Obama Laments Inequality

Yesterday President Obama, speaking to a room full of corporate executives, tried to downplay the contribution of corporate-pushed trade deals to the historic rise in U.S. income inequality.

Obama knew his audience — corporate representatives eager to expand the status quo trade model by Fast Tracking through Congress the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) are probably keen to deny that this model has been exacerbating inequality.

But such denial defies a consensus position among economists that recent trade flows have indeed contributed to today’s yawning gap between rich and poor — the only debate is how big of a role status quo trade has played.

It also defies U.S. public opinion — in a recent Pew poll, a mere 17 percent of the U.S. public thought that trade has boosted U.S. wages, while 45 percent, across the political spectrum, saw trade as contributing to falling wages for U.S. workers.

Obama acknowledged yesterday that TPP proponents will have a tough time arguing that this time is different — that reviving Fast Track authority in attempt to push through Congress another more-of-the-same trade pact would not fuel further inequality growth. Fast Track was the Nixon-created maneuver that allowed the executive branch to railroad through Congress controversial, inequality-spurring pacts like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) by negotiating and signing the pacts before Congress got an expedited, no-amendments, limited-debate vote.  A study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research finds that were the TPP to be Fast Tracked through Congress, all but the wealthiest among us would lose more to inequality increases than we would gain in cheaper goods, spelling a pay cut for 90 percent of U.S. workers.

Recognizing the unpopularity of Fast Track and the TPP, Obama told the business executives: “There are folks in my own party and in my own constituency that have legitimate complaints about some of the trend lines of inequality, but are barking up the wrong tree when it comes to opposing TPP, and I’m going to have to make that argument.”

Having to make that argument is not an enviable position — it requires explaining away decades of evidence that Fast-Tracked deals have fostered greater U.S. income inequality.  Here’s a sampling of that evidence:

U.S. Wages Stagnate, Despite Doubled Worker Productivity

U.S. wages barely increased in real terms since 1974, the year before Fast Track was first enacted, even as American worker productivity doubled.In 1974, the average hourly wage for American workers in today’s dollars was $19.24, while in 2014 it is up only 7 percent to $20.56. Over the same period, U.S. workers’ productivity more than doubled. Economists now widely name “increased globalization and trade openness” as a key explanation for the unprecedented failure of wages to keep pace with productivity, as noted in recent Federal Reserve Bank research. Even economists who defend status-quo trade policies attribute much of the wage-productivity disconnect to a form of “labor arbitrage.”

* Trade agreement investor privileges promote offshoring of production from the United States to low-wage nations. Today’s “trade” agreements contain various investor privileges that reduce many of the risks and costs previously associated with relocating production from developed countries to low-wage developing countries. Thus, many imports now entering the United States come from companies originally located in the United States and other wealthy countries that have moved production to low-wage countries. For instance, nearly half of China’s exports are now produced by foreign enterprises, not Chinese firms. Underlying this trend is what the Horizon Project called the “growing divergence between the national interests of the United States and the interests of many U.S. multinational corporations which, if given their druthers, seem tempted to offshore almost everything but consumption.” American workers effectively are now competing in a globalized labor market where some poor nations’ workers earn less than 10 cents per hour.

* Manufacturing workers displaced by trade have taken significant pay cuts. The United States has lost millions of manufacturing jobs during the Fast Track era, but overall unemployment has been largely stable (excluding recessions) as new low-paying service sector jobs have been created. Proponents of status quo trade raise the quantityof jobs to claim that Fast Tracked deals have not hurt U.S. workers. But what they do not mention is that the quality of jobs available, and the wages most U.S. workers can earn, have been degraded. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, about three out of every five displaced manufacturing workers who were rehired in 2014 experienced a wage reduction. About one out of every three displaced manufacturing workers took a pay cut of greater than 20 percent. For the average manufacturing worker earning more than $47,000 per year, this meant an annual loss of at least $10,000.

