the WTO needed a win. Another collapse of talks would have called into question whether multilateral trade liberalization is even possible.

This deal does not end the Doha Round. Talks will continue on the “big issues” mentioned above. This is fortunate, since the Bali deal does little to reduce the extent to which U.S. and European agricultural policies kill poor people. While the deal helps with market access for least developed countries, essentially all rich countries have already implemented duty-free, quota-free access for these countries’ exports, and least developed countries contain merely 12% of the world’s population and less than half of those living in extreme poverty. There need to be binding legal limits, actionable before the Dispute Settlement Body, on agricultural subsidies, quotas, and tariffs in rich countries.

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Nick Gillespie notes in a recent post:

[I]f working on Reason Saves Cleveland taught me one thing, it’s that there’s no simple solution to urban decline. Some of it is simply historical – the Northeast is not going to dominate American business and culture that way it did 100 years ago and cities such as Cleveland or Buffalo or Detroit will never regain their earlier populations or the density at which they lived…

But it’s also clear that private and public sector boosters are always more interested in laying big bets on giant development deals that won’t transform a city or region even if they happen to work out perfectly. What makes and keeps places livable and attractive are the smaller-ticket items, such as quality of basic services such as roads, law enforcement, business climate, schools, taxes, and regulations. These aren’t sexy items but they are the things that actually keep cities thriving.

I think Nick’s right that policy fixes will not be enough to restore places like Buffalo to past glories, though New York’s high-cost regulatory regime does harm upstate New York. International economic factors have made most of the U.S. Rust Belt uncompetitive: their legacy industries are in long-term decline.

This observation might seem to pose a problem for economic theory. The theory of comparative advantage shows that every economy benefits from free trade with the rest of the world, a conclusion that “new trade theory” has not overturned. But what about America’s former industrial heartlands? Surely they have lost out to competition from Japan and China (and Tennessee).

But in fact, Buffalo has benefited from comparative advantage and trade with the world. If Buffalo enacted trade barriers to Japanese and Chinese goods, Buffalo’s people would be worse off. Buffalo’s industrial decline happened not because Buffalo firms could no longer sell to Buffalo consumers, but because Buffalo firms could no longer sell to American consumers. The Rust Belt used to have a captive consumer audience; their potential Asian competitors were shut out of a relatively sheltered U.S. market (in part not because of trade barriers or even high shipping costs, but because in global context in the 1950s, Buffalo’s economy was capital-intensive and its labor force highly skilled). In that environment, Buffalo firms could compete. So yes, Buffalo might well be better off if the U.S. shut out foreign trade in automobiles, cereal, and other goods still manufactured in the area. In the same way, the U.S. might be better off if all of the Americas, say, shut out non-U.S. imports of semiconductors and wheat, but that does not mean the U.S. would be better off shutting out those imports on its own. (Arguably, preferential trade agreements like NAFTA and CAFTA are precisely aimed at giving U.S.-made goods an advantage over the Japanese and Europeans in nearby countries.) In the end, then, there seems to be no problem for the theory of comparative advantage. The theory does not say that the best of all possible worlds for every economy is a situation in which every other economy is free-trading. The terms of trade still matter.

But there remains a subtler problem for comparative advantage in the experiences of Buffalo, Detroit, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh. Why have these cities seen net out-migration as a response to changing economic fortunes? The theory of comparative advantage suggests that in response to growing trade, people will retool and start to specialize in new lines of business. Moving away just isn’t part of the model. So why has the Buffalo metropolitan area lost people in every decade since the 1960s?

To answer this question, we need to look to transaction cost economics. A transaction cost is the cost associated with a particular exchange, the toll you have to pay just to be able to make a trade, in addition to the price you pay for the good or service itself.

Trade in goods and services, movement of capital, and movement of labor (migration) are all substitutes, in that they have essentially the same distributional and aggregate consequences, in the absence of transaction costs. But each of these types of transactions does face some costs. Trade in goods and services faces shipping costs, but there are also problems with trading goods when contracts are unenforceable or there are monopoly markets. In these cases, you might be better off investing rather than trading. For instance, Nike knows something special about designing and marketing footwear. Why don’t they just sell their good ideas to startup manufacturers in Vietnam? Because it’s difficult to enforce that kind of contract in ideas: what ideas exactly would the startup be buying, how could it evaluate their worth without examining them before buying, and if they examine them before buying, what’s to stop them from using the ideas without paying? Because of these problems, Nike chooses instead to direct-invest in Vietnam, building its own factories.

Direct investment faces transaction costs too: risks of expropriation, difficulties in managing across continents, etc. So sometimes firms trade rather than invest.

And workforces migrate. Why? Because transaction costs in trade and investment limit the extent to which those mechanisms of globalization can raise workers’ incomes. In the 19th century, European workers moved en masse to the New World because globalization wasn’t raising their wages fast enough. Shipping costs were high, though falling, and multinational investment was rare outside a few industries like railroads, mines, and large-scale agriculture concerns. Moreover, total factor productivity was lower in many European countries because of their dysfunctional political systems. It’s no accident that so many Italians, Germans, Irish, and Poles fled their homelands in the latter half of the 19th century, while comparatively few French, Swiss, Dutch, and even British (considering their common language with their former colonies) did so.

