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US Trade and Wages: The Misleading Implications of Conventional Trade Theory

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  • Robert Z. Lawrence

    (Harvard University, John F. Kennedy School of Government)

  • Lawrence Edward

    (University of Cape Town)

Abstract

Conventional trade theory, which combines the Heckscher-Ohlin theory and the Stolper-Samuelson theorem, implies that expanded trade between developed and developing countries will increase wage equality in the former. This theory is widely applied. It serves as the basis for estimating the impact of trade on wages using two-sector simulation models and the net factor content of trade. It leads naturally to the presumption that the rapid growth and declining relative prices of US manufactured imports from developing countries since the 1990s have been a powerful source of increased US wage inequality. In this study we present evidence that suggests the presumption is not warranted. We highlight the sensitivity of conventional theory to the assumption of incomplete specialization and find evidence that is not consistent with it. Since 1987, although US domestic relative effective prices in industries with relatively high shares of manufactured goods imports from developing countries have declined, effective unskilled worker-weighted prices have actually risen relative to skilled worker-weighted prices. If anything, this suggests pressures for increased wage equality. Also in apparent contradiction to theory, the (six-digit North American Industry Classification System [NAICS]) US manufacturing industries with high shares of manufactured imports from developing countries are actually more skill intensive than the industries with high shares of imports from developed countries. Finally, applying a two-stage regression procedure, we find that developing-country import price changes have not mandated increased US wage inequality. While these results conflict with standard theory, they are easily explained if the United States and developing countries have specialized in products and tasks that are highly imperfect substitutes. If this is the case, the impact of increased trade with developing countries on US wage inequality is far more muted than standard theory suggests. Also methodologies such as the net factor content of trade using US production coefficients and simulation models assuming perfect substitution between imports and domestic products could be highly misleading.

Suggested Citation

  • Robert Z. Lawrence & Lawrence Edward, 2010. "US Trade and Wages: The Misleading Implications of Conventional Trade Theory," Working Paper Series WP10-9, Peterson Institute for International Economics.
  • Handle: RePEc:iie:wpaper:wp10-9
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    Cited by:

    1. Chen, Bo, 2017. "Upstreamness, exports, and wage inequality: Evidence from Chinese manufacturing data," Journal of Asian Economics, Elsevier, vol. 48(C), pages 66-74.
    2. Robert Z. Lawrence, 2013. "Association of Southeast Asian Nations, People's Republic of China, and India Growth and the Rest of the World : The Role of Trade," Development Economics Working Papers 23409, East Asian Bureau of Economic Research.
    3. Mark D. Partridge & Dan S. Rickman & M. Rose Olfert & Ying Tan, 2017. "International trade and local labor markets: Do foreign and domestic shocks affect regions differently?," Journal of Economic Geography, Oxford University Press, vol. 17(2), pages 375-409.
    4. Joanna Wolszczak-Derlacz & Aleksandra Parteka, 2018. "The effects of offshoring to low-wage countries on domestic wages: a worldwide industrial analysis," Empirica, Springer;Austrian Institute for Economic Research;Austrian Economic Association, vol. 45(1), pages 129-163, February.
    5. Alberto Posso, 2013. "Enter the Dragon: Have Imports from China Hurt Wages in Manufacturing?," Asian Economic Journal, East Asian Economic Association, vol. 27(3), pages 307-321, September.
    6. Kaveri Deb & William R. Hauk, 2020. "The Impact of Chinese Imports on Indian Wage Inequality," The Indian Journal of Labour Economics, Springer;The Indian Society of Labour Economics (ISLE), vol. 63(2), pages 267-290, June.
    7. Luisa Gagliardi & Simona Iammarino & Andrés Rodríguez-Pose, 2015. "Offshoring and the Geography of Jobs in Great Britain," SERC Discussion Papers sercd0185, Spatial Economics Research Centre, LSE.
    8. Lawrence Edwards & Robert Z. Lawrence, 2010. "Do Developed and Developing Countries Compete Head to Head in High-tech?," NBER Working Papers 16105, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    9. Cheng, Wenli & Zhang, Dingsheng, 2012. "A monetary model of China–US trade relations," Economic Modelling, Elsevier, vol. 29(2), pages 233-238.
    10. Javed Iqbal & Misbah Nosheen & Syed Nawab Haider Naqvi, 2015. "Trade Shocks and Labour Adjustment: Evidence from Pakistan’s Manufacturing Industries," The Pakistan Development Review, Pakistan Institute of Development Economics, vol. 54(3), pages 197-214.
    11. Susan Stone & Ricardo H. Cavazos Cepeda, 2011. "Wage Implications of Trade Liberalisation: Evidence for Effective Policy Formation," OECD Trade Policy Papers 122, OECD Publishing.
    12. Davide Consoli & Francesco Vona & Francesco Rentocchini, 2016. "That was then, this is now: skills and routinization in the 2000s," Industrial and Corporate Change, Oxford University Press, vol. 25(5), pages 847-866.
    13. Nathalie Chusseau & Michel Dumont, 2013. "Growing Income Inequalities in Advanced Countries," Palgrave Macmillan Books, in: Joël Hellier & Nathalie Chusseau (ed.), Growing Income Inequalities, chapter 1, pages 13-47, Palgrave Macmillan.
    14. Robert Z. Lawrence & Tyler Moran, 2016. "Adjustment and Income Distribution Impacts of the Trans-Pacific Partnership," Working Paper Series WP16-5, Peterson Institute for International Economics.
    15. Mendez, Oscar, 2015. "The effect of Chinese import competition on Mexican local labor markets," The North American Journal of Economics and Finance, Elsevier, vol. 34(C), pages 364-380.
    16. Partridge, Mark D. & Rickman, Dan & Olfert, M. Rose & Tan, Ying, 2013. "International Trade and Local Labor Markets: Are Foreign and Domestic Shocks Created Differently?," MPRA Paper 53407, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    17. Ewa Mińska‐Struzik, 2014. "Rozważania nad aktualnością tradycyjnej teorii handlu międzynarodowego," Gospodarka Narodowa. The Polish Journal of Economics, Warsaw School of Economics, issue 1, pages 73-95.

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    More about this item

    Keywords

    Wages; Trade Theory;

    JEL classification:

    • F11 - International Economics - - Trade - - - Neoclassical Models of Trade
    • F16 - International Economics - - Trade - - - Trade and Labor Market Interactions
    • J30 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Wages, Compensation, and Labor Costs - - - General

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