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

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  • Lawrence Edwards
  • Robert Z. Lawrence

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 inequality in the developed countries. 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

  • Lawrence Edwards & Robert Z. Lawrence, 2010. "US Trade and Wages: The Misleading Implications of Conventional Trade Theory," NBER Working Papers 16106, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:16106
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    Cited by:

    1. Robert Z. Lawrence & Lawrence Edward, 2010. "Do Developed and Developing Countries Compete Head to Head in High Tech?," Working Paper Series WP10-8, Peterson Institute for International Economics.
    2. 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.
    3. Nathalie Chusseau & Michel Dumont, 2012. "Growing income inequalities in advanced countries," Working Papers 260, ECINEQ, Society for the Study of Economic Inequality.
    4. 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.
    5. 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.
    6. Chen, Bo, 2017. "Upstreamness, exports, and wage inequality: Evidence from Chinese manufacturing data," Journal of Asian Economics, Elsevier, vol. 48(C), pages 66-74.
    7. 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.
    8. 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.
    9. Gagliardi, Luisa & Iammarino, Simona & Rodríguez-Pose, Andrés, 2015. "Offshoring and the Geography of Jobs in Great Britain," CEPR Discussion Papers 10855, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
    10. 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.
    11. Ewa Mińska‐Struzik, 2014. "Rozważania nad aktualnością tradycyjnej teorii handlu międzynarodowego," Gospodarka Narodowa, Warsaw School of Economics, issue 1, pages 73-95.
    12. 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.
    13. 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.
    14. 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.
    15. Cheng, Wenli & Zhang, Dingsheng, 2012. "A monetary model of China–US trade relations," Economic Modelling, Elsevier, vol. 29(2), pages 233-238.
    16. Susan Stone & Ricardo Cavazos Cepeda, 2011. "Wage Implications of Trade Liberalisation: Evidence for Effective Policy Formation," OECD Trade Policy Papers 122, OECD Publishing.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • F11 - International Economics - - Trade - - - Neoclassical Models of Trade
    • F16 - International Economics - - Trade - - - Trade and Labor Market Interactions
    • J3 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Wages, Compensation, and Labor Costs
    • J31 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Wages, Compensation, and Labor Costs - - - Wage Level and Structure; Wage Differentials

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