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Archive for the ‘Protectionism’ Category

I support free trade for selfish reasons. I want my life to be better and I want my country to be richer.

But I also support free trade for selfless reasons. I want other people in other countries to be richer as well.

And rejecting protectionism usually is a way to achieve both my selfish and selfless goals.

But not always. Let’s look at some new evidence about the selfless benefits of open trade and globalization.

In an article for VoxEU, Maksym Chepeliev, Maryla Maliszewska, Israel Osorio Rodarte, Maria Filipa Seara e Pereira, and Dominique van der Mensbrugghe summarize their new research on global value chains.

The authors look at the economic consequences if some or all companies are told they have to rely solely on domestic suppliers (“reshoring”) compared to a world where they engage in cross-border trade.

As you can can see from this chart, you get bad results from some protectionism (reshoring leading economies) or more protectionism (reshoring all economies). Liberalization, by contrast, leads to good results.

Here’s some of what they wrote about their results.

A possible reshoring of production by the leading economies and China would have a negative impact in most regions, with real income decreasing by 1.5% worldwide. A localised world takes the biggest toll on developing countries with the Middle East and North Africa, Rest of East Asia and Pacific, and Europe and Central Asian regions being hit the most severely (Figure 1). However, countries subsidising domestic production would also be worse off as reshoring decreases trade and income, limits the variety of products available to producers and consumers, and increases prices.

If you look closely at Figure 1, you will notice that the United States and other rich nations suffer relatively small income losses from protectionism.

So this is a case where the selfish argument for free trade does not play a big role.

But the selfless argument is very strong. The authors point out that poor nations are the ones that reap big rewards with expanded trade.

Or suffer big losses in a world with more protectionism.

Under the ‘Reshoring all’ scenario, 51.8 million additional people would fall into extreme poverty by 2030, the equivalent to a 0.6% increase in the global extreme poverty headcount ratio. …The ‘GVC-friendly’ scenario, on the other hand, could lift 21.5 million people from extreme poverty by 2030. …In addition, we find that 56.2 million would graduate to global middle-class status, measured as individuals with a per capita consumption of more than PPP $10.00 a day.

Figure 4 shows that protectionism produces more extreme poverty while expanded trade saves people from that awful fate.

Let’s close with two simple observations.

Also, any discussion about trade is incomplete without an acknowledgement that not everyone benefits in the short run from changing patterns of trade.

But that’s true whether the trade is between countries or within countries.

We should acknowledge that new competitors, new technologies, and new products are part of “creative destruction,” which can cause pain for some people in the short run.

The key thing to understand, however, is that this is the process that makes societies far more prosperous in the long run. Moreover, when politicians interfere, they will cause more pain for more people in both the short run and the long run.

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I’m a knee-jerk supporter of free trade, which simply means I don’t think politicians and bureaucrats should be able to interfere with my freedom to buy good and services from people who happen to live in other nations.

But my support for free trade is not just based on ideology. I also cite data on how trade taxes and other restrictions make nations poorer.

Simply stated, trade barriers (like other forms of government intervention) make an economy less efficient.

And the negative effects go beyond overall economic output. Researchers also find job losses, lower productivity, and increased inequality.

Today, let’s look at some new research on this topic. The IMF earlier this year released a new working paper authored by Kim Beaton, Valerie Cerra, and Metodij Hadzi-Vaskov.

Here are the main results.

…firms in countries and industries experiencing greater competition from imports reduce employment slightly. …Even so, the low elasticity of employment growth to imports indicates a limited adverse impact. …Contrary to popular belief and anti-globalization sentiment, import competition is associated with higher average wage growth across the global sample of firms…, driven by the EMDEs… Taking employment and wages together, import growth in an industry leads to a rise in the wage bill of domestic firms in the same industry. Thus, while import competition generates some job dislocations, the overall impact on earnings of workers in the same industry is positive.

Here’s a chart that was included with the study.

One unexpected finding from the study is that rich nations are more likely to enjoy job gains.

The job loss associated with import competition appears to be dominated by the behavior of firms in emerging and developing economies… In contrast, the import shock provides a statistically significant positive boost to firms’ employment in advanced economies.

