January 15, 2021
I have repeatedly raised the point that media accounts routinely use the term “free trade” when they can more accurately say simply “trade” or trade policy. It is amazing to me that this practice continues.
We saw it yet again in a NYT article on how many Republicans continue to be faithful to Trump even after last week’s coup attempt. The article told readers:
“Anthony Sabatini, a Florida state representative, described Ms. Cheney and other Republicans who voted for impeachment as ‘artifacts,’ saying they were out of step in a party that has embraced a more populist platform opposed to foreign interventions and skeptical of free trade.”
As I have pointed out endlessly, we do not have a policy of “free trade.” We do not allow foreign trained professionals, such as doctors and dentists, to freely practice in the United States. Our trade policy has been focused on reducing barriers to trade in manufactured goods, while leaving in place the barriers that protect the most highly paid professionals.
This has the effect of putting U.S. manufacturing workers in direct competition with low-paid workers in the developing world. This has the predicted and actual effect of lowering the pay of manufacturing workers in the United States. Since manufacturing has historically been a source of relatively high-paying jobs for workers without college degrees, the loss of good-paying jobs in manufacturing has put downward pressure on the pay of non-college educated workers more generally. This distributional impact has nothing to do with “free trade,” it is due to a policy of selective protectionism.
In the same vein, much of our trade policy has been focused on making our patent and copyright protections longer and stronger and imposing these rules on our trading partners. These protections are 180 degrees at odds with free trade; they are government granted monopolies. They also have the effect of redistributing income upward, to drug and software companies and people with skills in the relevant fields. Very few dishwashers and custodians benefit from patent rents or royalties from copyrights.
It would be helpful if the NYT and other media outlets could stop trying to pretend that the upward redistribution from globalization was some sort of natural process involving free trade. That is a Trumpian lie, and it would be good if the media stopped repeating it.