After centuries of technological progress and advances in international cooperation, the world is more connected than ever. But how much has the rise of trade and the modern global economy helped or hurt American businesses, workers, and consumers? Here is a basic guide to the economic side of this broad and much debated topic, drawn from current research.
Globalization is the word used to describe the growing interdependence of the world’s economies, cultures, and populations, brought about by cross-border trade in goods and services, technology, and flows of investment, people, and information. Countries have built economic partnerships to facilitate these movements over many centuries. But the term gained popularity after the Cold War in the early 1990s, as these cooperative arrangements shaped modern everyday life. This guide uses the term more narrowly to refer to international trade and some of the investment flows among advanced economies, mostly focusing on the United States.
The wide-ranging effects of globalization are complex and politically charged. As with major technological advances, globalization benefits society as a whole, while harming certain groups. Understanding the relative costs and benefits can pave the way for alleviating problems while sustaining the wider payoffs.
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THE HISTORY OF GLOBALIZATION IS DRIVEN BY TECHNOLOGY, TRANSPORTATION, AND INTERNATIONAL COOPERATION
Since ancient times, humans have sought distant places to settle, produce, and exchange goods enabled by improvements in technology and transportation. But not until the 19th century did global integration take off. Following centuries of European colonization and trade activity, that first “wave” of globalization was propelled by steamships, railroads, the telegraph, and other breakthroughs, and also by increasing economic cooperation among countries. The globalization trend eventually waned and crashed in the catastrophe of World War I, followed by postwar protectionism, the Great Depression, and World War II. After World War II in the mid-1940s, the United States led efforts to revive international trade and investment under negotiated ground rules, starting a second wave of globalization, which remains ongoing, though buffeted by periodic downturns and mounting political scrutiny.
GLOBALIZATION IN CHARTS
Separate from trade in goods and services, global financial integration is a much-debated but important topic. Here is a quick summary.
Many countries have large international financial flows or investments, consisting of assets and liabilities. These include FDI, securities (which are bought and sold), and debts. They are generally held by or owed to firms, banks and other financial institutions, or governments. This chart shows how yearly US transactions grew over time as the global economy and financial system became increasingly integrated but dropped dramatically during the global financial crisis of 2008–09. (Total US foreign assets in 2016 were $26 trillion, equal to 140 percent of US GDP. Total US liabilities to foreigners were $34 trillion in 2016, or 185 percent of GDP.)
This chart shows how FDI has grown steadily while the growth of portfolio holdings (foreign equity or foreign debt) and “other” assets (which are largely composed of bank loans) has been more volatile. Reserves are international assets held by the US government.
This chart shows the collapse of financial inflows to South Korea during two periods, the 1997–98 Asian financial crisis and the global financial crisis of 2008–09, especially in “other liabilities” like bank loans. Korea was hit in 2008–09 even though the epicenter of the crisis was in the United States and Europe.
“I saw that you could not separate the idea of commerce from the idea of war and peace. ... [and] that wars were often largely caused by economic rivalry conducted unfairly. ...I embraced the philosophy that…unhampered trade dovetailed with peace; high tariffs, trade barriers, and unfair economic competition, with war. ...[I]f we could get a freer flow of trade—freer in the sense of fewer discriminations and obstructions—so that one country would not be deadly jealous of another and the living standards of all countries might rise, thereby eliminating the economic dissatisfaction that breeds war, we might have a reasonable chance for lasting peace.”
Cordell Hull, Secretary of State under
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, written in his memoirs in 1948
Countries gather at the 1944 Bretton Woods conference.
Countries gather at the 1944 Bretton Woods conference.
GLOBALIZATION AS A TOOL FOR PROSPERITY AND PEACE
After World War II, the United States helped build a global economic order governed by mutually accepted rules and overseen by multilateral institutions. The idea was to create a better world with countries seeking to cooperate with one another to promote prosperity and peace. Free trade and the rule of law were mainstays of the system, helping to prevent most economic disputes from escalating into larger conflicts. The institutions established include:
EFFECTS OF GLOBALIZATION
MORE GOODS AT LOWER PRICES
Globalization encourages each country to specialize in what it produces best using the least amount of resources, known as comparative advantage. This concept makes production more efficient, promotes economic growth, and lowers prices of goods and services, making them more affordable especially for lower-income households.