And here’s a finding that should not surprise anyone.

…we find relatively positive outcomes of import competition on exposed firms, including higher sales, profits, wage growth, and investment. Moreover, the import shock to exposed firms, and the ensuing employment changes, do not take place in isolation. Import growth often goes hand in hand with export growth, which spurs job creation.

But I didn’t like everything I found in the paper. In some circumstances, trade reduces inequality, but by hurting those with high incomes rather than helping those with low incomes.

Our results also show that firms experiencing higher imports shocks are those with higher average wage levels. Thus, to the extent that employment growth is lower in these more exposed firms, it could lead to lower inequality.

For some of our friends on the left, this is a good outcome. Crazy.

Fortunately, trade generally helps everyone, so this quirky result is an exception rather than the rule.

The bottom line is that free trade is an overall winner for the economy. Does that mean that everyone benefits in short run? Of course not.

Jobs always get destroyed when there’s competition. And that’s true whether the competition comes from inside a country or outside a country.

The goal, of course, is to have a vibrant economy that regularly produces plenty of new jobs to offset any job losses.

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Way back in 2010, I explained that Paul Krugman was wrong to think that wars were good for the economy.

Indeed, he was more wrong than usual. The additional spending for the military isn’t “stimulus,” so his usual Keynesian argument was misguided.

Moreover, he didn’t seem to understand that wars also destroy existing wealth.

Today we are going to look at how war can teach us another economic lesson.

The United States and other major nations have responded to Russia’s assault on Ukraine by imposing trade restrictions with Russia.

If protectionists are correct, these steps (effectively imposing an extreme Russian version of Biden’s “buy America” policy) should strengthen Putin.

Yet that’s obviously not the purpose of the sanctions.

Instead, officials from western nations understand that these trade barriers will weaken Russia’s economy.

By the way, this isn’t the only example of nations using trade restrictions to hurt their enemies.

The U.S. trade embargo with Cuba is a prominent example, and there are also restrictions on trade with Venezuela.

Why? Because limiting trade is bad for a nation’s economy.

Moreover, during the Vietnam War, the United States mined North Vietnam’s harbors.

Why? Because limiting trade is bad for a nation’s economy.

And don’t forget the British navy’s blockade against France during the Napoleonic wars.

Why? Because limiting trade is bad for a nation’s economy.

So why, then, do politicians like Donald Trump and Joe Biden support imposing the same policies on the United States?

P.S. Imposing sanctions on Russia is not good for the U.S. economy (or the European economies, the Japanese economy, etc), but such policies are strategically sensible if the damage on the Russian economy is much greater.

P.P.S. There is now discussion about kicking Russia out of the World Trade Organization. Once again, the purpose would be to hurt Russia’s economy. Which should raise uncomfortable questions for people who think the United States would benefit by choosing to give up membership.

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In Part I of this series, I pointed out that Biden’s plethora of proposed handouts and subsidies would lead to higher prices and more inefficiency. And in Part II, I explained that his discussion of inflation was embarrassingly inaccurate.

In today’s column, we’re going to analyze his strident support for protectionist “Buy America” provisions, which drive up costs for taxpayers by making it harder for foreign firms to compete for government contracts and thus give American firms the ability to charge higher prices.

How much of a burden are these policies? How much more are taxpayers having to pay because governments can’t opt for the lowest qualified bidder?

According to research shared by the Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE), American taxpayers lose $94 billion per year.

The good news (if we have a very generous definition of “good”) is that procurement protectionism “only” pushes up costs in the United States by 5.6 percent.

Our dirigiste friends in the European Union suffer much more. Their procurement protectionism results in average markups of 17.6 percent, costing European taxpayers a staggering $471 billion.

But taxpayers are not the only losers.

In a 2017 study for PIIE, Gary Hufbauer and Euijin Jung explain that nations also lose exports because of procurement protectionism.

