The truth about trade

These days, it’s not uncommon to hear two strangers – neither with a clue about what calculations go into GDP or how tariffs work – engaging in spirited arguments about what is best for the economy. It’s best not to engage when you hear that sort of stuff going on around you. It’s a big topic, and nuance is important.

So is historical perspective.

J. Bradford DeLong goes far back into time to look at the big shifts in work in making the point that the decline of low-skilled manufacturing was an inevitability, not primarily an issue in US trade policies.

From that super-long-run perspective, the past two-thirds of a century’s relative shift of jobs out of what we call manufacturing — a word that in its origins is Latin for “making things with our hands” — is just the latest of a number of shifts that have taken place.

  • First, we lost a great many jobs in hunting and gathering, as agriculture and herding animals came in.

  • Second, with the domestication of the horse around 2000 BC, we started the process of losing the jobs that involved dragging heavy things around: Horses could pull more and could be largely paid in grass. (A bonus: They found the grass themselves.)

  • Third, the arrival of first practical and then theoretical understanding of what was up with nitrogen in the soil and plant growth started the process of losing jobs in agriculture: Each farmer could do more. That process has carried farmers down from three-fourths of the labor force to as small a proportion today as “gardeners, groundskeepers, and growers of ornamental plants,” according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

  • Fourth, the coming of water-driven and then steam-driven spinning and weaving destroyed millions of home craftwork jobs — and sent the family of future Gilded Age robber baron steelmaster Andrew Carnegie fleeing from a Scotland ridden by death by starvation to the United States.

Josh here – Today, the Trump administration just officially shit-canned TPP and is in the process of renegotiating NAFTA. This may or may not work out in the country’s favor. I don’t think it’s necessary to have a hard and fast opinion just yet. But you should be armed with some facts about what is “job-killing” and what isn’t.

DeLong’s piece is a good place to start if you’re interested in facts.


NAFTA and other trade deals have not gutted American manufacturing — period (Vox)

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