* Trade policy holds back wages even of jobs that can’t be offshored. Economists have known for more than 70 years that all workers with similar skill levels – not just manufacturing workers – will face downward wage pressure when U.S. trade policy creates a selective form of “free trade” in goods that non-professional workers produce. When workers in manufacturing are displaced and seek new jobs, they add to the supply of U.S. workers available for non-offshorable, non-professional jobs in hospitality, retail, health care and more. As increasing numbers of American workers, displaced from better-paying jobs by current trade policies, have joined the glut of workers competing for these non-offshorable jobs, real wages have actually been declining in these growing sectors.

* The bargaining power of American workers has been eroded by threats of offshoring. In the past, American workers represented by unions were able to bargain for their fair share of economic gains generated by productivity increases. But the investor protections in today’s trade agreements, by facilitating the offshoring of production, alter the power dynamic between workers and their employers. For instance, a study for the North American Commission on Labor Cooperation – the body established in the labor side agreement of NAFTA – showed that after passage of NAFTA, as many as 62 percent of U.S. union drives faced employer threats to relocate abroad, and the factory shut-down rate following successful union certifications tripled.

* Even accounting for Americans’ access to cheaper imported goods, the current trade model’s downward pressure on wages outweighs those gains, making most Americans net losers.  Trade theory states that while those specific workers who lose their jobs due to imports may suffer, the vast majority of us gain from trade “liberalization” because we can buy cheaper imported goods. But when the non-partisan Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) applied the actual data to the trade theory, they discovered that when you compare the lower prices of cheaper goods to the income lost from low-wage competition under current policies, the trade-related losses in wages hitting the vast majority of American workers outweigh the gains in cheaper goods from trade. U.S. workers without college degrees (63 percent of the workforce) have lost an amount equal to 12.2 percent of their wages, even after accounting for the benefits of cheaper goods. That means a net loss of more than $3,400 per year for a worker earning the median annual wage of $28,000.

Income Inequality Increases in America

The inequality between rich and poor in America has jumped to levels not seen since the robber baron eraThe richest 10 percent of Americans are now taking more than half of the economic pie, while the top 1 percent is taking more than one fifth. Wealthy individuals’ share of national income was stable for the first several decades after World War II, but shot up 51 percent for the richest 10 percent and 146 percent for the richest 1 percent between 1974 and 2012 – the Fast Track era. Is there a connection to trade policy?

* Longstanding economic theory states that trade will increase income inequality in developed countries. In the 1990s a spate of economic studies put the theory to the test, resulting in an academic consensus that trade flows had indeed contributed to rising U.S. income inequality. The pro-“free trade” Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE), for example, found that nearly 40 percent of the increase in U.S. wage inequality was attributable to U.S. trade flows. In 2013, when the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) updated an oft-cited 1990s model estimate of trade’s impact on U.S. income inequality, it found that using the model’s own conservative assumptions, one third of the increase in U.S. income inequality from 1973 to 2011 – the Fast Track era – was due to trade with low-wage countries. The role of trade escalated rapidly from 1995 to 2011 – a period marked by a series of Fast-Tracked “free trade” deals – EPI found that 93 percent of the rise in income inequality during this period resulted from trade flows. Expressed in dollar terms, EPI estimates that trade’s inequality-exacerbating impact spelled a $1,761 loss in wages in 2011 for the average full-time U.S. worker without a college degree.

* Changes in technology or education levels do not fully account for American wage pressures. Some have argued that advances in computer technology explain why less technologically-literate American workers have been left behind, asserting that more education – rather than a different trade policy – is how America will prosper in the future. While more education and skills are desirable for many reasons, these goals alone will not solve the problems of growing inequality. First, as documented in a Federal Reserve Bank paper, inequality started rising as systematic U.S. trade deficits emerged, in the early Fast Track period, far before most workers reported using computers on the job. Second, college-educated workers have seen their wage growth stagnate, even in technologically sophisticated fields like engineering. Thus, addressing trade policy, not only better educating American workers, will be an essential part of tackling rising income inequality.

Ben Beachy is Research Director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch.

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