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Economists debate free trade at forum

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Friday, November 21, 2008

Economists Douglas Irwin and Dani Rodrik wrangled with issues of globalization and free trade last night at the Janus Forum-sponsored discussion “A Race to the Bottom? Globalization and the Economic Future.”

Though both were in favor of globalization and free trade in general, Irwin, an economics professor at Dartmouth College, argued that globalization has raised wages and the standard of living worldwide, whereas Rodrik, who is a professor of international political economy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, took a more nuanced stance, arguing that while globalization has some benefits, many free trade policies have hurt developing nations.

The lecture, which had students, faculty and community members packed into MacMillan 117 and spilling into the aisles, was the third this semester in the Janus Forum Lecture Series. The Janus Forum, the student arm of Brown’s Political Theory Project, seeks to promote political debate on campus.

The Forum’s co-director, Dan MacCombie ‘08.5 introduced the lecture by asking, “Is globalization the tide that lifts all boats or the storm that swamps them? Does it cause a race to the bottom, or is it just a myth?”

From there, Irwin and Rodrik each took 25 minutes to address these questions. Irwin spoke first, using data on wages to argue that the advent of global trade has improved the standard of living in nations such as India and China, and that international trade makes all countries better off overall. He also used the example of Vietnam, where poverty rates of agricultural workers are significantly higher than those of sweatshop workers, to refute the popular notion that features of the “race to the bottom” are necessarily bad.

Rodrik, however, countered this claim, saying that free trade increases wage and quality-of-life inequities. “One thing that we need to bear in mind is … even though there is a theorem that says that trade makes countries better off, there’s no theorem that says that everybody is going to be better off.”

He also challenged Irwin’s use of India and China as examples of the positive effects of globalization, arguing that those countries “have prospered by playing by their own rules” – in other words, that China and India do not represent typical cases because they have been able to protect themselves from some of the negative immediate effects of globalization by pursuing methods of integration into world markets that may not be available to other developing nations.

This lecture differed from previous Janus Forum events in that after the initial arguments, each professor was given the opportunity to ask the other two questions before the floor was opened up to the audience.

Eric Hubble ’11 said that he liked the additional questions, saying that the experts themselves may be able to ask better questions of each other than audience members can.

Michael Freeman ’09 also liked the event, though he said he did wish that Irwin and Rodrik had been more vehement in their arguments. “There wasn’t much debating,” he said. “I didn’t really feel like they were really going for the weaknesses in each others’ arguments, and I wish the disagreements had been more emphasized.”

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