Trade Agreements and Transitional Costs for Workers

As with many aspects of economic policy, political leadership – such as it is – often snatches defeat from the jaws of victory.  Presently, the United States has the opportunity to sign trade agreements with Columbia, South Korea, and Panama that will provide great opportunities for U.S. exporters without having to offer special privileges or changes in domestic markets related to products from these countries.

Why might Columbia, South Korea, and Panama want to sign these apparently one-sided agreements?  One answer is their economies would benefit greatly from better access to goods from the U.S.  Why have we resisted signing these agreements?  Many advocates in these country believe that trade hurts domestic workers.   This certainly is true in the short run for workers whose jobs end because the products they produce no longer are competitive with imports.  It’s also true when capital investment, often spurred by low interest rates, encourages the substitution of capital for labor.  Neither of these concerns, however, are pertinent for the trade policy opportunities before us.

Passage of the aforementioned trade deals seems to be based on support for expanded trade assistance, a policy that provides specific benefits to some who can prove that they have lost jobs as a consequence of import competition.  Matthew Slaughter and Robert Lawrence in today’s Opinion Pages of the New York Times argue that both more trade and more aid make sense, but the aid should not be specifically focused on those who allegedly lost jobs as a result of imports.  They propose an innovative program that combines the existing trade adjustment policy with unemployment compensation benefits to create a new, more efficient safety net that, among other things,  helps workers retool for different jobs and provides funds for health insurance in the interim.

I hope, but am not too optimistic, that our Congressional leaders, will recognize the equity and efficiency improvements offered by both the trade deals and the Slaughter-Lawrence proposal, pass the trade agreements for the aforementioned countries, and craft a new, improved safety net designed to help with labor market and structural unemployment transitions.