Trade agreements were a major issue in the US presidential election. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump both made opposition to the Transpacific Partnership a central part of their respective campaigns, and the popularity of this position eventually forced Hillary Clinton to also oppose it. A number of mainstream economists even began to acknowledge that many working people actually had reason to be critical of globalization dynamics. These economists still held that globalization brought positive benefits to the country. The problem, in their opinion, was that the gains had not been equally distributed, with many workers, especially in manufacturing, suffering wage and employment losses. Of course, few offered meaningful suggestions for correcting the problem.
Now that Trump has been elected, economists again appear to be downplaying the negative consequences of globalization, arguing that it is technology, rather than globalization, that best explains the growth in inequality and worker insecurity. No doubt this stems from their concern that popular dissatisfaction with current economic conditions might grow from opposition to trade agreements into an actual challenge to contemporary globalization dynamics, which means capitalism itself.
Contemporary globalization dynamics are an expression of capitalism’s logic. Faced with profit pressures, leading firms in core countries began to internationalize their operations in the mid-1980s by shifting production to the third world. This internationalization process was shaped by the creation of cross border production networks or value chains. Firms would divide the production of their goods into multiple segments and then locate the individual segments in different third world countries.
Sometimes, these leading firms built and operated their own overseas production facilities, directly controlling the entire production process. More often, especially in electronics and telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, textiles and clothing, and automobiles, leading firms relied on “independent” partner firms to organize production under terms which still allowed them to direct operations and capture the majority of profits from sale of the final goods.
In broad brush, Japanese transnational corporations centered their product chains in China and several East Asian countries. US transnational corporations centered theirs in China, Mexico and several Caribbean countries. German transnational corporations centered theirs in China and several Central and Eastern European countries. China’s role in the global economy grew explosively because it was a favorite location for production and final assembly for transnational corporations from all three core countries.
One consequence of this development was that both the US trade deficit, especially with China, and the Chinese trade surplus, especially with the US, grew large. The chart below highlights this development, showing changes in size of the US and Chinese current account balances relative to their respective GDP.
The following chart looks just at the US trade balance and shows its dramatic decline beginning in the late 1990s.
US manufacturers were not alone in benefiting from the shift in production to lower cost third world countries. US retailers also gained as the lower costs allowed them to boost sales and profits. And the US financial industry also gained. The large deficits meant large dollar flows abroad which were returned for investment in financial instruments such as stocks and bonds. Moreover, as conditions worsened for growing numbers of working people in the US (more on that below), many were forced to borrow to maintain their life style which further expanded financial activity and profits. In addition, globalization has enabled many transnational corporations to shift profits to those countries with the lowest tax requirements, thereby further boosting their profitability and that of the financial sector.
Not surprisingly, the expansion of international production by US and other transnational corporations took its toll on US manufacturing workers. As Dean Baker explains:
As can be seen (in the chart below), manufacturing employment stayed close to 17.5 million from the early 1970s to 2000. We had plenty of productivity growth over these three decades, but little net change in manufacturing employment, in spite of cyclical ups and downs. It was declining as a share of total employment, which almost doubled over this period. Then, as the trade deficit explodes, we see manufacturing employment plummet. Note that most of the drop is before the Great Recession in 2008.
In other words, while it is true that manufacturing employment as a share of total US employment had been falling for some time, the dramatic decline in the number of workers employed in manufacturing dates to the period of rapid expansion of third world-centered international production networks.
Jared Bernstein and Dean Baker summarize the results of two studies that examine some of the costs paid by US workers for this global restructuring:
Trade deficits, even in times of strong growth, have negative, concentrated impacts on the quantity and quality of jobs in parts of the country where manufacturing employment diminishes. . . . There is, for example, a lot of research confirming that deindustrialization in the Rust Belt is partly a result of the fact that America meets its domestic demand for manufactured goods by importing more than it exports. One oft-cited academic study found that imbalanced trade with China led to the loss of more than 2 million U.S. jobs between 1991 and 2011, about half of which were in manufacturing (which worked out to 17 percent of manufacturing jobs overall during that time). Further, the economist Josh Bivens found that in 2011 the cost of imbalanced trade with low-wage countries cost workers without college degrees 5.5 percent of their annual earnings (about $1,800). Far from a small, isolated group, these workers represent two-thirds of the American workforce.
