Too Late to Compensate Free Trade’s Losers

The usually superb Dani Rodrik has a piece:

Today’s consensus concerning the need to compensate globalization’s losers presumes that the winners are motivated by enlightened self-interest – that they believe buy-in from the losers is essential to maintain economic openness. Trump’s presidency has revealed an alternative perspective: globalization, at least as currently construed, tilts the balance of political power toward those with the skills and assets to benefit from openness, undermining whatever organized influence the losers might have had in the first place. Inchoate discontent about globalization, Trump has shown, can easily be channeled to serve an altogether different agenda, more in line with elites’ interests.

The politics of compensation is always subject to a problem that economists call “time inconsistency.” Before a new policy – say, a trade agreement – is adopted, beneficiaries have an incentive to promise compensation. Once the policy is in place, they have little interest in following through, either because reversal is costly all around or because the underlying balance of power shifts toward them.

The time for compensation has come and gone. Even if compensation was a viable approach two decades ago, it no longer serves as a practical response to globalization’s adverse effects. To bring the losers along, we will need to consider changing the rules of globalization itself.

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