Rethinking Free Trade

In The Nation, William Greider looks on some revisions of thought on free-trade by mainstream economists.

Ralph Gomory, on the other hand, is a gentle-spoken technologist, trained as a mathematician and largely apolitical. He does not set out to overthrow the establishment but to correct its deeper fallacies. For many years Gomory was a senior vice president at IBM. He helped manage IBM’s expanding global presence as jobs and high-tech production were being dispersed around the world.

The experience still haunts him. He decided, in retirement, that he would dig deeper into the contradictions. Now president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, he knew something was missing in the “pure trade theory” taught by economists. If free trade is a win-win proposition, Gomory asked himself, then why did America keep losing?

The explanations he has developed sound like pure heresy to devout free traders. But oddly enough, Gomory’s analysis is a good fit with what many ordinary workers and uncredentialed critics (myself included) have been arguing for some years. An important difference is that Gomory’s critique is thoroughly grounded in the orthodox terms and logic of conventional economics. That makes it much harder to dismiss. Given his career at IBM, nobody is going to call Ralph Gomory a “protectionist.”

He did not nail his “theses” to the door of the Harvard economics department. Instead, he wrote a slender book–Global Trade and Conflicting National Interests–in collaboration with respected economist William Baumol, former president of the American Economic Association. Published seven years ago, the book languished in academic obscurity and until recently was ignored by Washington policy circles.