Anti-Trade America?

CAMBRIDGE – The rise of anti-trade populism in the 2016 US election campaign portends a dangerous retreat from the United States’ role in world affairs. In the name of reducing US inequality, presidential candidates in both parties would stymie the aspirations of hundreds of millions of desperately poor people in the developing world to join the middle class. If the political appeal of anti-trade policies proves durable, it will mark a historic turning point in global economic affairs, one that bodes ill for the future of American leadership.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has proposed slapping a 45% tax on Chinese imports into the US, a plan that appeals to many Americans who believe that China is getting rich from unfair trade practices. But, for all its extraordinary success in recent decades, China remains a developing country where a significant share of the population live at a level of poverty that would be unimaginable by Western standards.

Consider China’s new five-year plan, which aims to lift 55 million people above the poverty line by 2020, a threshold defined as just CN¥2,300, or $354, per year. This compares with a poverty line of around $12,000 for a single person in the US. Yes, there are significant cost-of-living differences that make direct comparisons dubious, and, yes, poverty is as much a social condition as an economic one, at least in advanced economies; but the general point that inequality between countries swamps inequality within countries is a very powerful one.

And China’s poverty problem is hardly the world’s worst. India and Africa both have populations roughly comparable to China’s 1.4 billion people, with significantly smaller shares having reached the middle class.