Why large American gains from globalisation are plausible

Gary Hufbauer, Matthew Adler

24 July 2008



The Peterson Institute calculates that the US economy was approximately $1 trillion richer in 2003 due to past globalisation – the payoff both from technological innovation and from policy liberalisation – and could gain another $500 billion annually from future policy liberalisation (Bradford, Grieco, and Hufbauer 2005). Past gains amounted to about 9% of GDP in 2003, and potential future gains constitute another 4%.

Critics, driven by their instinctive beliefs that $1 trillion is simply too large to be realistic, have attacked the Peterson Institute estimates (Rodrik 2007, Bivens 2007a, 2007b, 2007c). However, the estimates are often and prominently cited in the public debate on globalisation (USTR 2007, Schwab 2007). So are these Peterson Institute estimates reliable? To address this question we respond to our critics and reinforce our claim that globalisation has been very good for America.

In May 2007, Dani Rodrik took us to task on his blog for exaggerating the benefits. Professor Rodrik long ago established his reputation as a globalisation sceptic. To debunk the payoff from globalisation, Rodrik resurrects arithmetic developed by Frank Taussig (1927) as a "reality check" on our calculations. Taussig was a great economist, but economic science has actually progressed since 1927. The partial equilibrium formula cited by Rodrik essentially confines the benefits of globalisation to the "welfare triangles" generated when tariffs are abolished.1 As calculated by Rodrik, the welfare triangles total not more than 0.25%of US national income, around $35 billion of potential gains if all US tariffs were abolished (Rodrik 2007). By contrast, our conservative estimate suggests that full global liberalisation would ultimately increase US national income by about 4.1%, about $570 billion based on GDP in 2007.

To support his own calculations, Rodrik cites a World Bank study that estimates the effects of global free trade in merchandise goods. Using a computable general equilibrium (CGE) model, the World Bank study (Anderson et al. 2005, 2006) estimates that free trade in merchandise would increase US income by just 0.1%in 2015, an estimate that falls well below the calculations reported from other CGE models.2 Though saying he has no idea whether the World Bank number is right, Rodrik seems to regard the 0.1% figure as confirmation for his own "reality check" (Rodrik 2007).

So why do our estimates differ so much from Rodrik and the World Bank? First, both Rodrik and the World Bank authors disregard services, which account for a substantial share of total US trade and therefore a large part of the globalisation story. More importantly, though, by virtue of the methodologies adopted, both Rodrik’s quick calculation and the World Bank study ignore powerful forces that enormously expand the payoff from policy liberalisation and technological innovation for a country that participates in the global economy.

What are these forces?

  • "rightsizing" inputs to the needs of industrial producers;
  • lowering the true cost of household purchases below the advertised inflation rate;
  • "sifting and sorting" firms so that the most efficient expand and the least efficient shrink;
  • curtailing the markup margins associated with monopolistic competition
  • stimulating laggard industries (remember autos and steel) to match the productivity of foreign competitors;
  • reducing the enormous international differences that prevail in prices for traded goods, and
  • enjoying the benefits of internal and external returns to scale.3

The Peterson Institute study combines the payoff from these powerful forces with traditional comparative advantage to obtain a more complete picture of the gains from globalisation.4 If forces like monopolistic competition, economies of scale, and productivity gains are left out of the mix, the Peterson Institute calculations would approach the Rodrik and World Bank estimates, but that would be less than half of the globalisation story.

L. Josh Bivens along with Jared Bernstein, both of the Economic Policy Institute, embrace the same antiquated arithmetic as Rodrik, claiming that "reasonable estimates" of potential US gains from trade liberalisation range between $4 billion and $20 billion (Bivens and Bernstein 2007). Bivens gives a simple-minded calculation, based on assumed parameters, suggesting that a return to the Smoot-Hawley tariff would only reduce the US economy by 1%. For the same reasons we cite with respect to Rodrik’s critiques, Bivens and Bernstein’s estimates do not speak to the reality of globalisation: they leave out forces like induced productivity, shifting and sorting, and returns to scale.

Bivens repeated his arguments and criticism of the Peterson Institute calculations in three more papers (Bivens 2007a, 2007b, 2007c). He missed far more than he scored in these repetitive critiques, but foremost he ignored Solow's landmark finding (1956) that productivity gains explain above 80% of US economic growth. Some of these productivity gains come from globalisation and the powerful sources already mentioned. To be perfectly clear, we do not suggest that the bulk of US productivity gains are due to globalisation, but we do believe that engagement with the world economy makes a significant contribution.

A key point worth emphasising is that, in the Peterson Institute estimates, policy liberalisation was not the only or even primary driver of the estimated gains. Rapidly falling transportation and communication costs are perhaps more important features of the globalisation story. Work is underway at the Institute to sort out what share of the past gains from globalisation is attributable to policy liberalisation and what share is attributable to technological change. We do not yet have preliminary calculations for the trade barrier side of the story. However, preliminary estimates suggest that, in 2006, approximately 23% of the expansion in US inward and outward foreign direct investment (FDI) stocks, relative to the growth of GDP, resulted from FDI-related policy liberalisation in the period since 1982. By implication, most of the dramatic expansion of FDI in recent decades probably can be traced to enabling technologies that permit best-in-class firms to operate on a world scale.