So why have workers fled Buffalo? The introduction of air conditioning has made southern climates more pleasant, to be sure, but Sioux Falls, South Dakota is colder than Buffalo and has actually attracted people. Buffalo has a comparative advantage now in relatively low-tech, labor-intensive manufacturing, by developed-world standards, rather like, say, Tennessee. But Tennessee attracts foreign direct investment, while upstate New York does not, even though upstate New York has had a workforce already trained in industries like auto parts manufacturing. Here we can look for policy explanations: politicians impose transaction costs that prevent workers in upstate New York from exploiting their comparative advantage. Favorable conditions for collective bargaining and expensive business regulations may not hamstring the financial economy of Manhattan, but they do harm upstate New York. Tennessee and South Dakota lack those regulatory obstacles.

So there we have it: in the absence of New York’s heavy regulatory burden, globalization would still have caused upstate New York incomes to decline, but net outmigration probably would have been significantly less.

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I teach my undergraduates that trade has no long-run effect on aggregate employment. I teach it because it’s right, and very few economists would disagree. Tyler Cowen’s recent postings on MR about the negative employment effects of trade have the potential to mislead. To the extent that trade and technology correlate with persistent disemployment in local areas, this is a reason to think that there are structural inefficiencies in the labor market. If these structural rigidities exist, then it can be hard for people who lose jobs to get new ones. Anything that disrupts existing employment patterns — trade, technology, macroeconomic changes like price shocks — will then associate with employment declines.

What are these structural inefficiencies? For market monetarists, the “zero lower bound” is a favorite. But we’re now five years out from the NGDP shock that plausibly caused the big increase in U.S. unemployment. The rise in the minimum wage, the extensions of unemployment insurance, the expansion of welfare programs like food stamps, and perhaps most importantly, housing lock-in due to the collapse of the real-estate bubble are all plausible candidates. But these structural rigidities deserve the real blame for disemployment, not trade and technology. Blaming trade and technology is a bit like blaming the weather. Labor markets will always be disrupted by something or other. Policy makers cannot insulate an economy from shocks. What they can do is gum up the works so that the economy cannot respond nimbly to these shocks.

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Seth Cohn wins Commenter of the Day for getting all three answers to my Middle-Earth quiz right. Here are the answers with brief logic:

1. The Shire will export Longbottom leaf and import mithril armor and iron ore. (Logic: Being abundant in land and scarce in labor and capital, The Shire can make leaf more cheaply than other countries but is a high-cost producer of the others. This is known as the Heckscher-Ohlin Theorem.)

2. The price of Longbottom leaf will fall and the price of mithril armor rise in Gondor. (Logic: We can infer that Gondor exports mithril armor and imports Longbottom leaf from its factor endowments. According to the Theory of Comparative Advantage, opening up to trade reduces the price of the imported good and increases the price of the good that is now in demand in foreign markets.)

3. Owners of labor (workers) support free trade in Mordor, while capital and land support protection. (Logic: Workers benefit from free trade in goods and services in Mordor because free trade will raise the relative price of iron ore and reduce the relative prices of the other goods, since labor is the abundant factor of production and Mordor will export iron. The increase in the price of iron ore, which uses labor intensively, bids up wages of workers throughout the economy. For the same reasons, owners of scarce capital and land oppose trade because their incomes will be bid down. This is known as the Stolper-Samuelson Theorem.)

Update: Fellow Pileite Grover Cleveland reminds me that it is quite unusual to see a “politician” who is well versed in economic theory. Yes, Seth Cohn is a New Hampshire legislator – but not exactly a professional politician at $100 in salary per year.

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Seen on an International Political Economy quiz:

The world of Middle-Earth has become largely peaceful, and international trade is growing. The Shire, Gondor, and Mordor are three countries in Middle-Earth. The Shire is abundant in land and scarce in labor and capital; Gondor is abundant in labor and capital and scarce in land; Mordor is abundant in labor and scarce in land and capital. Some of the products these countries trade include Longbottom leaf (produced intensively with land), mithril chain-mail armor (produced intensively with labor and capital), and raw iron ore (produced intensively with labor).

Questions:

  1. If you had to guess, which product(s) do you think the Shire imports, and which product(s) do they export?
  2. What would you predict to happen to the prices of Longbottom leaf and mithril chain-mail armor in Gondor after Gondor opens up to trade with the outside world?
  3. In Mordor, owners of which factor(s) of production tend to support free trade in the long run, and which factor owners tend to support protection instead?

First commenter to get all three answers right wins Commenter of the Day with a nice, big, fancy, front-page post and everything.

UPDATE FROM EDITOR: See here for the Answers and Winner.

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