But do trade economists oppose protectionist policies?


Commemorating 1,028 economists’ futile opposition to the Smoot-Hawley tariff in 1930, the Club for Growth gathered 1,028 economists’ signatures to oppose Congressional momentum towards imposing punitive tariffs on China:

We, the undersigned, have serious concerns about the recent protectionist sentiments coming from Congress, especially with regards to China…
By the end of this year, China will most likely be the United States’ second largest trading partner… This marvelous growth has led to more affordable goods, higher productivity, strong job growth, and a higher standard of living for both countries. These economic benefits were made possible in large part because both China and the United States embraced freer trade…
We urge Congress to discard any plans for increased protectionism, and instead urge lawmakers to work towards fostering stronger global economic ties through free trade.

Some big names, including award winners like Acemoglu, Kydland, Prescott, Schelling, and (Vernon) Smith, signed up. Here are the signatories that I know are trade economists:

James Anderson, Robert Baldwin, Scott Bradford, Alan Deardorff, Barry Eichengreen, Rob Feenstra, Monty Graham, Giovanni Maggi, Keith Maskus, Arvind Panagariya, Andres Rodriguez-Clare, Andrew Rose, Esteban Rossi-Hansberg, Robert Staiger, Patricia Tovar, Romain Wacziarg.

Now obviously I don’t know that many trade economists, so numerous names on the list likely belong to people working in the field, but nonetheless, there are a number of conspicuous absences. Where are opinion leaders like Bhagwati and Bergsten? Senior trade guys like Srinivasan? Theorists like Eaton, Kortum, Melitz? Empiricists like Bernard, Jensen, Redding & Schott? Did someone forget to call Doug Irwin and Razeen Sally? Did Greg Mankiw fail to pass the pen & paper to Robert Z. Lawrence and Jeffrey A. Frankel?

I don’t know the political leanings or particular policy views of many of those economists, but I expected at least some of them to be on the list. If I’m right that trade economists appear to be underrepresented given that it’s an anti-tariff petition, what might explain it?

Some economists are more comfortable appearing in Econometrica than the WSJ. Perhaps theorists prefer to avoid policy recommendations or don’t want their views reduced to a few paragraphs appearing in a large print ad. Those that excel in model building or statistical analysis may not care for public debate. Moreover, commenting on such an issue is unlikely to aid one’s professional advancement, but it can make enemies.

The Club for Growth’s network exhausted the 1028 places. Perhaps the petition’s signature gatherers were more concerned with finding one thousand signatories than the prestige or research area of the economist. Maybe they started with the Club for Growth’s ideological allies (all of George Mason seems to have signed) and wound up filling the 1028 places before having contacted all notable trade economists. [On this point, obviously there are far more economists alive today than in 1930. Why didn't the Club for Growth adjust for academic population growth? :)]

Trade economists disagree with Ec 10 lessons about trade. Although the lesson in Econ 101 is that trade is good and protection is bad, perhaps those who actually study the subject learn that protectionism can improve an economy and are less likely to support free trade than the average non-trade economist. [Okay, we know that claim isn't true. But maybe trade economists are aware of all of the nuances of trade theory and prefer to not boil the subject down to a petition headline.]

Some prefer not to associate with the Club for Growth. The group is activist, not academic, and viewed by some as a bunch of lobbyists wed to Republicans, or at least that’s the vibe from Brad DeLong. That might also explain Paul Krugman’s absence.

Is anyone else surprised at the shortage of trade economists signing a trade petition? If so, can you explain it?

[HT: Drezner, Kling, and Mankiw, who all signed.]

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One Response to “But do trade economists oppose protectionist policies?”

  1. Ade Ifelayo Says:

    I think you are correct in your assessment of why many economists are not present. Indeed, many prefer the theoretical world of model building than policy prescription. Your assessment of CFG as a group wed to the GOP however, is a little inaccuate. To the contrary, most of their targets are Republicans who are not very free market. If you look at their site and view their work, they have a lot of criticism for some of Bush’s initiatives–drug and farm bills especially. As for Krumgman’s absence, he is the one who is unfortunately low on credibility considering how his public policies contrast with his academic work (especially the earlier ones)

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