|Remarks by Chairman Alan Greenspan
Trade and technology
Before the Minnesota Meeting, Minneapolis, Minnesota
September 30, 1999
I am pleased to be back in the Twin Cities and to appear before this gathering. I last addressed the Minnesota Meeting in 1990, speaking in the wake of events in the Persian Gulf. In the near-decade since, I have written many words on the crucial nexus between global events and U.S. economic well-being.
Thus, knowing the interests of this audience, my good friend Gary Stern, the president of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank, suggested that I focus on some issues related to international trade and technology that I have raised recently in other forums. Recognizing that those topics are of vital concern almost everywhere in our economy, I had no trouble following his advice.
The evidence is overwhelmingly persuasive that the massive increase in world competition--a consequence of broadening trade flows--has fostered markedly higher standards of living for almost all countries that have participated in cross-border trade. I include most especially the United States. And yet, there are reasons to be concerned that the benefits of increasingly open trade may not be allowed to be as readily forthcoming in the future as they have been in the past half-century.
Although many forces have been at play, the post-World War II surge in trade has clearly owed, in large part, to significant advances in technological innovation. Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, there has been an inexorable drive to leverage physical brawn and material resources into ever-greater value added or output. New insights into the laws of nature brought steam and later electric power. The development of precision production standards that facilitated interchangeable parts brought assembly-line production. And the development of railroads facilitated the evolution of mass markets.
Almost all the rise in value added relative to physical input has reflected the substitution of ideas--new insights--for brute human effort and material bulk. Some of the most impressive advances in labor productivity over the decades have come in sectors of the economy in which physical effort was the most demanding--agriculture, for example. Aggregate value added by the farm sector has more than tripled in real terms over the past half-century, but the number of hours required to produce it has fallen by three-fourths. Manufacturing has displayed similar, though less pronounced, tendencies in recent decades--factory employment is down about 13 percent from its peak of twenty years ago, but output of the sector has risen about 75 percent.
Like labor inputs, material requirements per unit of output also have fallen in many sectors of the economy. The insights of metallurgy and architectural and engineering design, for example, enabled the construction of buildings that use far less physical material per unit of space than, say, a half-century ago. The insights that led to central heating, as well as synthetic fiber, facilitated reduced clothing weight, while the development of the jet engine brought far greater annual passenger miles per unit of aircraft size.
But doubtless it has been the advent in recent decades of the synergies of the microprocessor, lasers, and fiber optics that has fostered a distinct quickening in the displacement of physical weight of output with concepts. The ability to miniaturize transistor electronic circuits has displaced huge tonnages of copper and enhanced the speed of calculation.
As high tech became an increasing part of our national product, the relative physical dimensions of our value added fell dramatically. The per capita physical weight of our gross domestic product is evidently only scarcely higher today than it was fifty or one hundred years ago. By far the largest contributor to growth of our price-adjusted GDP, or value added, has been ideas--insights that leveraged physical reality. The consequent downsizing of output, of course, meant that products were easier, and hence less costly, to move, and most especially across national borders as well as domestically.
It is thus not surprising that the price-adjusted level of international trade, as I indicated earlier, has expanded at a far faster pace than gains in real domestic demand. Imports of goods and services as a percentage of gross domestic products worldwide, on average, have risen from approximately 14 percent twenty-five years ago to 24 percent today.
The growth in physical weight of such trade, as with the national product generally, has been far less. Real U.S. exports of computers and other high-tech products, which pack considerable value into small volumes, have posted spectacular gains, while exports of weightier commodities have grown much less rapidly. In agriculture, exports of bulk products, such as grain, have lagged, trade having been dominated, to a considerable degree, by international transfer of the technologies for growing these commodities more efficiently. The expansion of farm exports that has taken place has tended to be concentrated more among high-value perishables, shipments of which have been bolstered, in part, by transportation and storage innovations.
Technology has augmented international trade for reasons beyond the downsizing of material output. New telecommunications technologies made it very difficult for the autarchic societies of the former Soviet Union to sustain their isolation in the face of the growing relative affluence of the West. News could no longer be bottled up. Even in the West, the stultification of protectionism became increasingly evident as new consumer products entered the world markets en masse. The political pressures to deregulate moribund industries and open up borders to trade soon became irresistible.
The international trading system that evolved has enhanced competition and fostered the continuous scrapping of old technologies to make way for the new. Standards of living rise because the depreciation and other cash flows of industries employing older, increasingly obsolescent, technologies are marshaled to finance the newly produced capital assets that almost always embody the cutting-edge technologies. This is the process by which wealth is created incremental step by incremental step. It presupposes a continuous churning of an economy in which the new displaces the old, and its most concrete and meaningful result is that a growing and increasingly diverse mix of goods and services is made available to consumers here and abroad. With future changes in technology likely to create greater possibilities for tailoring products that meet consumer needs more precisely, new trade opportunities may open up over time even for producers of some of the bulk commodities that have lagged.
But there is also little doubt that this transition to the new high-tech economy, of which rising trade is a part, is proving difficult for a large segment of our workforce that interfaces with our rapidly changing capital stock day-by-day.