Buy American provisions are often enacted because politicians associate the patriotic slogan with the creation of domestic jobs. In fact, these laws are counterproductive: They are costly for taxpayers, they curtail exports, and they lose more jobs than they create. “Buy American” was bad policy in 1930 and does even more harm today. …Buy American dulls competition for everything that federal, state, and local governments purchase. Consequently, taxpayers pay inflated prices for new infrastructure, the latest information technology, and routine maintenance of subways, bridges, and airports. …Quantification is difficult, but the major federal Buy American laws probably equate to tariff equivalent barriers of at least 25 percent on federal purchases. State laws vary in scope and protective degree, but on average they probably entail at least 10 percent tariff equivalent barriers. …When Buy American policies are championed at home they are emulated abroad—in the form of Buy European, Buy Mexican, Buy Japanese, and other local content laws and policies. Consequently, US goods and services face severe barriers in foreign procurement markets. …US exports could expand by $189 billion annually if OECD countries all repealed their existing local content laws.

The Heritage Foundation’s Tori Smith authored a report when Trump was pushing his version of procurement protectionism. Here’s some of what she wrote.

Domestic content requirements, like those found in the Buy American Act, the Berry Amendment, and various other laws, result in additional regulatory burdens for producers, and increase costs for American taxpayers. All for little or no gain: The policies are unlikely to stimulate job growth in target industries. …Existing laws and provisions regarding domestic content requirements…are extremely onerous and complicated burdens. They have three main effects: (1) creating additional regulatory hurdles for producers; (2) costing American taxpayers more than they would otherwise pay for government projects; and (3) they are unlikely to yield job growth in target industries like the steel sector.

Here are the most important passages from her report.

…to eliminate all existing domestic content requirements….would create hundreds of thousands of American jobs across the country and contribute billions of dollars to U.S. gross domestic product.

And this chart shows how various states would benefit if there was open competition for government procurement.

I’ll close with three additional points.

First, it’s disappointing that Biden is continuing Trump’s protectionist policies. It’s even more disappointing that he wants to expand upon them. This is one area where people thought Biden might move policy in the right direction.

For some historical perspective on the failure of the Trump-Biden approach, the National Taxpayers Union helpfully shared the views of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower.

Second, some national security experts make a very reasonable argument that the Pentagon should not make itself dependent on purchases from nations such as China.

But this is at most an argument for “Buy from Allied Nations,” not an argument for “Buy America.”

Third, Biden is perversely consistent. Everything he is doing will increase costs for taxpayers and consumers in order to bestow undeserved benefits on special-interest groups.

P.S. The argument for competition in the market for government procurement is the same as the general argument for free trade. And since we’re on the topic of trade, remember that dollars sent overseas as part of a procurement contract will come back to the United States, either to purchase American exports or as part of investment in the U.S. economy.

P.P.S. None of this changes the fact that the public sector should be much smaller. In a libertarian society, there would be far lower levels of government procurement.

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Three years ago, I unveiled this video to help explain that trade deficits are nothing to worry about.

The most important thing to understand from the video is that the flip side of a trade deficit is a capital surplus.

To be more specific, foreigners earn dollars by selling products to Americans. They then use those dollars to buy goods and services from American producers, or they use those dollars to invest money in the American economy.

And when foreigners choose to invest their dollars, that necessarily is accompanied by a trade deficit.

At the risk of understatement, it’s not bad that foreigners want to invest in the United States.

Why am I discussing this topic today?

Because we have final data on trade flows for 2021. Here are some excerpts from a report by Ana Swanson for the New York Times.

The U.S. trade deficit in goods soared to record levels in 2021, topping $1 trillion… The overall trade deficit in both goods and services also hit an annual record, rising 27 percent as the country’s imports far outpaced its exports, according to data released by the Commerce Department… Imports surged by $576.5 billion, or 20.5 percent, rising sharply from a slump at the onset of the pandemic, as both the quantity and the price of the foreign products that Americans purchased increased. Businesses spent heavily on equipment and machinery… Exports grew 18.5 percent, or by $394.1 billion.

The correct reaction to this story is a big yawn.

Simply stated, I don’t care if Americans bought more from foreigners than foreigners bought from Americans. Just like I don’t care that I have a trade deficit with my local grocery stores (I’m always buying food from them and they never buy anything from me!).

Here’s another sentence from the story that deserves some attention.

