Who Pays the Price for Globalization?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Along with automation, the force that has caused the largest number of U.S. job losses is globalization. Jobs that used to be done by American workers are being shipped overseas, in a never-ending quest for lower-paid workers. But some American workers are being hurt by this more than others.

To understand who is suffering the most from globalization, it helps to consider what makes this economic environment possible. A major reason is free trade agreements with foreign countries, removing tariffs that used to shelter American industries. The argument for international trade is that it lowers costs for everyone, and I must agree that much (though not all) of the Chinese-made merchandise that fills the shelves at WalMart is priced lower than equivalent American-made goods.

On the other hand, even if you set aside the arguments against globalization (for example, the problem of China’s manipulation of its currency to depress the dollar cost of its goods), you cannot pretend that globalization has no adverse effects within the United States. Even if it’s too late to reverse globalization, policy-makers must recognize whom it damages and take appropriate measures to mitigate the damage.

Therefore it’s significant that last week Congress issued a little-noticed report (PDF here) on this topic, called “Nowhere to Go: Geographic and Occupational Immobility and Free Trade.” The report was written by the staff of Sen. Bob Casey for his role as chairman of the Congressional Joint Economic Committee.

The report notes that the chief American victims of free trade are older workers and those with less education. These two groups are concentrated in the manufacturing sector of the economy, the sector that has been undermined the most by competition from foreign countries.

These older workers are closer to retirement and therefore may be reluctant or unable to invest the time required to acquire the new skill sets needed for the industries that remain in the U.S., such as high technology, finance, and health care.

Occupational mobility often requires physical mobility: the ability to relocate to find work. Physical mobility also can allow workers to find new jobs in the same occupation as the job that was eliminated. But older workers are the least likely to move, both locally and over long distances. One important reason for this is that older workers are more likely to be homeowners and therefore may be tied down by the slow-moving real estate market we have been experiencing for several years now. Many are stuck with a mortgage that exceeds the market value of their house. And although older workers tend to have better-developed networks than younger workers, useful for finding work, the networks usually are anchored in the workers’ local community. If the community has few jobs, the network is of little help, but the displaced worker is reluctant to attempt to find a job in another location where he or she has no network in place.

The congressional report outlines the problem well but gives short shrift to solutions. I would suggest the following:
  • Education has to be made more affordable, especially at community colleges. During the Cold War, aid to education was considered a matter of national defense. That has not really changed.
  • We need to invest more in our infrastructure, which supports manufacturing (and, for that matter, all aspects of the economy)
  • We need to run our manufacturing sector more on the German model, as I wrote in a blog a few weeks ago.
  • We need to require that banks renegotiate mortgages for properties that are underwater. Most of these homeowners did not take on mortgages larger than they could afford but rather are victims of a general decline in real estate values. If homeowners can pay off their mortgages, they can relocate to where the jobs are.
Will Congress move on any of these measures? That seems unlikely, but it’s worth remembering that older workers are also the most likely voters.


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