Princeton economist Uwe Reinhardt had an interesting post on trade last week on the NYT website that will probably spark some debate. He writes:
The economist’s case for free trade is cobbled together from the toolkit labeled normative economics, a branch of economic analysis that seeks to identify what is efficient and what is not and, thus, what is good policy and what is not — and, therefore, what should and should not be done.
I have already written several posts that were critical of that branch of economics. My objection to this approach is the dictatorial, collectivist nature of normative analysis.
In a nutshell, in that branch of inquiry, economists view the world as a giant cattle farm to be managed in ways that maximize the collective weight of the cattle, totally in abstraction from the welfare of any individual animal. We call the collective weight of the cattle social welfare.
The cattle-farm model then allows us to say, with a straight face, that if a public policy bestows a gain of $2,000 on George but makes Martha $1,000 poorer, social welfare has been increased.
This dictum underlies the economist’s case for free trade. The cattle farm is global. Free-trade analysis pays little attention to the love people have for their own nation, which makes them assign more weight to the welfare of fellow citizens than to that of citizens of other countries.
The post - along with Reinhardt's post from last month - couldn't have come at a more appropriate time.
Many proponents of what they deem "free trade" (not to mention "free trade agreements" that have little to do with actual free trade) have been ramping up the cattle farm happy talk recently.
Take for instance this well-assembled video clip on the virtues of "free trade". I highly recommend the three minute clip, because it captures exactly what is wrong with the cattle farm metaphors.
In the simple world of Fritz and Lou (the characters in the clip), free trade makes about as much sense, as well, a division of labor at your workplace or home. That's because the simple stories we use to talk about the benefits of division of labor between individuals are at their core the same stories we use to talk about the benefits of trade between nations.
But nations are different than people, because there's more than one person in a nation. And as the recent protests in Wisconsin remind us, there is a class division in America. The trade policies that we have pursued have benefited one (increasingly tiny but insanely wealthy) class at the expense of another. And not only has the upper class not been redistributing their newfound gains to the rest of us (an operating assumption that underpins the classical free trade story), but they're actually calling for ripping off the few bandaids and burial insurance policies that are in place.
This themes are are also raised in "Free Trade Doesn't Work," a readable book by Ian Fletcher, now a fellow with the Coalition for a Prosperous America. Reinhardt and Fletcher are asking many of the same questions, making many supporters of status quo trade policies uncomfortable in the process.