SCALED UP BUSINESSES
Larger markets enable companies to reach more customers and get a higher return on the fixed costs of doing business, like building factories or conducting research. Technology firms have taken special advantage of their innovations this way.
BETTER QUALITY AND VARIETY
Competition from abroad drives US firms to improve their products. Consumers have better products and more choices as a result.
Expanded trade spurs the spread of technology, innovation, and the communication of ideas. The best ideas from market leaders spread more easily.
Globalization supports new job opportunities but also contributes to job displacement. It does not significantly change the total number of positions in the economy, as job numbers are primarily driven by business cycles and Federal Reserve and fiscal policies. Nevertheless, a Peterson Institute study finds 156,250 US manufacturing jobs were lost on net each year between 2001 and 2016 from expanded trade in manufactured goods, which represents less than 1 percent of the workers laid off in a typical year.1 Low-wage workers in certain regions are most affected. Many of them also face lower earnings or have dropped out of the workforce. Bigger factors than trade that drive job displacements are labor-saving technologies, like automated machines and artificial intelligence. Better-paying positions have opened up in manufactured exports—especially in high-tech areas, such as computers, chemicals, and transportation equipment—and other high-skill work, notably in business services, such as finance and real estate (see Jobs section).
DECLINE IN INEQUALITY GLOBALLY, BUT WIDER WITHIN UNITED STATES
Globalization has helped narrow inequality between the poorest and richest people in the world, with the number living in extreme poverty cut by half since 1990. But within many countries, including the United States, inequality is rising. A consensus of scholarly work holds that globalization has contributed marginally to rising US wage inequality, putting this factor at 10 to 20 percent. A leading explanation for rising US inequality [pdf] is that technology is reducing demand for certain low- and middle-wage workers and increasing demand for high-skilled, higher-paid workers. Wages have also stagnated, though economists are still debating the exact causes. Countries exposed to globalization have alleviated inequality to different degrees through tax and welfare systems. The United States has done the least among advanced economies to mobilize government policies to reduce inequality.
1In 2016, 19.9 million workers [pdf] were laid off or discharged (i.e., involuntary separations).
GLOBALIZATION HAS DISPLACED SOME WORKERS, WHILE SUPPORTING HIGH-SKILL JOBS
Globalization changes the types of jobs available but has little effect on the overall number of jobs in the ever-changing US labor market. That being said, some workers have directly benefited from expanding global commerce, while others have not. Certain manufacturing and industry workers in specific geographic regions lost out, such as those in furniture, apparel, steel, auto parts, and electrical equipment industries in Tennessee, Michigan, and the mid-Atlantic states. A widely cited study [pdf] shows that between 1991 and 2007, lower-wage manufacturing workers within industries that faced import competition experienced large and lasting earnings losses, while higher-wage workers in these industries did not. The lower-wage workers may have lacked the skills and mobility to transition to other lines of work, whereas higher-wage workers relocated to companies outside manufacturing. Studies show that globalization has also diminished US worker bargaining leverage to demand higher wages.
The percent of US jobs in manufacturing has steadily declined since the 1940s, before the rise of China, NAFTA, or the WTO, mainly because technology has made it easier to produce goods. American industrial production is at historically high levels, but fewer people are needed to achieve this success. Manufacturing employment share has also declined because consumers are spending a smaller percent of their incomes on manufactured goods and more on services, which include housing, health care, dining out, travel, and legal services. Employment in service industries has grown from about half to 84 percent of all nonfarm, nongovernment employment.
Because US firms often beat international competitors at supplying high-skill services—like engineering, legal, consulting, research, management, and information technology—workers in these fields have benefited the most from globalization.
Business-service employment expanded more than 20 percent between 2006 and 2016. These jobs pay more than 20 percent higher wages than the average manufacturing job.
