How American leaders failed to help workers survive the 'China Shock' : Planet Money : NPR

  

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Via:  sandy-2021492  •  4 weeks ago  •  17 comments

By:   David Autor, David Dorn and Gordon Hanson (NPR. org)

How American leaders failed to help workers survive the 'China Shock' : Planet Money : NPR
Trade with China devastated American communities. A research project offers lessons on how to avoid repeating the same tragedy.

S E E D E D   C O N T E N T



 

November 2, 20216:30 AM ET

Greg Rosalsky

Most blockbusters have sequels. Apparently, that's also true in economics. A new study by David Autor, David Dorn and Gordon Hanson offers another installment in their epic China Shock saga. You might call it China Shock: The Final Chapter. It may be the best one yet, with solid exposition and cutting-edge statistical effects. It kind of ties the whole thing together, offering important lessons for the political world on how to avoid another catastrophe for working-class Americans.

For those not caught up on the China Shock saga: About a decade ago, economists Autor, Dorn and Hanson began a groundbreaking research project to see what happened to the U.S. after China cannonballed into the global marketplace at the turn of the millennium. For competitors, it was like an earthquake followed by a tsunami followed by a flood. Between 1991 and 2013, China's manufacturing exports went from only 2.3% of the world's total to a whopping 19% of it.

Up until Autor, Dorn and Hanson began publishing about the China Shock, mainstream economists didn't really consider trade to be a crucial part of the story of rising inequality in America. They focused more on the effects of technological change and domestic policies. And to be fair to them, Hanson says, trade wasn't really an important part of the story before China came on the scene. "We had never seen a country that was this big and this specialized in manufacturing open itself that quickly."

It was not a surprise to economists that China, with its endless supply of cheap labor, killed American manufacturing jobs. But most economists, like most American leaders, had believed that workers would adapt somewhat smoothly to economic change and that they would find solid places to work in other sectors. "We had this notion that the American economy is this incredibly dynamic place," says Hanson, an economist at Harvard Kennedy School. "We create millions of jobs every year, and we destroy millions of jobs every year. We thought we could handle moving a couple of million manufacturing workers from one sector to another."

Autor, Dorn and Hanson's first peer-reviewed papers from their China Shock saga were published in 2013. The economists found that between 1990 and 2007, trade with China killed about 1.5 million American manufacturing jobs, or about a quarter of all manufacturing jobs lost during that period. But what was even more startling: These losses were heavily concentrated in small- and medium-size communities dotting America's heartland — and workers who lost their jobs in those areas struggled to find other work. The China Shock created what looked like miniature Great Depressions in these places.

Standard economic theory said that the non-college-educated workers who lost their jobs would move or retrain and find work in other places or sectors. But they didn't. Most stayed put and were never fully employed again. "It ended up creating these pockets of distress," Hanson says. "That was the surprising part. That's what we economists didn't know was going to happen."

The initial China Shock research was pretty much as influential and eye-opening as any group of egghead academics could hope for. It has been talked about regularly in mainstream media outlets. It has been cited on Capitol Hill and in the halls of the White House. After Donald Trump got elected president with a populist China-bashing message, it helped explain an important part of the mystery of why so many working-class Americans in the Rust Belt supported him.

Spoiler alert: The sequel is depressing


In China Shock: The Final Chapter (OK, it's actually called "On the Persistence of the China Shock"), the economists tell the story of what has happened since the previous chapter. Their study period now goes from 2000 to 2019. There's quite a bit to chew on.

The first important thing to note is that the China Shock was basically over after 2010. "China had achieved enormous market shares in furniture and footwear and consumer electronics and held onto those market shares — but kind of stopped picking up market presence," Hanson says. Part of Hanson's explanation for the slowdown is that China reached the limits of its model of economic growth, which was powered by transforming an inefficient, agrarian, state-run economy into a modern industrial one. Around 2010, Hanson says, Chinese leaders also began turning away from their embrace of private enterprise and back to inefficient statism.

But even if China stopped its frenzied growth in exports, the scorched earth left by that growth still mars America's landscape. Chinese imports may have given the average American more purchasing power, allowing them to buy cheap stuff from Walmart and Amazon, but the American communities that had drawn their lifeblood from manufacturing never recovered from the evisceration of their industries. These communities just got poorer and poorer. Government programs did help a little bit, but, Hanson says, they find that government transfers offset only about 15% of the total income lost.

Surprisingly (to economists, anyway), even though these communities remain decimated, many people have still refused to leave them. Autor, Dorn and Hanson find that it was only foreign-born workers and native workers ages 25 to 39 who were likely to leave. Everyone else basically stayed, even if the economic rug was pulled out from under them. It contradicts the standard economic model, which says people will rationally move to where better opportunities present themselves.

