Learning to Love Globalization? Education and Individual Attitudes Toward International Trade
Recent studies of public attitudes toward trade have converged upon one central finding: support for trade restrictions is highest among respondents with the lowest levels of education. This has been interpreted as strong support for the Stolper-Samuelson theorem, the classic economic treatment of the income effects of trade which predicts that trade openness benefits those owning factors of production with which their economy is relatively well endowed (those with skills in the advanced economies) while hurting others (low skilled workers). We re- examine the available survey data, showing that the impact of education on attitudes toward trade is almost identical among respondents in the active labor force and those who are not (even those who are retired). We also find that, while individuals with college-level educations are far more likely to favor trade openness than others, other types of education have no significant effects on attitudes, and some actually reduce the support for trade, even though they clearly contribute to skill acquisition. Combined, these results strongly suggest that the effects of education on individual trade preferences are not primarily a product of distributional concerns linked to job skills. We suggest that exposure to economic ideas and information among college-educated individuals plays a key role in shaping attitudes toward trade and globalization. This is not to say that distributional issues are not important in shaping attitudes toward trade – just that they are not clearly manifest in the simple, broad association between education levels and support for free trade.
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