Foreign-owned companies that do business in the United States have hired Americans at a faster rate than US private employers between 2007 and 2015. They also pay better, do more research and development, export more, and invest more than the average US firm. The same is true, by comparison with local averages, of US firms that invest abroad. One in five American manufacturing workers is now employed by a foreign-owned company operating in the United States.
Demand will likely increase for more highly-skilled manufacturing workers, in areas such as engineering, management, finance, computer and mathematical occupations, and sales. The greatest areas of job growth now in the United States are in professional and business services, health care and social assistance, and educational services. More job training and education is needed to prepare workers for these jobs.
WHY SUPPORT GLOBALIZATION IF IT DISPLACES JOBS?
Economists look at the effects of globalization across the entire economy to weigh the pros vs. cons. Since the overall payoff is so much greater than the costs to individual workers or groups who have lost out, nearly all economists support having an open global market versus closing it off (see example).
Other common arguments:
- Globalization is like technological progress. Both disrupt some livelihoods while enlarging the economic pie and opening up new and better-paying job opportunities. The internet, for instance, made many jobs obsolete but also created new higher-paying jobs and industries unheard of only a few decades ago.
- Protectionism helps select groups but at a higher cost for everyone else. Imposing tariffs on steel, for instance, helps certain domestic steel producers, but many more jobs depend on businesses that need some imported steel to make goods that are affordable. US consumers end up paying more for foreign goods because of the tariff and more for domestic goods because domestic producers often raise prices in the absence of foreign competition. Damage worsens when trading partners retaliate with their own tariffs on US exports. US agriculture is particularly vulnerable to retaliation.
One study shows that US tariffs on Chinese tires under President Barack Obama saved 1,200 tire manufacturing jobs. But US consumers paid $900,000 per job saved, and 3,700 retail jobs were lost as tires became more expensive.
- The United States must keep open markets to stay competitive globally. Other countries are continuing to open their markets to each other, forming regional supply chains that make production more efficient and products more affordable within their trading blocs. By not joining these deals, US exports have a difficult time competing. US businesses may also opt to move operations abroad to gain access to foreign markets.
US real income in 2030 is estimated to be $133 billion less than it would have been if President Trump had remained in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal. Other countries signed a deal in 2018 without the United States, giving them preferential access to each other’s markets.
- Operating within a rules-based system allows for peaceful conflict resolution. There are cases when unfair trade practices and abuses harm US producers. Maintaining international systems to address those problems is key to preventing mutually destructive trade wars—even real wars. Economic integration strengthens US security alliances, while trade wars weaken the ability of the United States to collaborate with allies.
In an ideal world, displaced workers from trade competition could find new jobs, sometimes by moving or gaining new skills. In reality, it has been very difficult for many of these workers to transition, with lasting effects on individuals and their communities. Trade expert Gary Clyde Hufbauer points out that the national income gains from expanded trade are at least 10 times greater than what is needed to meaningfully assist workers who lose their jobs to import competition.
Instead of sacrificing trade gains, many economists recommend domestic policies like wage insurance, expanded tax credits, better unemployment benefits, and subsidies for health insurance for all displaced workers regardless of the cause. Such policies could reduce worker anxiety about job turnover across the board, whether it be from trade or other bigger factors. Currently, there is government support through a program called Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), though it only helps workers directly impacted by trade and the amounts paid are limited. The United States spends only a fifth of what other advanced economies spend on average to help people find new jobs through education, training, job search assistance, and other active labor market programs.
Broader domestic policies can also help workers adapt to the continuously changing job market, such as access to higher education and health care, but Americans remain conflicted about the government’s role in these social safety net programs. Other advanced economies have generally increased the size of government programs as they opened up to trade.
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CHINA’S RISE IN THE GLOBAL ECONOMY CREATES COMPLICATED PROBLEMS
As a major world trading partner and manufacturing hub, China has become one of the most dominant forces in the global economy. It entered the World Trade Organization in 2001 and undertook many reforms, cutting tariffs and other trade barriers. But it still has not completely transformed into a market-oriented economy as its trading partners expected. Many big Chinese companies have close ties with the government, and certain practices have skewed the playing field in trade. For instance, China’s government unfairly demands that US intellectual property be handed over in certain cases as the price of doing business there. And Beijing routinely subsidizes its industries. These practices discriminate against not only Americans but also US allies.