Why did so many people who lost their jobs stay? It speaks to the power of friends and family and people's identities being intertwined with their communities and former occupations. In short, sociological and psychological complexities that economists traditionally haven't studied. But, Hanson says, there may also be some economic factors at work as well. For example, the housing markets in these places tanked after manufacturing dried up, and that likely left many people underwater on their mortgages. This may have made them reluctant to move and lose what equity they had.

The China Shock saga, Hanson says, seems to be a general story about what happens when a bomb explodes on a community's main industry. The community doesn't just bounce back. Workers don't just shift to new sectors or move to new places. The social fabric of the community gets ripped apart. Destitution, squalor and depression set in.

Autor, Dorn and Hanson draw a direct analogy to what happened to coal-mining towns in the 1980s, after the sinking price of oil and gas led to a catastrophe for the coal industry. "Those coal-mining towns had experiences that were remarkably similar to what happened in former manufacturing towns in the U.S.," Hanson says. "Job loss in one sector translated into lower overall employment rates and social breakdown: families being less likely to form, more kids living with single moms and poverty, and then more drug and alcohol abuse and substance-abuse-related mortality."

It's easy to paint China as the antagonist in the China Shock story, especially in the United States. And, Hanson says, China did do some nefarious things along the way. At the same time, trade helped hundreds of millions of Chinese people get lifted out of extreme poverty. The real failure, Dorn says, was U.S. policymaking, and he blames leaders in both parties. Leaders failed to create effective policies to help workers cope with the pain brought about by trade. Hanson says America's policies have been and remain pathetic when it comes to helping those who lose their jobs. He argues we should increase the generosity of unemployment insurance and trade-adjustment assistance and retool our programs aimed at retraining workers. Other advanced countries, he says, do a much better job on this front.

Hanson argues this is a really important lesson that American policymakers need to learn. We're going to see more shocks to communities in the future. He predicts the next one will come from the ongoing transition from oil and gas to alternative forms of energy.

So the sequel is super-depressing. In a desperate attempt for any levity, we asked what Hanson's favorite movie sequel is. He said Star Wars: Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back. We joked it's time for the Autor, Dorn and Hanson trio to release a Star Wars-style prequel to the China Shock saga.

"Funny you should ask," Hanson says. "Some of the stuff that we're working on now is understanding whether job loss that is concentrated in these manufacturing towns is different today than it was in the 1960s and 1970s."

We econ nerds at Planet Money will be lining up for the China Shock prequel.


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sandy-2021492
Professor Principal
1  seeder  sandy-2021492    4 weeks ago
The initial China Shock research was pretty much as influential and eye-opening as any group of egghead academics could hope for. It has been talked about regularly in mainstream media outlets. It has been cited on Capitol Hill and in the halls of the White House. After Donald Trump got elected president with a populist China-bashing message, it helped explain an important part of the mystery of why so many working-class Americans in the Rust Belt supported him.
 
 
 
devangelical
Professor Principal
1.1  devangelical  replied to  sandy-2021492 @1    4 weeks ago

IMO a lot of the trump demographic was looking for someone to blame for their own predicaments. it's a useful political tool/formula that has worked forever in the usa. what I find interesting is that those blaming china now were fully vested in it's development as an economic powerhouse, because of cheap labor in a place far removed and protected from prying eyes back in the usa. where else were the maximum profit at any cost mentalities going to gravitate? these same usa manufacturers are even now migrating away from china to even less expensive countries, india and se asia, to operate their businesses. yet most of our fairer minded trading partners have moved their manufacturing processes here, because it's cheaper for them, with auto manufacturers as an example. blaming china for our economic issues by GOPers is nothing more than the poison rhetoric from a bad breakup by their associated corporate entities that have already moved on.

 
 
 
sandy-2021492
Professor Principal
1.1.1  seeder  sandy-2021492  replied to  devangelical @1.1    4 weeks ago

Oh, absolutely, people are looking for someone to blame, and Trump and company exploited that very well.  And yeah, the "blame China" bunch are quite happy to have their ties and flags made in China, it seems.

Government is also to blame, for not preparing for the fallout of lost jobs, with a workforce not trained to do other work.  But governments are elected, so that's down to voters, too, in the end.

 
 
 
devangelical
Professor Principal
1.1.2  devangelical  replied to  sandy-2021492 @1.1.1    4 weeks ago

china has employed radical capitalist tactics to grow their economy and republicans now have an issue with that.

another problem is that congress is up for election every 2 years and half the voters have 2 month memory spans.

 
 
 
Buzz of the Orient
Professor Principal
2  Buzz of the Orient    4 weeks ago

Probably the biggest "shock" was because of China, but other countries have a share in causing that shock as well.  There are examples of American manufacturers moving their factories elsewhere..  For years I wore Rockport Walkers, the most comfortable shoes I had ever worn in my life.  They were manufactured in Massachusetts.  Then they moved their manufacturing to Mexico, and their shoes never fit so well again.  Phone centres are located in India.  I remember when little SONY transistor radios came from Japan.  People buy cars made in other countries.  Many American manufacturing corporations have moved their factories to Asian countries.  Shock Shock Shock. But all of that does not change the conclusion of the three economists - it is the American government that failed to deal with the shock.

