Tweeners

David Wessel writes in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal about tweeners – those individuals who are neither clear winners or clear losers in globalization.

They’re consumers, as all Americans are, so they enjoy the better quality, lower prices and great choice that imports offer. On the job, they aren’t squeezed hard by overseas competitors but neither do they see much direct benefit from trade. Yet they worry — with some justification — that the combination of globalization, technology and immigration makes their jobs and wages vulnerable. And they fear their children will have even more reason to worry.

He argues that tweeners can’t simply be compensated for their loses:

A smarter approach would be to make those tweeners more economically fit, to find ways to equip Americans to prosper in an economy in which there are more global competitors and more tasks that computers can do and to insure them against the greater volatility of today’s economy in which today’s winner job can be a loser job tomorrow.

I very much like the concept of tweeners as a way of better understanding the complexities of globalization. I am also a long standing proponent of the idea of creating winners (see my 1999 report, Making the Global Economy Work for Every Worker).
But Wessel implicitly accepts the argument that unrestricted global competition is good, even thought he states:

It’s time to stop thinking about globalization as good or bad. It’s both.

I say this because he repeats the following somewhat economic Darwinian idea:

In the quest for better metaphors, Mr. Richardson [J. David Richardson, an economist at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School who is writing a book on this subject for the Institute for International Economics] sees global markets “as a kind of fitness center” for firms, industries, workers and communities. “Those that are fittest grow prosperous and stably. But others, less fit, grow more sluggishly and fitfully. And still others, who consciously try to avoid global competition, face grave health risks.”

According to Wessel,

Mr. Richardson is still working on that chapter. It’ll surely emphasize the urgent need to do better, much better, at education and training and to expand successful experiments that give workers and companies the incentives to do what’s needed — not to pay off losers but to make more winners.

Like Wessel, I am also eagerly looking forward to the book Richardson’s last chapter where he tells us how to make the tweeners more “economically fit”. We will see if Mr. Richardson can come up with any new ideas – or simply recycle the same ones that we all (me included) continue to recite.
My question is how fit they can be to compete for jobs in a world were there are “more global competitors and more tasks that computers can do”. In order to understand how to be economically fit, we need to know, “fit for what.” Right now, I don’t know of anyone who can tell me what the “what” is.
What jobs can US workers compete for when there is a group of very smart, very skilled and very educated workers in other nations who will work at a quarter of your price? How does one get economically fit for that? It is like telling a 50 year man that he needs to start working out so that he can take on Michael Jordon in some one-on-one hoops. Simply put, it ain’t going to happen.
We need a much better set of solutions than the ones we have been talking about for years.

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