US administrations have taken different approaches to deal with these concerns. Negotiated under President Obama, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement was intended to entice China to improve its practices by allowing the country in on the lucrative deal only if it agreed to new rules, but President Trump withdrew from the deal. There are ongoing efforts started in December 2017 by the European Union, United States, and Japan to negotiate new rules that would potentially be embedded within the WTO.
In 2018, the Trump administration started imposing tariffs on China citing a variety of reasons, including helping American manufacturing, countering forced technology transfers, and reducing China’s large bilateral trade surplus in goods. Beijing retaliated with its own tariffs on US goods, escalating into a trade war. By late 2019, tariffs had increased to around 20 percent and new duties covered over half of exports from each country. To prevent further escalation, China committed to a “phase one deal” to expand purchases from the United States in 2020 and 2021, but it is unlikely China will meet its targets, and the deal does not address many concerns, including China’s industrial subsidies. Evidence to date is that the cost of tariffs has been borne by importing companies, sometimes resulting in higher prices for consumers. Tariffs remain elevated under President Joseph R. Biden Jr., as of mid-2021.
The trade war with China illustrates how globalization has become so widely entrenched in the US and world economies that undoing its complicated web of activities risks other damaging consequences. Below is a list of various protectionist actions and their economic, diplomatic, and national security risks.
Engaging in a trade war, with escalating tit-for-tat tariffs
Withdrawing from free trade agreements
Violating WTO rules or circumventing established processes
Promoting “Buy America” policies
Imposing tariffs to save US manufacturing jobs at specific companies
Restricting imports from specific countries to try to reduce bilateral trade deficits
THE PUBLIC HAS MIXED VIEWS ON GLOBALIZATION
How do Americans feel about globalization? Listening to the debates can be confusing. Not surprisingly, polls vary widely depending on how and when the question is posed.
This Pew Research poll finds more support than not for free trade agreements. But a 2016 Bloomberg poll asked, “Do you think US trade policy should have more restrictions on imported foreign goods to protect American jobs, or have fewer restrictions to enable American consumers to have the most choices and the lowest prices?" This resulted in 65 percent of respondents wanting more restrictions, the opposite of the sentiment expressed in the Pew poll.
Globalization can be a hard sell to the public because the benefits are widely distributed and not as easily understood, compared with the personal costs to very specific companies or workers.
The problem is compounded because policymakers have done little to help workers and communities adjust at a time when the wealthiest Americans have gained the most in recent years. In general, younger people are more supportive of free trade, as most have never known a world without the current system.
Before 2016, Republicans generally favored US trade deals and Democrats generally voted against them. President Trump canceled TPP and threatened withdrawing from NAFTA, the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) (later revised and signed), and the WTO. His administration negotiated the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) to replace NAFTA; the agreement entered into force in 2020. Some GOP congressional members spoke out against Trump on certain trade issues (see example) or drafted bills to limit his authority on tariffs. The Trump administration pushed for more power to impose tariffs.
SUSTAINING GLOBALIZATION THROUGH POLICY ACTION
The global economy has yielded enormous economic gains for the United States, but problems undoubtedly remain. There are abuses within the system and rules need to be updated. Trade agreements should account for the modern digital age. Disputes continue on the trade of certain goods—whether items are flooding other markets too much, how industries are being subsidized, lingering protections on specific goods or economic sectors, etc. Solving these types of issues, which will inevitably arise and change over time, is best done through negotiation and coordination with trading partners—applying due process—in order to prevent costly trade wars, where more and more barriers end up hurting all sides.
But trade negotiations can only go so far. Not enough has been done to help those who have lost out from trade competition. And the reality is that the problems people face today go far beyond the effects of globalization. Manual work is increasingly being automated, lowering demand for workers. Wages are stagnant, as health care and higher education costs rise. Inequality is widening.
