Economics » Globalization and Protectionism » International Trade and Its Effects on Jobs, Wages, and Working Conditions

Fewer Jobs?

In theory at least, imports might injure workers in several different ways: fewer jobs, lower wages, or poor working conditions. Let’s consider these in turn.

Fewer Jobs?

In the early 1990s, the United States was negotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Mexico, an agreement that reduced tariffs, import quotas, and nontariff barriers to trade between the United States, Mexico, and Canada. H. Ross Perot, a 1992 candidate for U.S. president, claimed, in prominent campaign arguments, that if the United States expanded trade with Mexico, there would be a “giant sucking sound” as U.S. employers relocated to Mexico to take advantage of lower wages. After all, average wages in Mexico were, at that time, about one-eighth of those in the United States. NAFTA passed Congress, President Bill Clinton signed it into law, and it took effect in 1995. For the next six years, the United States economy had some of the most rapid job growth and low unemployment in its history. Those who feared that open trade with Mexico would lead to a dramatic decrease in jobs were proven wrong.

This result was no surprise to economists. After all, the trend toward globalization has been going on for decades, not just since NAFTA. If trade did reduce the number of available jobs, then the United States should have been seeing a steady loss of jobs for decades. While the United States economy does experience rises and falls in unemployment rates—according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, from spring 2008 to late 2009, the unemployment rate rose from 4.4% to 10%; it has since fallen back to 5.5% in spring 2015—the number of jobs is not falling over extended periods of time. The number of U.S. jobs rose from 71 million in 1970 to 138 million in 2012.

Protectionism certainly saves jobs in the specific industry being protected but, for two reasons, it costs jobs in other unprotected industries. First, if consumers are paying higher prices to the protected industry, they inevitably have less money to spend on goods from other industries, and so jobs are lost in those other industries. Second, if the protected product is sold to other firms, so that other firms must now pay a higher price for a key input, then those firms will lose sales to foreign producers who do not need to pay the higher price. Lost sales translate into lost jobs. The hidden opportunity cost of using protectionism to save jobs in one industry is jobs sacrificed in other industries. This is why the United States International Trade Commission, in its study of barriers to trade, predicts that reducing trade barriers would not lead to an overall loss of jobs. Protectionism reshuffles jobs from industries without import protections to industries that are protected from imports, but it does not create more jobs.

Moreover, the costs of saving jobs through protectionism can be very high. A number of different studies have attempted to estimate the cost to consumers in higher prices per job saved through protectionism. This table shows a sample of results, compiled by economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. Saving a job through protectionism typically costs much more than the actual worker’s salary. For example, a study published in 2002 compiled evidence that using protectionism to save an average job in the textile and apparel industry would cost $199,000 per job saved. In other words, those workers could have been paid $100,000 per year to be unemployed and the cost would only be half of what it is to keep them working in the textile and apparel industry. This result is not unique to textiles and apparel.

Cost to U.S. Consumers of Saving a Job through Protectionism (Source: Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas)

Industry Protected with Import Tariffs or QuotasAnnual Cost per Job Saved
Polyethylene resins$812,000
Dairy products$685,000
Frozen concentrated orange juice$635,000
Ball bearings$603,000
Machine tools$479,000
Women’s handbags$263,000
Apparel and textiles$199,000
Rubber footwear$168,000
Women’s nonathletic footwear$139,000

Why does it cost so much to save jobs through protectionism? The basic reason is that not all of the extra money paid by consumers because of tariffs or quotas goes to save jobs. For example, if tariffs are imposed on steel imports so that buyers of steel pay a higher price, U.S. steel companies earn greater profits, buy more equipment, pay bigger bonuses to managers, give pay raises to existing employees—and also avoid firing some additional workers. Only part of the higher price of protected steel goes toward saving jobs. Also, when an industry is protected, the economy as a whole loses the benefits of playing to its comparative advantage—in other words, producing what it is best at. So, part of the higher price that consumers pay for protected goods is lost economic efficiency, which can be measured as another deadweight loss, like that discussed in Labor and Financial Markets.

There’s a bumper sticker that speaks to the threat some U.S. workers feel from imported products: “Buy American—Save U.S. Jobs.” If the car were being driven by an economist, the sticker might declare: “Block Imports—Save Jobs for Some Americans, Lose Jobs for Other Americans, and Also Pay High Prices.”

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