A number of people have asked me to comment on a new paper by Jonathan Rothwell, which criticizes a study by Autor, Dorn and Hanson (ADH) on the impact of Chinese imports on the US job market.
I conclude that the economic losses from trade are not as severe as the economics literature currently implies. Workers in the most import-exposed sectors face a risk of layoff and unemployment that is comparable to workers in other sectors, where competition comes almost exclusively from domestic businesses. While it is likely that less import competition would further lower the risk of displacement and boost wages for manufacturing workers, less competition would likely lead to a reduction in the ratio of product quality to price and a drop in consumer welfare. I accept the Autor et al. (2014) finding that import competition lowers wages for U.S. workers in the affected industries — but even still, I find that workers in the manufacturing sector continue to earn a sizable wage premium compared to those with similar experience and education levels in other sectors.
At the community level, these results should not be taken to mean that de-industrialization has been harmless to individuals or even communities. Rather, the results imply that deindustrialization as a result of Chinese import competition plays out no differently than deindustrialization as a result of other forces — such as domestic competition or technological change. Communities relying more heavily on industries facing import competition perform no worse in this study on summary measures of economic development and consistently show higher growth rates in establishments. They seem to find ways to adapt, maintain wage growth and launch new enterprises.
That’s what I would have expected. Not surprisingly, Autor, Dorn and Hanson contest Rothwell’s study.
Regardless of whether Rothwell is right or wrong, the press has done an extremely poor job in reporting the ADH study. Trade economists already knew that specific industries, and even communities, can be hurt by import competition. The press has suggested that the ADH study shows that China trade resulted in a net job loss to the US, a finding that really would be new. But as Paul Krugman and I keep pointing out that’s just not so. Their study is completely consistent with zero net job loss to the US. That’s because the study looked at the period of 1990-2007, when monetary offset was fully engaged. So there’s no plausible AD channel. Of course you can make other arguments, but you can’t show aggregate effects with a cross-sectional study.
All the press coverage of ADH is much ado about nothing. Maybe China did hurt the overall US labor market, but their study doesn’t show it. I’m not surprised that the press ignores me, but I am a bit surprised they ignore Krugman, particularly since he has occasionally argued that China was stealing US jobs during the Great Recession. No one can claim his critique of ADH was based on ideological bias.
PS. Nor can Autor, Dorn and Hanson be accused of ideological bias. For instance, they favor TPP.
PPS. Before you try defending ADH based on non-AD channel arguments, you might consider that at various times in their paper they imply they do have an AD channel in mind. For instance, when contrasting Germany’s trade surplus with the US trade deficit.