Trade didn’t create inequality, and then it did.
I typed this article on a laptop that was made in China.
Everything I own was made in China.
Everything you own was made in China, too. In 1979, when the Great Divergence began, you and I didn't own anything made in China. With Mao only three years in the grave, China still had a sluggish centrally planned economy. In that year, Mao's successor, Deng Xiaoping, decided enough was enough and inaugurated various market reforms.
"Black Cat, white cat," the Communist leader famously said. "What does it matter what color the cat is as long as it catches mice?"
Since 1979, China has caught a stunning quantity of mice, raising the annual value of its exports a hundredfold. In 2007, China displaced the U.S. as the world's second-biggest exporter, and in 2009 it displaced Germany as the world's biggest exporter. That year, China's per capita gross national income was $6,710-compared to $47,240 in the U.S.-and the U.S.'s trade deficit with China stood at @227 billion. Given China’s aggressively mercantilist trade policy and its12
weren’t really doing high-tech work, Krugman wrote. They were grabbing sophisticated China
Did China—and growing trade competition from other low-wage nations—cause the Great
Two decades ago, Adrian Wood, a British economist, started arguing that trade with low-wage
countries lowered wages for unskilled workers in developed countries. “There is a clear inverse
experienced larger falls in manufacturing employment.” But in the United States, Wood had to
concede, imports of manufactured goods from low-wage countries still totaled less than 3 percent
of gross domestic product. By itself, that wasn’t enough to displace many workers. Wood
answered by arguing the effects were subtle and indirect. For example, he wrote that imports
from low-wage countries required more labor than other goods, and therefore displaced more
U.S. workers than imports from high-wage countries.
Most leading economists in the U.S. didn’t buy it. Paul Krugman (then at MIT, now at Princeton)
and Robert Z. Lawrence (then at the Brookings Institution, now at Harvard), argued that
international trade had played a much smaller role in U.S. manufacturing’s decline than had
domestic considerations. Among these, ironically, was the U.S. manufacturing sector’s own
efficiency, which had lowered prices on consumer products and therefore on the proportion of
U.S. spending on goods (TVs, refrigerators, groceries) as opposed to services (CT scans, legal
advice, college tuition). Between 1970 and 1990, the prices of U.S. goods relative to services had
fallen by nearly one-quarter. “Although the effect of foreign competition is measurable,” Krugman and Lawrence concluded, “it can by no means account for the stagnation of U.S.
Two decades later, Krugman decided his earlier analysis no longer held up. “My argument was
always yes, Krugman told me. But in the 1990s there simply weren’t enough of them. That changed in the aughts. In a Institution, Krugman observed that the United States had in 2006 crossed “an important watershed: we now import more manufactured goods from the third world than from other advanced economies.” Imports of manufactured goods that came from less-developed nations
had more than doubled as a percentage of gross domestic product, from 2.5 percent in 1990 to 6
percent in 2006. Moreover, the wage levels in the countries ramping up U.S. trade the fastest—
Mexico and China—were considerably lower than the wage levels in the countries whose
increased U.S. trade had created worry in the 1990s—South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong,
Singapore. The Southeast Asian nations had, in 1990, paid workers about 25 percent of what
U.S. workers received. By 1995 they paid 39 percent—demonstrating, reassuringly, that lowwage
developing countries that undergo rapid economic growth don’t stay low-wage for long.
But as of 2005, Mexico and China paid 11 percent and 3 percent, respectively. “It’s likely,”
Krugman concluded, “that the rapid growth of trade since the early 1990s has had significant
Lawrence,, looking at the same new data, continued to believe that trade did not affect
income inequality to any great extent. Lawrence focused on the fact that China was increasingly
exporting computers and other sophisticated electronics. To depress the wages of lower-skilled
workers in the United States, Lawrence reasoned, China would have to compete with American
firms that employed lower-skilled workers. But the U.S. tech sector doesn’t, for the most part,
employ lower-skilled workers. It employs higher-skilled workers. If trade with China were
throwing anybody out of work, Lawrence concluded, “it is likely to be … workers with relatively
high wages.” And in fact, Lawrence wrote, during the first decade of the 21
very little measured increase in income inequality “by skill, education, unionization or
occupation.” Income inequality did increase through the aughts, but that was because incomes
soared at the tippy top of the income-distribution scale, where just about everybody had a college
degree, and often a graduate degree, too. It didn’t increase because less-skilled workers got
squeezed—or rather, it didn’t increase because less-skilled workers got squeezed any more than
they did during the previous two decades. At the very bottom, incomes actually edged up
Krugman wasn’t convinced by his former collaborator’s argument. “There is good reason to
believe that the apparent sophistication of developing country exports is, in reality, largely a
statistical illusion,” he answered in his Brookings paper. Unskilled laborers paid a pittance in
components manufactured in more advanced and higher-paid economies like
Japan, , Ireland
, and they were slapping them together on an assembly line. That United States
couldn’t be good news for less-skilled workers in the
, though Krugman said he United States
couldn’t quantify the effect without “a much better understanding of the increasingly finegrained nature of international specialization and trade.”
Where does that leave us? Trade does not appear to have contributed much to the Great
Divergence through the mid-1990s. Since then, it may have contributed to it more significantly,
though we don’t yet have the data to quantify it. With trade more than with most topics, the
economics profession is struggling to interpret a reality that may not fit the familiar models.
12 This logic was laid out in a 1941 paper by economists Paul Samuelson and Wolfgang Stolper.
13 Krugman also argued, in his 1994 book Peddling Prosperity, that if trade were creating greater income inequality
U.S., one would expect to see it creating greater income equality in, say, , which “ships low-skill Mexico
goods to the United States and imports high-skill goods in return.” But income inequality, Krugman wrote, was
. That was true at the time, but the trend has since reversed itself. For the past decade and a half income inequality has been decreasing in Mexico . Mexico