In this paper I discuss two long disputed notions: that capitalism without crises is a fallacy respectively that capitalism bashing, however severe, will not endanger the system itself. Yet proving both is not an easy task since the capitalism issue has always been a cupellation of theory, ideology and political precepts, which are controversial and hard to disentangle. That capitalism detractors are numberless is a truism. Yet criticism against capitalism, however fierce, has always been clearly delineated. Not any more: globalization has rendered the picture dangerously fuzzy. It is now hard to ascertain whether someone who will harangue about the ostensible evils of globalization is also a declared anti-capitalist. The blend of capitalism and globalization seems to be pure dynamite.
The formidable surge in the volume of international trade after 1960 stimulated surveys designed to ascertain to what degree the commercial flows among nations reflected the structure of their economies, in other words, how tight was the correlation between international exchanges and the specific attributes of participating nations. In fact, scholars were keen to test the relevance of the conventional Heckscher-Ohlin theory, that is, to what extent did nations’ exports reflect their endowment with factors of production, more specifically, whether their exports used their abundant factors intensively. I try to show that, although most of the tests reached their purpose in that they confirmed the conventional theory’s predictions, in certain cases such as Japan, whose economy is arguably idiosyncratic, factor specificity is more relevant than factor intensity in explaining, not only the country’s international specialization but also the premises of its uncanny 20th century ascendance to the top of the world economy.
During the last two decades, the intra-industry trade between western companies and former socialist enterprises in Central and Eastern Europe gradually shifted from the subcontracting of marginal operations such as final assembly to the outsourcing of products and intermediate inputs. To further enhance their competitiveness, firms in Central and Eastern Europe have yet to take one more step forward: integrate services with manufacturing. Developing such capabilities hinges, aside from intensive training and learning on the existence of functional interactive knowledgebased innovation systems. Whereas Central and East European economies exhibit conspicuous weaknesses in this last respect, they still possess a countervailing advantage that is apt to lure foreign investors into the region: lower wage rates relative to western countries across all industries and skill levels. Offshoring therefore seems to be the most appropriate means to reconcile the two sides of the coin.
In keeping with an already entrenched paradigm, international trade in tasks exerts upward pressure upon skilled workers’ wages in both home and host countries. Yet certain empirical evidence from intra-European trade shows that sometimes things occur in reverse, that is high skilled workers’ wages in home countries may decline as a result of offshoring, an outcome that looks like an inverse “maquiladora effect”. I try to show that such deviations do not fly in the face of mainstream theory but rather, they reflect the different conditions under which offshoring is performed today as compared to the ones prevailing two decades ago.
The adoption by the European Union of environmental and social standards seems to affect trade relations with countries from outside the Union. Most seriously hurt are a great number of developing countries that are highly dependent on the European market for their exports. Complying with the said regulations means higher production costs, which eat into the respective countries’ international competitiveness. However, for all the widespread discontent, many developing countries are taking steps in order to adjust their production and export systems to the new rules. Unfortunately it will probably take a long time until full compliance is achieved. Meanwhile, in the short run, the frequent clashes between developing countries and their partners in the West in respect of environmental and social issues are disrupting the smooth functioning of international trade.
The relation between international trade and environmental and social issues has deep historical roots, having been manifest ever since the first industrial revolution. Ironically, the expansion of industrial activities marked, besides the exit from economic backwardness, the commencement of an inexorable war of men against nature. Concomitantly industrialization laid the groundwork for an explosive increase in international trade, which made the latter responsible for increasing environment degradation and social rights infringement. The removal of trade barriers in the first decades after the Second World War as well as the subsequent regulation induced by globalization rendered the bad effects of man’s activity upon nature even more conspicuous. Yet somewhat paradoxically, for all the harm inflicted upon the environment so far, international trade now seems to be an efficient vehicle by which dirty production still prevailing in many countries of the world could be curtailed. The paper is intended to explore, from historical perspective, how environmental issues have come to be entangled with international trade and how serious the problem is.
Industrialization laid the foundation for contemporary civilization but also begot environmental problems, which have been building up and remained unsolved to this day. There is widespread belief that, if industrial manufacturing lies at the root of environment degradation through endless spewing of residual waste, trade among nations is to blame for scattering residual waste the world over. Yet paradoxically, it is the very international trade that might be the ground for major remedies thereto. The 20th century witnessed the shift from free trade to fair trade; it is about time to shift from fair trade to clean trade.
Nevertheless, such serious problems had barely been dealt with until the post-World War II period. An awareness-raising effort in this line was made by the European Union (EU) which, since the early 1970s, has been dealing with environmental and social issues, especially the ones deriving from international trade, in a decisive and responsible manner. Still, EU’s new policy in the field of environment protection has a downside in that it affects trade relations with partners from outside the Union, both developing and developed countries, thereby drawing fierce international reaction. The good part is that EU’s actions will most likely prompt other nations to follow suit.
Free trade denotes a state of international commercial relations premised on governments’ restraint from using policy instruments meant to favor indigenous industries against foreign competitors. According to the conventional trade theory advocated by classical and neo-classical thinkers, free trade makes little economic sense failing nations’ tendency to specialize based on comparative advantage, a concept with high persuasive influence despite the elapsing of time. Even though the comparative advantage rule has seldom been questioned per se, the free trade concept has been fiercely disputed and not infrequently, bashed. Nations’ involvement in international trade often follows patterns that do not fit theoretical models but attempt to respond to circumstantial interests, most often the need to protect poorly competitive industries. In common parlance, free trade has had both proponents and enemies.