In New APSR Article, Political Scientists Ask: “How Much Is One American Worth?”

In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Kumar Ramanathan, covers the new article by Diana C. Mutz and Amber Hye-Yon Lee, University of Pennsylvania, “How Much is One American Worth? How Competition Affects Trade Preferences

In the 2016 election and beyond, Donald Trump has attacked trade policies as part of his “America First” slogan, denouncing “the ravages of other countries, making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs.” The America First platform emphatically suggested that Americans should place more value on the well-being of their fellow citizens than that of those living outside their borders. To what extent do Americans follow such a principle? Or, put more uncomfortably, how much do Americans value the well-being of a fellow citizen relative to the well-being of a foreigner?

Political scientists Diana Mutz and Hye-Yon Lee examine these questions in their new article in the American Political Science Review.

Mutz and Lee argue that Americans’ tendency to value the well-being of fellow citizens over foreigners in the context of trade policy is rooted in beliefs about trade as a zero-sum competition. To examine this phenomenon, the authors compare the attitudes of Americans and Canadians. Earlier research has suggested that while Americans value individualism and competition, Canadians place more emphasis on collective benefits. Thus, comparing attitudes toward trade in the two countries should reveal how Americans’ competition-oriented attitudes shape their reactions to trade policies.

By comparing responses across experimental conditions, Mutz and Lee are able to show how many jobs for foreigners are worth roughly the same as one American or Canadian job.

Mutz and Lee conducted their research by surveying over 4,000 individuals in the United States and Canada. Each survey participant in the study was shown a brief description of a trade agreement involving their home country and a trading partner country, and then asked if they supported the agreement. The statements varied information about the effect of the trade policy on home country and trading partner country jobs. Some participants read that the policy created jobs in the home country and reduced jobs in the trading partner country, some read that it reduced jobs in the home country and created jobs overseas, and still others read that the agreement created jobs in both countries. By comparing responses across experimental conditions, Mutz and Lee are able to show how many jobs for foreigners are worth roughly the same as one American or Canadian job.

To examine whether people care about the effects of trade policies on other countries, Mutz and Lee compare the responses of participants who read about the “win-win” scenario where both countries gain jobs with those who read about the scenario where the home country gains and the trading partner loses jobs.

Americans express nearly identical levels of support for trade policies in each of these scenarios, suggesting that they support policies with home country job gains regardless of the impact on other countries. Canadians, however, are more supportive of the “win-win” scenario than the one where only their home country gains. These findings suggest that Canadians tend to value the potential positive effects of trade on foreigners more than Americans.

The authors’ analysis shows that, for Canadians, roughly 10 jobs gained by foreigners is enough to offset a loss of one domestic job.

Turning away from the possibility of a “win-win” situation, Mutz and Lee compare responses between participants who read about the two “win-lose” scenarios: where the home country gains and the trading partner loses jobs, or vice versa. Not surprisingly, both Americans and Canadians prefer policies where their home country gains to policies where they lose jobs. However, the difference in support between the two scenarios is much bigger in the United States than in Canada. Many Canadians are willing to support trade policies even when their country experiences some losses.

While many Canadians see trade as a potentially cooperative venture with mutual benefits, Americans tend to perceive trade as having winners and losers.

Since participants received different information about the ratio of job losses to gains, Mutz and Lee are able to ask the uncomfortable question of how much one Canadian or American job is worth for citizens relative to the jobs of those outside their borders. The authors’ analysis shows that, for Canadians, roughly 10 jobs gained by foreigners is enough to offset a loss of one domestic job. Meanwhile, Americans express a clear preference for the “home gain and partner loss” scenario regardless of the ratio of job gains to losses. Their level of support increases as the ratio of home gains to partner losses increases, while it remains persistently low for the “home loss and partner gain” scenario. Strikingly, Americans prefer a policy where the United States gains 1 job for each 1000 foreign jobs lost to a policy where the U.S. loses 1 job for each 1000 foreign jobs gained.

Mutz and Lee’s findings help us understand the popularity of “America First”-style trade policies in the United States. Such policies find support in a context where ordinary citizens view trade as a competition and value the livelihood of fellow citizens significantly more heavily than the livelihood of foreigners. Comparing Americans to Canadians provides an instructive contrast: Canadians also tend to prefer policies where their home country gains jobs, but they are willing to tolerate some losses if it means that workers elsewhere will experience significant gains. While many Canadians see trade as a potentially cooperative venture with mutual benefits, Americans tend to perceive trade as having winners and losers.


  • Kumar Ramanathan is a doctoral candidate in political science at Northwestern University and will be a doctoral fellow at the American Bar Foundation beginning in the fall of 2020. His dissertation investigates how liberal politicians in northern Democratic Party contested and constructed a civil rights legislative agenda during the 1930s-60s, and aims to explain the origins and limitations of racial liberalism as it emerged among these party elites. His research agenda also includes a set of projects on the impact of civil rights law and policy on the politics of social policy after the 1960s, and collaborative projects on immigrant political participation and urban politics. At Northwestern, Kumar is affiliated with the Chicago Democracy Project, the Comparative Historical Social Sciences Working Group, and the Program in Legal Studies. He received his B.A. in political science and philosophy from Tufts University.
  • Article details: American Political Science ReviewVolume 114Issue 4, November 2020 , pp. 1179-1194
  • About the APSA Public Scholarship Program

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