Our critics also take exception to the fact that "not a single one" of the studies we cited gives a calculation of the payoff of globalisation resembling our estimates (Bivens 2007c). This is absolutely right. The cited studies made no estimates whatsoever of the payoff in GDP terms. If the Peterson Institute $1 trillion estimate made an original contribution, it was to tease out, from the academic studies, numbers that can be easily understood in the public debate.

In one of his critiques, Bivens invokes the Stolper-Samuelson theorem to support his claim that with globalisation "losers may well outnumber winners, even if winnings are greater than losses" (Bivens 2007c). Certainly these are possible outcomes. However, empirical research on the American economy does not support the contention that income distribution has been strongly affected by international trade and investment. The forces of technology, education, and immigration are much stronger (Lawrence 2008). But we sympathise with Bivens’s larger contention that many workers and communities get a raw deal from globalisation. In the same Peterson Institute study where we produce the $1 trillion estimate, we also calculate the lifetime losses of workers displaced by globalisation. Our estimate of the lifetime private cost for labour displacement, generated each year by globalisation, is roughly $55 billion. While this is a large number, and speaks to acute distress for many workers and their communities, it is a far smaller number than our estimate of annual gains from globalisation.

From a policy standpoint, however, another comparison is more relevant: federal outlays to help Americans cope with the transition costs of globalisation are less than $2 billion annually (Bradford et al 2005, OMB 2007). The US safety net is far too parsimonious, a fact that goes far to explain the popular backlash against free trade agreements and investment abroad. In our view, federal programs must be seriously updated so that displaced workers can better meet the realities of the global economy.5


Anderson, Kym, Will Martin, and Dominique van der Mensbrugghe. 2005. Market and welfare implications of Doha reform scenarios. In Trade Reform and the Doha Agenda, ed. K. Anderson and W. Martin. Washington: World Bank.
Anderson, Kym, Will Martin, and Dominique van der Mensbrugghe. 2006. Doha Merchandise Trade Reform: What's at Stake for Developing Countries? World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 3848 (February). Washington: World Bank.
Arnold, Jens Matthias, Beata Smarzynska Javorcik, and Aaditya Mattoo. 2007. Does Services Liberalisation Benefit Manufacturing Firms? Evidence from the Czech Republic. World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 4109 (January). Washington: World Bank.
Bernstein, Jared, and L. Josh Bivens. 2007. Cheerleaders Gone Wild.
Bivens, L. Josh. 2007a. Marketing the Gains from Trade. Economic Policy Institute. Issue Brief #233 (June 19).
Bivens, L. Josh. 2007b. The Marketing of Economic History: Inflating the Importance of Trade Liberalisation. Economic Policy Institute Issue Brief #238 (December 17).
Bivens, L. Josh. 2007c. The Gains from Trade: How Big and Who Gets Them? Economic Policy Institute. Working Paper (December 17).
Bradford, Scott C., Paul L. E. Grieco, and Gary Clyde Hufbauer. 2005. The Payoff to America from Global Integration. In The United States and the World Economy: Foreign Economic Policy for the Next Decade, in C. Fred Bergsten and the Institute for International Economics. Washington: Institute for International Economics.
Brown, K. Drusilla, Alan V. Deardorff, and Robert M. Stern. 2002. Multilateral, Regional and Bilateral Trade Policy—Options for the United States and Japan. University of Michigan, Research Seminar in International Economics. Discussion Paper No. 490.
Henry, Peter Blair, and Diego L. Sasson. 2008. Capital Account Liberalisation, Real Wages, and Productivity. NBER Working Paper No. W13880. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.
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1 Partial equilibrium analysis is a useful tool when examining restrictions for specific goods in perfect or nearly perfect competitive markets. Years ago, Peterson Institute authors used this analytic framework for examining steel quotas, textile and apparel tariffs, sugar duties, and other barriers (e.g., Hufbauer and Elliott 1994). However this sort of analysis cannot capture the gains to the whole economy from across-the-board policy liberalisation.
2 See, most prominently, Brown, Deardorff, and Stern (2002).
3 L Josh Bivens, questions how many of these forces can occur simultaneously. For example, he questions how consumers can have more choice in the market place (i.e., product variety) while inefficient firms are being pushed out (i.e., sifting and sorting) (Bivens 2007c). A simple example illustrates how this is possible: IBM was a pioneer in the PC market. But when Dell entered the field, and enormously expanded the range of PC models, IBM eventually exited the market and sold its PC division to Lenovo.
4 The literature points to additional channels besides those we cited; for example, Keller and Yeaple (2005) showed that an expanding role of foreign multinational enterprises (MNEs) in the United States boosts the productivity of competing domestic firms; Arnold, Javorcik, and Mattoo (2007) reported that services liberalisation enhanced the productivity of downstream manufacturing firms in the Czech Republic; and Henry and Sasson (2008) provide evidence that capital account liberalisation raises real wages.
5 The Peterson Institute can point to a long and vigorous record of urging meaningful remedies for dealing with the cost of globalissation (see, for example, Hufbauer and Rosen 1986, and Rosen 2008).




Topics:  Global economy International trade

Tags:  globalisation, US economy, partial equilibrium, comparative advantage, monopolistic competition, economies of scale, productivity gains, safety net

Reginald Jones Senior Fellow, Peterson Institute for International Economics

Research Assistant, Peterson Institute for International Economics