If a populist politician claimed that free trade was driving Americans to suicide, he’d be dismissed as hysterical. Yet that’s the finding of a new study by two academic researchers, one from the Federal Reserve and the other from Yale.
In 2000, the U.S. established permanent normal trade relations with China. Since then, the counties most exposed to the new imports have seen the biggest increases in suicide and related causes of death. The effect is “concentrated among whites, especially white males,” the demographic most likely to be employed in manufacturing.
The normal disclaimers about correlation and causation apply, but the narrative seems plausible enough: Chinese imports devastated American manufacturing jobs, and with them the communities they were concentrated in. Those communities saw rising suicide rates as a result.
So what should we do about that? A coauthor of the study gave an answer to the Wall Street Journal, which relegated the issue to the bottom of its story:
[Peter Schott of Yale] said shutting down trade liberalization was the wrong lesson to take from the paper. “That hurts everyone, and we want the increases in productivity and reductions in prices that trade brings,” he said. “We need to care about the workers, not the jobs.”
He advocated greater spending on programs to re-skill workers and help them to move into growing sectors of the economy.
Look, this is complicated, and I’m not sure what the best approach is myself. We might have kept these jobs here with a different policy 16 years ago, but that doesn’t mean we can bring them back now. Also, as the WSJ notes, free trade benefits many people economically through lower prices, which might improve their health and offset some of the damage done to areas reliant on manufacturing jobs.
But if re-skilling and moving workers is the answer, how are we going to do that better than we have in the past? And if free trade is driving Americans to kill themselves, can’t we at least consider the possibility that some trade restrictions might be worthwhile—even if they cost us “increases in productivity and reductions in prices”?
Robert VerBruggen is managing editor of The American Conservative. Follow @RAVerBruggen