10 Truths About Trade

Hard facts about offshoring, imports, and jobs.

Is globalization sending the best American jobs overseas? If you get your news from CNN's Lou Dobbs, the answer is "of course" and the only real issue is how many trade restrictions should be applied to stem the bleeding.

But the recent scare about "offshoring" is just the latest twist on an inaccurate, decades-old complaint that global trade is stealing jobs and causing a "race to the bottom" in which corporations relentlessly scour the world for the lowest wages and most squalid working conditions. China and India have replaced 1980s Japan and 1990s Mexico as the most feared foreign threats to U.S. employment, and the old fallacy of job scarcity has once again reared its distracting head.

The truth is cheerier. Trade is only one element in a much bigger picture of incessant turnover in the American labor market. Furthermore, the overall trend is toward more and better jobs for American workers. While job losses are real and sometimes very painful, it is important -- indeed, for the formulation of sound public policy, it is vital -- to distinguish between the painful aspects of progress and outright decline.

Toward that end, and to counter protectionist "analysis" masquerading as fact, here are 10 core truths about global trade and American jobs.

1. The Number of Jobs Grows With the Population

As Figure 1 shows vividly, the total number of jobs in the American economy is first and foremost a function of the size of the labor force. As the population grows, the number of people in the work force grows; then market forces absorb that supply and deploy labor to different sectors of the economy.

Consider all the major events that have increased the supply of labor during the last half-century: the baby boom, the surge in work force participation by women, and rising rates of immigration after decades of restrictionist policies. Consider as well the key developments that have slashed demand for certain kinds of labor: the growing competitiveness of foreign producers and falling U.S. barriers to imports; the shift by American companies toward globally integrated production and the consequent relocation of many operations overseas; the deregulation of the transportation, energy, and telecommunications industries and the wrenching restructuring that followed; and, most important, the many waves of labor-saving technological innovations, from the containerization that replaced longshoremen to the dial phones that replaced switchboard operators to the factory-floor robots that replaced assembly-line workers to the automatic teller machines that replaced bank tellers.

Yet in the face of all this flux, no chronic shortage of jobs has ever materialized. Over those tumultuous five decades, a growing economy and functioning labor markets were all that was needed to accommodate huge shifts in labor supply and demand. Now and in the future, sound macroeconomic policies and continued flexibility in labor markets will suffice to generate increasing employment, notwithstanding the rise of China and India and the march of digitization.

2. Jobs Churn Constantly

The steady increase in total employment masks the frenetic dynamism of the U.S. labor market. Gross changes -- total new positions added, total existing positions eliminated -- are much greater in magnitude. Large numbers of jobs are being shed constantly, even in good times. Total employment continues to increase only because even larger numbers of jobs are being created.

According to economist Brad DeLong, a weekly figure of 360,000 new unemployment insurance claims is actually consistent with a stable unemployment rate. In other words, when the unemployment rate holds steady -- that is, total employment grows fast enough to absorb the ongoing increase in the labor force -- some 18.7 million people will lose their jobs and file unemployment insurance claims during the course of a single year. Meanwhile, even more people will get new jobs.

More detailed and dramatic evidence of job turnover can be found in Table 1. According to data compiled by the Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, total private-sector employment rose by 17.8 million between 1993 and 2002. To produce that healthy net increase, a breathtaking total of 327.7 million jobs were added, while 309.9 million jobs were lost. In other words, for every one net new private-sector job created during that period, 18.4 gross job additions had to offset 17.4 gross job losses.

In light of those facts, it is impossible to give credence to claims that job losses in this or that sector constitute a looming catastrophe for the enormous and dynamic U.S. economy as a whole. It is as inevitable that some companies and industries will shrink as it is that others will expand. Localized challenges and problems should not be confused with national crises.

3. Challenging, High-Paying Jobs Are Becoming More Plentiful, Not Less

The ongoing growth in total employment is frequently dismissed on the ground that most of the new positions being created are low-paying, dead-end "McJobs." The facts show otherwise.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.


Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.