Mary Lovely, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said the ballooning trade deficit last year mostly reflected the country’s continued strong economic growth.

To elaborate, if the United States economy is growing, that means Americans can afford to buy more stuff, regardless of where those goods and services originate.

And if other places in the world are growing slower (such as Europe), that means people from those areas can’t afford to buy as much stuff that originates in the United States.

P.S. A few years ago, I criticized Trump’s trade deal with China.

At the risk of patting myself on the back, I was right. Here are a few more sentences from the NYT story.

The data also revealed the shortcomings of a trade deal that Mr. Trump signed with China in 2020. …China committed to buying an additional $200 billion worth of American goods and services above a 2017 baseline by the end of 2021. But those purchases did not materialize. …China actually bought none of the additional $200 billion of exports that the trade deal had promised. …the trade deal Mr. Trump signed in 2020 “did not address the core problems” with China’s state-led economy.

P.P.S. While it is generally a good thing when foreigners invest in the U.S. economy, that’s only true if they investing in the private sector (stocks, bonds, real estate, etc). By contrast, if foreigners are using dollars to buy government bonds, that obviously doesn’t help growth.

But the problem isn’t that foreigners are buying government debt. That’s merely a symptom of the actual problem, which is excessive spending by politicians in Washington.

The moral of the story is that free trade is desirable…and small government is desirable.

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It’s an annual tradition (2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, etc) to list a handful of things that I hope might happen in the upcoming year, as well as the things I fear may happen.

Sadly, since I understand the economics of “public choice” (something Thomas Jefferson also implicitly understood) it’s always easier to envision the latter category.

But it’s good to begin a new year with optimism, so here are the good things that hopefully will happen in 2022.

Biden’s So-Called Build Back Better Stays Dead – The President squandered money on a fake stimulus and an infrastructure boondoggle, but we dodged the biggest bullet when Democrats couldn’t get all 50 of their Senators to support a multi-trillion dollar, growth-sapping expansion in taxes and spending.

The Supreme Court Ends Civil Asset Forfeiture – This was on my list last year, but the odious practice of “theft by government” continues. That being said, I still think it won’t survive if the Supreme Court has a chance to make a ruling (especially since America’s best Justice is very aware of the problem).

Republicans Win Congress in 2022 – I don’t have much faith in Republicans to do the right thing (especially when a Republican is in the White House), but I hope they win the House and Senate in November because they will oppose big tax increases while Democrats control the White House – even if only for partisan reasons.

In the “honorable mention” or “runner-up” category, I also hope to see further progress for school choice in 2022.

And I used to list a collapse of Venezuela’s reprehensible socialist government as one of my annual “hopes,” but I’ve largely given up (particularly since Latin Americans seem foolishly susceptible to “leftist saviors“).

Now let’s shift to the bad things that I fear will happen over the next 365 days.

Biden’s BBB Budget Plan Springs Back to Life – The President’s “Build Back Better” plan may be on life support, but sadly it’s not quite dead. I fear a scaled-down (but still horrible) version of the legislation may get approved this year. Senator Manchin of West Virginia, for instance, says he is willing to support a $1.5 trillion package and I fear the left eventually will decide that 50 percent of a (moldy and weevil-ridden) loaf is better than none.

Biden’s Remains a Protectionist – I hoped last year that Biden would reduce government trade taxes. Not because he believes in economic liberty, but simply because he wouldn’t want to continue a Trump-era policy. But that didn’t happen, and I now fear he’ll continue with protectionism in 2022. I don’t even have much hope that he’ll resuscitate the World Trade Organization.

New Tax Cartels – One of last year’s big defeats was the creation of a global tax cartel by governments. Barring some sort of miracle that prevents implementation, greedy politicians have set up a system that will require all nations to have a minimum corporate tax of 15 percent. That’s very bad news for workers, consumers, and shareholders, but I’m even more worried about the precedent it creates for additional tax cartels and ever-higher tax rates.

I’ll close by noting that last year’s list included the possibility of Kamala Harris becoming president.

But Biden has been so bad that it’s unclear that Harris would make things worse.