Domestic policies that support not just those left behind because of trade competition but all Americans will maximize gains while ensuring inclusive growth critical for national well-being and preventing erosion of multilateral systems that the United States helped build and that have served the country—and the world—well for most of the last century.
The global market still has great potential for the US economy. With anyone in the world now a text, click, call, or plane flight away, 95 percent of potential customers for goods and services are outside the United States, ready to buy goods and services from other countries if US producers are barred from their markets. If American producers want to reach those consumers, the United States must let producers from overseas reach American consumers, as they have over the years for cars, appliances, smartphones, and other products Americans want. More open trade could add another $540 billion to the US economy by 2025, equivalent to $1,600 a year in income per person.
Here are some of the crucial areas that economists have proposed the United States should focus on, as outlined in many studies at the Peterson Institute and other policy organizations. While these goals are simply stated and obviously will pose challenges to resolve, the stakes are high to rebuild trust in a global system that has helped secure prosperity and peace.
Invest in better and more inclusive education to prepare people for tomorrow’s economy.
Give all displaced workers sufficient financial and administrative support to find new jobs and some compensation for lost income.
Address growing income inequality through the tax system and spending programs.
Make sure the healthcare system does not impede workers from finding new jobs or cause significant financial hardship.
Use free trade agreements to improve the competitiveness of US businesses, increase total trade, and boost overall economic growth.
Work within the WTO and various free trade agreements to settle disputes, ensure fairness, protect intellectual property and investment rights, and promote reciprocity and growth. Improve the rules of the system rather than abandon them.
Coordinate with allies to confront trade abuses.
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Goods are physical, produced items traded between countries, like corn, machinery parts, or chemicals.
Services are business activities conducted between countries, such as tourism, finance, insurance, real estate, science exchanges, professional services, business management, education, health care, arts, entertainment, accommodation, and food services.
Exports are goods and services that are sold to individuals or companies outside of their country of origin.
Imports are goods or services purchased from outside the country.
A trade deficit occurs when spending on imports exceeds what is earned from selling exports. A trade surplus is the opposite, when earnings from exports top spending on imports. A country’s trade balance, either a surplus or deficit, is not affected by tariffs or trade agreements but by larger economic factors, like government spending and monetary policy.
Protectionism is the term for government restrictions on international trade aimed at blocking foreign products and driving companies and consumers to purchase domestically produced goods and services. The government may enact taxes on imports (called tariffs), limits on the quantity of imports (called quotas), subsidies to domestic industries, or other regulations. Tariffs are paid by domestic importers, not foreign governments or exporters.
Trade liberalization is the opposite of protectionism—when countries allow people and businesses to buy and sell across borders with fewer restrictions. In this context, liberal refers to more free or open trade.
Written by Melina Kolb
Edited by Madona Devasahayam, Helen Hillebrand, and Steven R. Weisman
Graphics by William Melancon
Videos by Daniel Housch
Chart data collected by Christopher G. Collins and Soyoung Han
Additional research by Anjali Bhatt, Cathleen Cimino-Isaacs, and Zhiyao (Lucy) Lu
Special thanks to C. Fred Bergsten, Chad P. Bown, Cullen S. Hendrix, Gonzalo Huertas, Gary Clyde Hufbauer, Douglas A. Irwin, Fredrick Toohey, Jeffrey J. Schott, and Eitan Urkowitz for their contributions.
This feature was first published on October 29, 2018 and last updated on August 24, 2021.
© 2021 Peterson Institute for International Economics. All rights reserved.
The Peterson Institute for International Economics is an independent nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization dedicated to strengthening prosperity and human welfare in the global economy through expert analysis and practical policy solutions. The Institute discloses all sources of funding, which comes through donations and grants from corporations, individuals, private foundations, and public institutions, as well as income on the Institute’s capital fund and from publishing revenues. Donors do not influence the conclusions or policy implications drawn from Institute research. All Institute research is held to strict standards of replicability and academic integrity. Visit piie.com to learn more.
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