Of Trade and Tenure

There are some protectionists who think it clever to suggest from time to time that academics who support free trade should be replaced with employees of an Indian or Chinese outsourcing firm. To the extent that this is feasible, I think it's a splendid idea. Sending American students to foreign universities might be just what we need to keep the costs of higher education under control, while at the same time improving our relations with foreign nations. And for all the typical American student learns in the course of acquiring a B.A. degree, the classes might as well be taught in Mandarin or Hindi anyway.

But most people who suggest this are, lacking my visionary qualities, probably not serious. It's just their way of suggesting that the opinions of tenured professors should be discounted because they're not at risk of losing their jobs to outsourcing.

This argument is easily identifiable as circumstantial ad hominem. But what's interesting about it is that even if we ignore the fallacy inherent in this sort of argument, the logic is still completely backwards. Generally circumstantial ad hominem takes the following form:

X has a vested interest in the outcome of this debate. Therefore anything X has to say on this issue should be discounted.

But here the protectionists are turning this logic, such as it is, on its head. The opinions of tenured professors are to be discounted, they say, not because they have a vested interest in the debate on trade, but precisely because they're as disinterested as anyone can be and thus immune to conflicts of interest. To these protectionists, the only ones whose opinions matter are those who would receive the narrowly concentrated benefits of protectionism---those who are in fact most susceptible to conflicts of interest. This is roughly parallel to demanding that Dick Cheney release the names of the members of his secret energy task force . . . so that we can make sure that they all work for energy companies.

Anyway, if we're going to play this game, then I think my opinion trumps everyone else's. I'm a software engineer, so I'm as vulnerable to outsourcing as anyone else, but I support free trade. Who in the protectionist camp can top that?

Share this

Mr Berg, I think you are

Mr Berg,

I think you are spot on in your defense of trade, but wrong in your decomposition of the ad hominem attack. The protectionists rightly recognize that free trade improves our access to lower-priced goods and, to the extent that they are transferrable across borders, services. They further recognize that professors are likely to have the opportunity to buy the lower-cost goods (produced in competition with higher-cost goods produced here, likely driving those high-cost manufacturers out o' the market, or at least increasing the possibility that this occurs), but are unlikely to face competition from lower-cost educational service providers. Thus, the free-trade promoting professors have a vested interest in promoting free trade, inasmuch as they get lower-cost goods without the competition of lower-cost services.

The argument, sir, is not backwards. It is a very well-designed attack; I imagine it persuades many ambivalent individuals. It just happens to be wrong. If we wish to persuade people of the goodness of free trade, we, too, should consider whether appealing to the force of logic yields the same persuasion, at the margin, as the logical fallacies employed in argument.

-jpb

The GATT contains provisions

The GATT contains provisions on trade in services. When the WTO requires countries to respect degrees granted in other countries, the cost of education should drop to the cost of books and student time. Brick-and-mortar schools with facilities and grounds to maintain cannot possibly compete with virtual schools which grant credit by exam.

The University of Allahabad offers courses by correspondence. The language of instruction is English.

This is true. The primary

This is true. The primary difference is that the benefits of protectionism are narrowly concentrated, while the benefits of free trade are distributed broadly. To the extent that academics do speak for their own interests, they speak also for the interests of society at large (I vaguely alluded to this by describing academics as "as disinterested as anyone can be"), not for interests peculiar to themselves.

In contrast, those who are or would be protected by trade barriers are, in advocating protectionism, speaking for private, narrow interests.

Of course, all this assumes that the winners from free trade significantly outnumber the losers, but I think that's a fairly reasonable assumption to make.

Regarding fallacies versus sound logic, I suspect that the issue is not that fallacies work better than sound logic, but simply that people are, as Bryan Caplan points out, systematically biased against free trade. Because of this bias, protectionist fallacies trump our logic, but our fallacies won't trump their fallacies unless we can find a way to manipulate that bias to our advantage.

The GATT contains provisions

The GATT contains provisions on trade in services. When the WTO requires countries to respect degrees granted in other countries, the cost of education should drop to the cost of books and student time.

I don't follow. To what extent are foreign degrees not now respected, in a way that can be affected by legislation?

Brandon, if you have, for

Brandon, if you have, for example, a nursing degree or medical degree from outside the US, you have to meet extremely stringent requirements, including a a certification exam, in order to use your degree in this country. This is true even of medical professionals from countries like Germany, France, Britain, Japan, etc. that have the same, or higher, standards within their university systems for these degrees. This is, effectively, a trade barrier in the professional labor market. The same thing applies in many other professional areas, making movement of professional labor across national boundaries very difficult. It would be the same as enacting a barrier against importing a car on the basis that, because it is from another country, the car does not meet our air quality and safety standards for cars. Even though the country it is manufactured in has the same, or higher, standards. All of this is controlled and affected by legislation.

Brandon, if you have, for

Brandon, if you have, for example, a nursing degree or medical degree from outside the US, you have to meet extremely stringent requirements, including a a certification exam, in order to use your degree in this country.

But what about fields where this isn't the case? Many scientists and engineers working in the US were born and educated abroad, and I don't think they have to go through any special certification process to work here. But American students in these fields aren't studying at foreign universities (except through exchange programs, which I don't think are any cheaper), and tuition hasn't fallen precipitously. I don't see how the WTO is going to change that.

There are some

There are some protectionists who think it clever to suggest from time to time that academics who support free trade should be replaced with employees of an Indian or Chinese outsourcing firm.