Moreover, while major advances in standards of living are evident among virtually all nations that have opened their borders to increased competition, the adjustment trauma has also distressed those who once thrived in companies that were then at the cutting edge of technology, but which have since become increasingly less competitive in both domestic and foreign markets. Economists will say that workers should move from the steel districts of western Pennsylvania to a vibrant Silicon Valley. And eventually they, or more likely, their children, will. But the adjustment process is wrenching to an existing workforce made redundant largely through no fault of their own. It may be argued that all workers should have the foresight to recognize shifts in long-term job opportunities and move in advance of obsolescence. This regrettably is a skill not in great abundance--among business managers or the economists who counsel them, as well as among workers.
Yet the protectionist propensity to thwart the process of the competitive flow of capital from failing technologies to the more productive is unwise and surely self-defeating. History tells us that not only is it unwise to try to hold back innovations, it is also not possible over the longer run. Generation after generation has experienced episodes in which the technologically obsolescent endeavored to undermine progress, often appealing to the very real short-term costs of adjusting to a changing economic environment. From the Luddites to the Smoots and the Hawleys, competitive forces have been attacked. In the end, the opponents of change did not prevail, and long-term advances in standards of living resumed.
Nonetheless, the campaign to expand free trade is never won. Legislation to further lower trade barriers, for example, is becoming increasingly more difficult to pass in our Congress. It is a continuing battle. Further, while tariffs in industrial countries have come down sharply over the past half-century, other barriers have become more prevalent. Administrative protection in the form of antidumping suits and countervailing duties is a case in point. While these forms of protection have often been imposed under the label of promoting "fair trade," oftentimes they are just simple guises for inhibiting competition. Typically, antidumping duties are levied when foreign average prices are below average cost of production. But that also describes a practice that often emerges as a wholly appropriate response to a softening in demand. It is the rare case that prices fall below marginal cost, which would be a more relevant standard. Antidumping initiatives should be reserved, in the view of many economists, for those cases in which anticompetitive behavior is involved. Contrary to popular notions about antidumping suits, under U.S. and WTO law, it is not required to show evidence of predatory behavior, or intention to monopolize, or of any other intentional efforts to drive competitors out of business.
In the end it is clear that all economic progress rests on competition. It would be a great tragedy were we to stop the wheels of progress because of an incapacity to assist the victims of progress.
Our efforts should be directed at job skills enhancement and retraining--a process in which the private market is already engaged. Thwarting competition, by placing barriers to imports, will prevent the needed transitions of the productive capital stock of the United States and other nations that enable it to continuously concentrate on producing those goods and services most desired by consumers. Protectionism will also slow the inevitable transition of the workforce to more productive endeavors. To be sure, an added few years may enable some workers to reach retirement with dignity, but it will also keep frozen in place younger workers whose better job opportunities decline with time.
I regret that trade policy has been inextricably linked with job creation. We too often try to promote free trade on the mistaken ground that it will create jobs. The reason should be that it enhances standards of living through the effects of competition on productivity and widens the range of choices available to consumers. It is difficult to find credible evidence that trade has affected the level of total employment in this country over the long run. Indeed, we are currently experiencing the widest trade deficit in history with a level of unemployment close to record lows. Certainly, the distribution of jobs by industry is affected by international trade--but it is also affected by domestic trade. It is the relative balance of supply and demand in a competitive market economy that determines the mix of employment. When exports fall or imports rise, domestic demand and relative prices have invariably adjusted in the long run to leave total employment relatively unaffected. As economists like to say, all imports are eventually paid for with exports.
I also regret that despite the remarkable success over a near half-century of GATT, the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs, and its successor, the World Trade Organization, in reducing trade barriers, our trade laws and negotiating practices are essentially adversarial. They presume that a trade concession extracted from us by our trading partners is to their advantage at our expense, and must be countered.
Few economists see the world that way. And I am rash enough to suggest that we economists are correct, at least in this regard: Trade is not a zero sum game.
If trade barriers are lowered by both parties, each clearly benefits. But if one lowers barriers and the other does not, the country that lowered barriers unilaterally will still be better off having done so. Raising barriers to achieve protectionist equality with reluctant trading partners would be neither to our benefit nor to theirs. The best of all possible worlds for competition is for both parties to lower trade barriers. The worst is for both to keep them up.
For these reasons, I am concerned about the recent evident weakening of support for free trade in this country. Should we endeavor to freeze competitive progress in place, we will almost certainly slow economic growth overall and impart substantial harm to those workers who would otherwise seek more effective longer-term job opportunities. Protecting markets from new technologies has never succeeded. Adjustments to newer technologies have been delayed, but only at significant cost.
Even should our trading partners not retaliate in the face of increased American trade barriers, an unlikely event, we do ourselves great harm by lessening the vigor of American competitiveness. The United States has been in the forefront of the postwar opening up of international markets, much to our, and the rest of the world's, benefit.
It would be a great tragedy were that process reversed. I do not believe that will be allowed to happen. There is too much at stake for us and our trading partners.