PPI’s Trade Fact of the Week: Liberalism Is Worth Defending



Ed Gresser | Progressive Policy Institute

Liberalism is worth defending.

COVID vaccinations per week, worldwide: 150 million
Workers escaping deep poverty, 2000-2019: 440 million
International students in the U.S., 2020: 1.07 million


PPI re-launches this Trade Fact series under the political equivalent of storm warnings and lowering clouds, in the U.S and worldwide.  Looking abroad, publics abroad appear more tempted than at any time in decades to believe that their country’s gain must entail another’s loss.  Looking inward, they seem increasingly at risk from authoritarian populists and illiberal political parties.  And on a different level of analysis, trust among big-power governments has eroded; and the institutions and agreements built up since the Second World War to safeguard security and promote shared growth – whether NATO, the World Trade Organization, the European Union – accordingly seem ever more fragile. 
Against this ominous backdrop, in concert with like-minded policymakers and intellectuals in the U.S. and elsewhere, PPI aspires to help – by (a) offering new ideas and projects for a liberalism besieged and in need of revitalization; (b) rebutting unfounded cynicism and pessimism, which often are more the cause than the reflection of deteriorating ideals and institutions; and (c) highlighting the successes of active government joined with open exchange of goods, services, and ideas.  In this spirit, the first in this new Trade Fact series notes three successes of liberalism-writ-large:
Half the World’s People Have Received COVID-19 Vaccinations This Year:  22 months after the discovery of a previously unknown coronavirus in Wuhan, government, non-profit, and private-sector investment in medicine development, production technologies, and distribution has provided vaccination shots to 47.8% of the world’s public – that is, 3.7 billion people – with 150 million more shots going into arms each week.
Low-Income Work Has Contracted by Two Thirds Since 2000:  The International Labor Organization finds that in 2020, about 8% of the world’s 3.5 billion workers earned ‘extreme poverty’ wages.  That is, for 280 million workers, a day’s labor brought $1.90 or less in constant 2011 dollars.  In 2000, the ILO’s figure was 26% of 2.76 billion workers, or 720 million.  The difference – 440 million people – implies that, on average, every day since the turn of the millennium, 68,000 workers (and along with them, tens of thousands of their children and relatives), have escaped deep poverty. 
1.07 Million International Students Are Enrolled in American Universities:Despite Trump-era efforts to close borders, America remains the world’s top choice for study abroad, home to 1.07 million of the world’s 5.8 million international students.  Their tuition and expenses count as an “export of services” in trade accounts; in 2020, this came to $39 billion.  (For context, this is 2% of the $2.13 trillion in total U.S. exports; alternatively, by comparison, U.S. farm exports totaled $150 billion in 2020 and auto exports $59 billion.)  Over the long term, the effects are likely larger.  Surveys from the mid-2010s suggest that about half of foreign grad students take U.S. jobs after their degree, contributing to consumer demand, business creation, and perhaps especially – given that half of them are in engineering, math, and science – to American science and technology.   Despite neo-Maoism and U.S.-China tension, 372,000 Chinese students make up the largest single cohort of the 1.07 million.  After classes and commencements, some will stay on to work, while others return to join China’s next-generation elites in business, civil service, arts and media, and so to help shape these institutions’ role in Chinese domestic policy, daily life, and international affairs. 
To ignore storm warnings and lowering clouds is reckless.  The proper response to them is to identify those parts of a roof or a wall that may leak or give way in heavy weather, shore up their weaknesses or replace them with something better.  It is equally important, however, to identify areas of strength, build upon them, and draw on the lessons they offer.  Metaphorical examples appear, in the response of government, non-profit, and private-sector science to a unique medical emergency; in the road out of poverty a still largely open global economy offers the world’s poor; and in the short- and long-term good that can come from education and exchange of ideas.  In such things one can see breaks in the clouds, patches of sunlight ahead, and foundation for PPI’s belief that the liberal project remains vital, successful, and worth defending.

Ed Gresser is Vice President and Director for Trade and Global Markets at PPI.

To read the full commentary, please click here.