When I was in college (an engineering school), it seemed like this had already happened - considering the number of classes taught by Teaching Assistants and the number of TAs that were Indian or Chinese. Cheap Asian labor indeed.

As to the "benefits" of a

As to the "benefits" of a FTA with the US, the "new" agreement between Australia and the US (their reward for sending troops to Iraq) is to be reviewed by the Australian Government early this year. I await that report with great interest.

jpb makes the comment that "protectionists rightly recognise that free trade improves our access to lower priced goods..." That may well be true, but I suggest that he look to the response of the US government to (as an instance) sheep meat imports from NZ.

About six years back, NZ sheepmeat suppliers negotiated a major supply and promotion contract with an American supermarket chain. That contract would have seen a considerable increase in NZ lamb imports to the US.

That import supply was established without the benefit of FTA or governmental subsidy.

Following protest from American sheep farmers, all NZ lamb imports to the US were subjected to a 15% import levy and volume restrictions to protect the American sheep farming industry. One will see from time to time, the US government taking similar action in relation to wheat, iron and steel, computer chips, motor cars, an almost endless list.

It would seem, given the continual dissatisfaction expressed in blogland and elsewhere about the American education system that a better education might be found for your kids in Basutoland, or Zimbabwe, or Poland, perhaps even Albania! It is more a matter of how much you pay than the benefits gained, no?

Perhaps if your US schools and teachers are "useless" one could look to the salary packages they earn, and their working conditions. I quite enjoy (as both my parents were teachers) visiting the likes of Back Up the Down Staircase and Mr Babylon and reading of their experiences as teachers. Quite enlightening...

[and dang it I did my best with those links...]

[Fixed. ---BB]

"Following protest from

"Following protest from American sheep farmers, all NZ lamb imports to the US were subjected to a 15% import levy and volume restrictions to protect the American sheep farming industry. One will see from time to time, the US government taking similar action in relation to wheat, iron and steel, computer chips, motor cars, an almost endless list."

Which has caused Outback to stop offering their delicious rack of lamb :<

Brandon: "I don’t see how

Brandon: "I don’t see how the WTO is going to change that."

I don't think I was suggesting that the WTO would change that. All I was suggesting was that we had created barriers to free trade in education. And, actually, if you have ever tried to hire a foreign national directly, it is fairly difficult. Once they're here it's a different story. But there are plenty of barriers to hiring someone with a degree from another country. For a variety of reasons it remains attractive to continue to hire them, but it seems fairly clear the number would be a lot higher without those barriers.

"you have, for example, a

"you have, for example, a nursing degree or medical degree from outside the US, you have to meet extremely stringent requirements, including a a certification exam, in order to use your degree in this country."

The Licensing exam you refer to is the USMLE (US Medical Licensing Exam) Steps 1, 2CK/2CS, and 3. The exact same licensing exams required of US medical school graduates. Foreign graduates disadvantage usually comes in their proficiency of the English language and in the case of the Step 1, the timing at which they have to take this test.

"This is, effectively, a trade barrier in the professional labor market"

Yes it is a trade barrier, but one that is equally place on US medical school graduates. I dont know that this is the best example to use in making your point as it doesnt pertain to Medical school graduates.

With regard to medical

With regard to medical graduates and protectionism in the professional labor market, rather than concentrating on the licensing exam, a far more significant factor is the artificial limit on class sizes and school certification. These limits are enforced by each state, all 50 of which have delegated the power to decree the annual number of medical graduates to the AMA. Schools must do as the AMA says, or the state will close them down, pull their subsidies, etc.

Naturally, the AMA is interested in keeping the number of annual medical graduates below the market level. It artificially restricts the supply of doctors, and thus increases their per capita income.

Incidentally, I have to disagree with you, Brandon, when you say that "the issue is not that fallacies work better than sound logic, but simply that people are, as Bryan Caplan points out, systematically biased against free trade."

Fallacies DO work better than logic. Democratic government depends on a steady stream of propaganda, which is necessarily fallacy-based, not logic-based. People who decide issues based on logic, even when we account for the vagaries of long-term vs. short-term self-interest, are few and far between. As rare and hen's teeth, really.

Eric: I don’t think I was

Eric:
I don’t think I was suggesting that the WTO would change that.

Maybe not, but Malcom Kirkpatrick was: "When the WTO requires countries to respect degrees granted in other countries, the cost of education should drop to the cost of books and student time."

All I was suggesting was that we had created barriers to free trade in education. And, actually, if you have ever tried to hire a foreign national directly, it is fairly difficult.

Probably. But, again, this doesn't explain why American students in unlicensed fields (e.g., science and engineering) don't take advantage of cheap foreign schools. I don't see that there are any strong governmental barriers to them doing so.

Brandon- re: why don't US

Brandon-

re: why don't US students go abroad for cheap education? Because signalling and social networks are as important to most science/engineering grads as learning the material.

Brandon, I've made the

Brandon,

I've made the same suggestion in regard to my view on abortion.

"Of course, all this assumes

"Of course, all this assumes that the winners from free trade significantly outnumber the losers, but I think that's a fairly reasonable assumption to make."

Even if it is only an assumption, there is no reason to suppose that the winners will be evenly distributed. Given our export of entire industries overseas, we are giving up our research advantage and wrecking the middle class at the same time.
Bad news.
Worse news.