The Samuelson Critique
Paul Samuelson’s critique looks at what happens when a rich country—the United States—enters into a free trade agreement with a poor country—China—that rapidly improves its productivity after the introduction of a free trade regime (i.e., there is a dynamic gain in the efficiency with which resources are used in the poor country). Samuelson’s model suggests that in such cases, the lower prices that U.S. consumers pay for goods imported from China following the introduction of a free trade regime may not be enough to produce a net gain for the U.S. economy if the dynamic effect of free trade is to lower real wage rates in the United States. As he stated in a New York Times interview, “Being able to purchase groceries 20 percent cheaper at Wal-Mart (due to international trade) does not necessarily make up for the wage losses (in America).”10
Samuelson goes on to note that he is particularly concerned about the ability to off-shore service jobs that traditionally were not internationally mobile, such as software debugging, call-center jobs, accounting jobs, and even medical diagnosis of MRI scans (see the accompanying Country Focus for details). Recent advances in communications technology have made this possible, effectively expanding the labor market for these jobs to include educated people in places such as India, the Philippines, and China. When coupled with rapid advances in the productivity of foreign labor due to better education, the effect on middle-class wages in the United States, according to Samuelson, may be similar to mass inward migration into the country: It will lower the market clearing wage rate, perhaps by enough to outweigh the positive benefits of international trade.
COUNTRY FOCUS Moving U.S. White-Collar Jobs Offshore
Economists have long argued that free trade produces gains for all countries that participate in a free trading system. As the next wave of globalization sweeps through the U.S. economy, many people are wondering if this is true. During the 1980s and 1990s, free trade was associated with the movement of low-skill, blue-collar manufacturing jobs out of rich countries such as the United States and toward low-wage countries—textiles to Costa Rica, athletic shoes to the Philippines, steel to Brazil, electronic products to Thailand, and so on. While many observers bemoaned the “hollowing out” of U.S. manufacturing, economists stated that high-skill and high-wage, white-collar jobs associated with the knowledge-based economy would stay in the United States. Computers might be assembled in Thailand, so the argument went, but they would continue to be designed in Silicon Valley by highly skilled U.S. engineers, and software applications would be written in the United States by programmers at Microsoft, Adobe, Oracle, and the like.
Developments over the past several decades have people questioning this assumption. Many American companies have been moving white-collar, “knowledge-based” jobs to developing nations where they can be performed for a fraction of the cost. During the long economic boom of the 1990s, Bank of America had to compete with other organizations for the scarce talents of information technology specialists, driving annual salaries to more than $100,000. However, with business under pressure during the 2000s, the bank cut nearly 5,000 jobs from its 25,000-strong, U.S.-based information technology workforce. Some of these jobs were transferred to India, where work that costs $100 an hour in the United States could be done for $20 an hour.
One beneficiary of Bank of America’s downsizing is Infosys Technologies Ltd., a Bangalore, India, information technology firm where 250 engineers now develop information technology applications for the bank. Other Infosys employees are busy processing home loan applications for U.S. mortgage companies. Nearby in the offices of another Indian firm, Wipro Ltd., radiologists interpret 30 CT scans a day for Massachusetts General Hospital that are sent over the Internet. At yet another Bangalore business, engineers earn $10,000 a year designing leading-edge semiconductor chips for Texas Instruments. Nor is India the only beneficiary of these changes. Accenture, a large U.S. management consulting and information technology firm, moved 5,000 jobs in software development and accounting to the Philippines. Also in the Philippines, Procter & Gamble employs 650 professionals who prepare the company’s global tax returns. The work used to be done in the United States, but now it is done in Manila, with just final submission to local tax authorities in the United States and other countries handled locally.
Some architectural work also is being outsourced to lower-cost locations. Flour Corp., a California-based construction company, employs some 1,200 engineers and draftsmen in the Philippines, Poland, and India to turn layouts of industrial facilities into detailed specifications. For a Saudi Arabian chemical plant Flour is designing, 200 young engineers based in the Philippines earning less than $3,000 a year collaborate in real time over the Internet with elite U.S. and British engineers who make up to $90,000 a year. Why does Flour do this? According to the company, the answer is simple. Doing so reduces the prices of a project by 15 percent, giving the company a cost-based competitive advantage in the global market for construction design. Most disturbing of all for future job growth in the United States, some high-tech start-ups are outsourcing significant work right from inception. For example, Zoho Corporation, a California-based start-up offering online web applications for small businesses, has about 20 employees in the United States and more than 1,000 in India! Similarly, in the six years through 2009, about 85 percent of the growth of R&D workers employed by U.S.-based multinational companies has been abroad.
Sources: P. Engardio, A. Bernstein, and M. Kripalani, “Is Your Job Next?” BusinessWeek, February 3, 2003, pp. 50–60; “America’s Pain, India’s Gain,” The Economist, January 11, 2003, p. 57; M. Schroeder and T. Aeppel, “Skilled Workers Mount Opposition to Free Trade, Swaying Politicians,” The Wall Street Journal, October 10, 2003, pp. A1, A11; D. Clark, “New U.S. Fees on Visas Irk Outsources,” The Wall Street Journal, August 16, 2010, p. 6; and J.R. Hagerty, “U.S. Loses High Tech Jobs as R&D Shifts to Asia,” The Wall Street Journal, January 18, 2012, p. B1.
Having said this, it should be noted that Samuelson concedes that free trade has historically benefited rich counties (as data discussed later seem to confirm). Moreover, he notes that introducing protectionist measures (e.g., trade barriers) to guard against the theoretical possibility that free trade may harm the United States in the future may produce a situation that is worse than the disease they are trying to prevent. To quote Samuelson: “Free trade may turn out pragmatically to be still best for each region in comparison to lobbyist-induced tariffs and quotas which involve both a perversion of democracy and non-subtle deadweight distortion losses.”11
One recent study found evidence in support of Samuelson’s thesis. The study looked at every county in the United States for its manufacturers’ exposure to competition from China.12 The researchers found that regions most exposed to China tended not only to lose more manufacturing jobs, but also to see overall employment decline. Areas with higher exposure to China also had larger increases in workers receiving unemployment insurance, food stamps, and disability payments. The costs to the economy from the increased government payments amounted to two-thirds of the gains from trade with China. In other words, many of the ways trade with China has helped the United States—such as providing inexpensive goods to U.S. consumers—have been wiped out. Even so, the authors of this study argued that in the long run, free trade is a good thing. They note, however, that the rapid rise of China has resulted in some large adjustment costs that, in the short run, significantly reduce the gains from trade.
Other economists have dismissed Samuelson’s fears.13 While not questioning his analysis, they note that as a practical matter, developing nations are unlikely to be able to upgrade the skill level of their workforce rapidly enough to give rise to the situation in Samuelson’s model. In other words, they will quickly run into diminishing returns. To quote one such rebuttal: “The notion that India and China will quickly educate 300 million of their citizens to acquire sophisticated and complex skills at stake borders on the ludicrous. The educational sectors in these countries face enormous difficulties.”14 However, such rebuttals are at odds with recent data suggesting that Asian countries are rapidly upgrading their educational systems. For example, about 56 percent of the world’s engineering degrees awarded in 2008 were in Asia, compared with 4 percent in the United States!15