Unfortunately, many US workers have viewed globalization from a nation-state perspective, believing that third world workers, especially those in China and Mexico, are stealing their jobs. In reality, few workers employed in these product chains have enjoyed meaningful gains. For example, the number of manufacturing workers in China has also been falling. And growing numbers of them are forced to work long hours, in unsafe conditions, for extremely low wages. Firms operating in China as subcontractors for foreign multinational corporations are squeezed by these corporations to lower costs. They in turn employ a variety of tricks to lower worker wages and intensify the work process. And they do this with the approval of local government officials who want to maintain the production in their jurisdiction.
One common trick is to use employment agencies to provide them with students under so-called internship programs. As students, they are not considered workers under Chinese labor law and thus are not covered by such things as minimum wage laws, overtime benefit laws, and pensions. A recent study by China Labor Watch provides one example:
University students who worked summer jobs at one of China’s leading small-appliance factories were forced to live in cramped, ill-equipped dorm rooms, made to sweat through 12-hour days in a hot factory and then were stiffed on pay, according to a report by China Labor Watch and confirmed via interviews with students and the agents who hired them.
The 8,000-employee Cuori factory in Ningbo, south of Shanghai on China’s east coast, manufactures kitchen appliances, irons, heaters and vacuum cleaners under its own name and for such multinational firms as Cuisinart, Hamilton Beach and George Foreman. Stores in the U.S. carrying items made there include Walmart and Home Depot.
More often, the students are from technical schools and forced to accept jobs as part of their curriculum. This is just one way that firms operating within international production networks seek to push down wages to maximize their own profits and satisfy the demands of transnational corporations for low cost production.
Seen from this perspective the problem facing US workers, and those in Japan and Germany who face similar competitive pressures and downward movement in their living and working conditions, is not job theft by workers in the third world, but the working of contemporary capitalism. And this is the perspective needed to judge the likely policies of newly elected US president Donald Trump.
We already have two indicators that the Trump administration will do little to threaten contemporary globalization dynamics. During the campaign, Trump made big news when he told Carrier, an air-conditioning and furnace manufacturer, that the company would “pay a damn tax” if it carried out its plan to lay off some 1400 workers and close one of its factories in Indianapolis and move its production to Mexico. Later he said that if Carrier moved its Indianapolis production to Mexico he would, if President, levy a steep 35 percent tariff on any of its products coming back to the US from off-shore factories.
Well, on December 1, 2016, Trump announced the terms of the deal he worked out with Carrier. Carrier would “keep” 800 workers in its Indianapolis factory. But approximately 600 workers would still be laid off as the factory’s fan coil assembly line would still be moved to Mexico. And in exchange, the state of Indiana would provide Carrier with a $7 million subsidy including tax breaks and training grants. This is no attack on capitalist globalization. And when the president of the union at the factory voiced his disapproval of the agreement, Trump tweeted out that the union needed to “Spend more time working-less time talking. Reduce dues.”
As for Trump’s claim that we will look carefully at NAFTA to see if it should be rewritten, the US Chamber of Commerce has already gone on record in defense of NAFTA but welcoming its revision to incorporate issues like e-commerce that were not included at the time of its approval. In line with the Chamber’s confidence, a former Chamber lobbyist who has publicly defended NAFTA and outsourcing more generally has just been appointed to Trump’s transition team dealing with trade policy.
In short, if we are going to build a strong economy that works for the great majority of US workers we need to build a movement that is critical not just of the Transpacific Partnership but the entire process of capitalist globalization. Moreover, that movement needs to be built in ways that strengthen relations of solidarity with workers in and from other countries. And, it is critical to start the needed educational process now, before the new administration has a chance to trumpet new misleading initiatives and confuse people about the real threat to our well-being.