 
 
 
sandy-2021492
Professor Principal
2.1  seeder  sandy-2021492  replied to  Buzz of the Orient @2    4 weeks ago

It's a recurring them among governments, unfortunately, as their brief mention of coal-mining towns illustrates.  I saw it growing up in West Virginia - coal on the decline, but no real plan to replace coal-mining jobs, inadequate emphasis on education and vocational training, and a determination to fight to keep an old way of life that can't be economically supported forever.  Add to that the practical problems like being unable to move (low property values, meaning if you sell, you won't be able to buy much elsewhere), and having elderly parents aging in place who will need help at home, and you have a lot of communities filled with people who either physically can't work or who are unemployable for the fewer jobs available.

 
 
 
Buzz of the Orient
Professor Principal
2.1.1  Buzz of the Orient  replied to  sandy-2021492 @2.1    3 weeks ago

Perhaps America should follow China's example with how they eradicated absolute poverty by following and carrying out a 10 year plan. They trained the people of remote and poverty-stricken areas how to efficiently grow, harvest and market crops that did well in their areas, moved manufacturing that required employees that they trained to their areas, built roads to almost inaccessible areas so the locals could easily transport their products to places where it was easy to market them - and it WORKED.  

 
 
 
Buzz of the Orient
Professor Principal
2.1.2  Buzz of the Orient  replied to  Buzz of the Orient @2.1.1    3 weeks ago

However, I came to the realization that when China sets out a ten year plan it does so after consideration, not unending political battles, and is carried out without being reversed because of a change of presidents who will reverse what the previous one did.  That is why China has progressed so quickly over the past 40 years.

 
 
 
sandy-2021492
Professor Principal
2.1.3  seeder  sandy-2021492  replied to  Buzz of the Orient @2.1.2    3 weeks ago

I wasn't even going to mention the difference.  I knew you'd arrive at it pretty quickly.  We have gridlock and misappropriated funds to guarantee that we never really have a comprehensive plan for anything really, and certainly never see one come to fruition.

 
 
 
Split Personality
PhD Principal
2.2  Split Personality  replied to  Buzz of the Orient @2    3 weeks ago

On the other hand, most Toyotas, Kias, Hyundais and Mercedes sold in the states are made in the states,

 
 
 
Buzz of the Orient
Professor Principal
2.2.1  Buzz of the Orient  replied to  Split Personality @2.2    3 weeks ago

Over the years (I drove my own cars for 53 years) among others I had 6 different GM cars, (3 Pontiacs, an Oldsmobile, a Buick and a Cadillac) but I thought the Toyota Camrys I owned were far superior, as were the Peugeot 604 and Volvos.

 
 
 
Split Personality
PhD Principal
2.2.2  Split Personality  replied to  Buzz of the Orient @2.2.1    3 weeks ago

It was the arrogance of North America that allowed Toyota/Lexus and Honda /Acura to surpass us in actual

quality control. At the time Mercedes were just taxis in Europe.

Hands down my Mercedes C300 is a wonder of power, handling and highway economy for a reasonable

price.

My Camry alas, proves that Toyota too got complacent, it still performs well but it isn't aging very gracefully.

 
 
 
Buzz of the Orient
Professor Principal
2.2.3  Buzz of the Orient  replied to  Split Personality @2.2.2    3 weeks ago

About 40 years ago I test drove a Mercedes, and drove it for about 4 or 5 hours non-stop without feeling tired or uncomfortable, but I couldn't afford it.  This was my last Camry before I left Canada in 2006.  (The Volvo is my ex-wife's car)  I don't know if their quality dropped since that time.

800

 
 
 
Kavika
Professor Principal
3  Kavika     4 weeks ago

Good article but regarding manufacturing jobs, I wonder what they include in that? Making brooms, plastic articles etc. If we did manufacture the low-cost items I believe that they would be much too expensive for them to sell in the US. On the other hand, we (government and big business) could have done a much later better job at retraining and being prepared for what they created.

 
 
 
Buzz of the Orient
Professor Principal
3.1  Buzz of the Orient  replied to  Kavika @3    3 weeks ago

Wasn't that the purpose of Trump's tariffs, making ordinary life more expensive for the people who were his sheep, whether or not the product was Chinese or more expensively manufactured in the USA?

 
 
 
squiggy
Sophomore Quiet
4  squiggy    3 weeks ago

Yes but - ultimately, it was the consumer who sought a windfall using the big dollar to buy the under-priced import, way back when there was a choice to be made.

 
 
 
Buzz of the Orient
Professor Principal
4.1  Buzz of the Orient  replied to  squiggy @4    3 weeks ago

Obviously price is a major concern and factor among Americans, especially ones who don't have that many dollars to spend.

 
 
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