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The Disconnect Between Economists and the Public in Assessing Free Trade (Video)

by
Robert Reich
Contributor
Robert B. Reich is Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. He served as Secretary of Labor in the…
Robert Reich

Free trade is figuring prominently in the upcoming presidential election. Donald Trump is against it. Hillary Clinton has expressed qualms. 

Economists still think free trade benefits most Americans, but
according to polls, only 35% of voters agree. 

Why this discrepancy? 

Because
economists support any policy that improves efficiency and they typically
define a policy as efficient if the people who benefit from it could compensate
those who lose from it and still come out ahead. 

But this way of looking at
things leaves out 3 big realities. 

1. Inequality keeps growing. In a society of widening
inequality, the winners are often wealthier than the losers, so even if they
fully compensate the losers, as the winners gain more ground, the losers may
feel even worse off. 

2. Safety nets keep unraveling. As a practical matter, the winners don’t
compensate the losers. Most of the losers from trade, the millions whose good
jobs have been lost, don’t even have access to unemployment insurance. Trade
adjustment assistance is a joke. America invests less in jobs training as a
percent of our economy than almost any other advanced nation. 

3. Median pay keeps dropping. Those whose paychecks have been declining because of trade don’t make
up for those declines by having access to cheaper goods and services from
abroad. Yes, those cheaper goods help but adjusted for inflation, the median
hourly pay of production workers is still lower today than it was in 1974. 

So
if we want the public to continue to support free trade, we’ve got to ensure
that everyone benefits from it.

This means we need a genuine reemployment
system – including not only unemployment insurance, but also income insurance. So if you lose your job and have to take one that pays less, you get a portion of the difference for up to a year.  

More basically, we’ve got to ensure that the gains from trade are more widely
shared.

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