Did Open Borders Destroy U.S. Manufacturing?

By Shlomo Maital


   In the recent US Presidential election, Donald Trump campaigned largely on how trade (i.e. imports, open borders) has destroyed blue-collar jobs. His voters agreed.

     But is this true? Have globalization, open trade in goods and services, and cheap imports, destroyed good US jobs? Or were there other causes?

     You won’t find a more authoritative answer than that from MIT, in Suzanne Berger’s 2013 book Making in America:   From Innovation to Market (MIT Press), based on her work with the MIT Task Force on Production in the Innovtion Economy.

       Here are some relevnt passages:

Even taking into account job losses resulting from outsourcing as well as import competition, it was difficult as recently as a decade ago to find clear evidence of a heavy impact of open borders on manufacturing employment. …In 2003, [such job losses] involved less than one percent of layoffs; in 2004 they went up to 2 per cent. …job losses in manufacturing were mainly the result of productivity gains which might reduce the total numbers of those needed to produce a finite quantity of goods. …[Studies showed] the bottom line was that Chinese imports accounted for 33 per cent of manufacturing job decline between 1990 and 2000 and 55 per cent between 2000 and 2007.   But [focusing mainly on rising Chinese productivity and falling China-facing trade barriers] 16 per cent of manufacturing job losses between 1990-2000, and 26 per cent between 2000 and 2007, were attributable to rising import competition from China.”

   Bottom line: At most, a third to a half.   And more likely:   one-sixth to one quarter of job losses were due to Chinese imports.  

     So what does that mean?   There were other causes, deeper ones. Labor-saving machinery and automation (robots). Low skills. And dumb policy. Berger notes: “Germany abandoned much of its low-end manufacturingwhile expanding employment in higher value-added segments.”   And America??

             Recently a former senior VP of Intel, Mooly Eden, spoke at Technion and noted that the moment manufacturing wages rose in China, Intel shifted to Vietnam and built 1 million square feet of manufacturing capacity there.  

             China lost jobs – why? Globalization? Or because their productivity failed to keep pace with wage increases?  

             It’s hard to predict the future. But here is one pretty safe guess. While Trump tackles America’s job problem and rebuilds manufacturing, based on a wrong assumption, he will fail.   It won’t help to start a trade war with China. So in four years, his supporters will find that he failed to deliver.

           What then? Will they vote Democrat? Or will we get an even farther-right crackpot candidate, as has happened in Europe?