The law of comparative advantage is not dead
That’s the message Jagdish Bhawgati delivered in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Friday, responding to Thomas “The World is Flat” Friedman. [I]t is wrong to infer from this that the world has gone “flat,” and that there is no comparative advantage left. The notion of a flat world is as wrong metaphorically now as ...
That's the message Jagdish Bhawgati delivered in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Friday, responding to Thomas "The World is Flat" Friedman.
That’s the message Jagdish Bhawgati delivered in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Friday, responding to Thomas “The World is Flat” Friedman.
[I]t is wrong to infer from this that the world has gone “flat,” and that there is no comparative advantage left. The notion of a flat world is as wrong metaphorically now as it was when Copernicus showed it to be literally wrong. To be more precise than his metaphor, Mr. Friedman has on his mind not the world but a large fraction of it — India and China. He believes that the gradient which the citizens of these countries had to climb to get to our shores and out-compete us has now disappeared, giving way to a level playing field that we ignore at our peril. But he takes too literally his friends in Bangalore. They flex their muscles on IT the way Popeye does on spinach, and tell him that some Indians can now do anything that the Americans can do. But it is a leap to translate this into the proposition that several Indians will now do everything that the Americans do. Then again, we have Intel Chairman Craig Barrett talking about 300 million Indians and Chinese professionals who will hurtle down the flat road. And Clyde Prestowitz, in his latest book, carries the argument to its logical conclusion with the American nightmare that there will be three billion Indians and Chinese capitalists soon down that road. In truth, the flat road is not flat at all. Take the supply of educated manpower in India. Of the numbers in the age cohort for college education, only about 6% make it to college. Of these, only two-thirds graduate, and just a small fraction can read English. Of these, a further fraction can speak it; and of these, a smaller fraction still can speak it in a way which you and I can understand. The truth of the matter, therefore, is that even for the call-answer and back-office services, the numbers who will compete are only a very small fraction of the numbers being thrown about. India’s huge size and the dazzle of the few Institutes of Technology are totally misleading. The road is not flat; the gradient becomes steep as wages rise for those who can manage while others cannot qualify. Again, just think back on why China has not managed to break into IT the way it has on a range of manufactures, while India has. Surely, that has to do with the fact that India is democratic and hence IT can flourish. By contrast, the CP (the Communist Party) is not compatible with the PC: Authoritarian regimes are fearful of IT — a gigantic pothole in the road! Such fears of a flat road were rampant when many thought that Japan would be a fearsome Godzilla, trampling over our activities all around. But then it turned out that the Japanese were real klutzes in the financial sector. They still are. And remember that while the Chinese and Indians have lower wages, we have better infrastructure, stronger venture capital markets, an ability to attract talent from around the world, and a culture of inventiveness. Comparative advantage persists; the road is simply not flat.
The best rebuttal to Bhagwati’s argument, by the way, is not Thomas Friedman, but labor economist Richard Freeman. So go check both of them out.
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast. Twitter: @dandrezner
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