P.S. For the “fears” category, I could – and probably should – list entitlements every single year. Simply stated, the country is in deep long-run trouble because of an aging population and poorly designed tax-and-transfer programs. Years ago, I was semi-hopeful that we would get Medicaid and Medicare reform.

Now that seems like a distant dream and the real battle is preventing further entitlement expansions such as Biden’s per-child handout.

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For self-interested reasons, I obviously like my video on the merits of free trade and the downside of protectionism.

But now I’ll also be recommending this new video from Liberty International.

It has some great examples, such as Washington’s corrupt trade barriers to sugar (as well as other examples of foolish agriculture subsidy programs).

And there’s some excellent analysis of how developing nations are hurt by the double-edged sword of protectionism and foreign aid.

What happened to Haiti is especially tragic.

My only criticism (and this is a sin of omission) is that there wasn’t enough time to explain why people shouldn’t fixate on the trade deficit – which is, after all, simply the flip side of a capital surplus.

For purposes of today’s column, though, I want to focus more on the politics of trade rather than the economics of trade.

That’s because Trump and Biden are basically the Bobbsey Twins of protectionism.

In his New York Times column, Binyamin Appelbaum explains why Trump’s China tariffs backfired.

I obviously agree, but Appelbaum only mentions in passing that Biden has not done much to reverse that policy.

Tariffs on imports from China have refilled the employee parking lot at Stoughton Trailers in Evansville, Wis. …the rest of us are paying for those jobs. The tariffs have contributed to a shortage of chassis in the middle of an import boom, one reason that American ports are gridlocked. Tariffs also drive up prices. American chassis are beginning to roll off production lines, but they cost more than pretariff Chinese chassis, which raises the price of everything that travels by chassis. …the government has decided to limit competition, a lazy approach that is both expensive and counterproductive. Taxing imports from China gives the appearance of punishing China, but the cost of the tariffs is paid by Americans. …Mr. Biden should make a clean break with Mr. Trump’s destructive tariffs. The right recipe is simple…, maintain an environment in which companies can flourish, ensure workers reap the benefits.

So at what point do Trump’s tariffs become Biden’s tariffs?

Technically, we hit that point in late January of 2021.

To make matters worse, Biden is also imposing new trade taxes on American consumers and businesses.

The Wall Street Journal opined today on Biden’s latest protectionist initiative.

President Biden says he feels your pain regarding inflation… Too bad his Administration’s policies reveal different priorities. Witness the Commerce Department’s decision to raise tariffs on lumber, which will raise building costs in an already strained housing market. The Commerce Department said last week that it will double the average tariff on Canadian softwood lumber to 17.9% from 8.99%. …There’s rarely a good time for trade restrictions, but the timing of this one is tragicomical. The same month Commerce revealed its tariff plan, lumber hit a record price of $1,650 per thousand board-feet, more than three times the level before pandemic supply shortages began. …The Biden Administration’s tariff resumes the U.S.-Canada lumber war where President Trump left off. …President Biden campaigned against his predecessor’s tariffs, but his trade policy in office has been nearly as protectionist. He’s kept most tariffs in place.

Kept most in place…and now adding more.

This is very sad, particularly since I had hoped that was one area where Biden might actually move policy in the right direction.

No, I didn’t think Biden actually understood why free trade is good (he’s always been a proponent of bigger government, after all).

But I hoped he would do the right thing simply to show he differed from Trump. Those hopes have been dashed.

P.S. If you want more reasons to be concerned, Biden also hasn’t done much to resuscitate the World Trade Organization and he isn’t pushing back on his party’s embrace of carbon protectionism.

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I’ve been warning, over and over and over again, that a European-style welfare state means huge tax increases on ordinary people.

Simply stated, there are not enough rich people to finance big government (even Paul Krugman agrees).

This means Joe Biden and Democrats need to make a choice: What matters most, their desire to make government bigger, or their promise not to impose higher taxes on families making less than $400K per year?

We now have the answer to that question, and I hope nobody is surprised to learn that they picked government over taxpayers.

But what is surprising is that they picked the Trump approach of protectionist taxes on global trade.

Here are some excerpts from a report by the New York Times.

Democrats have agreed to include a tax on imports from nations that lack aggressive climate change policies as part of a sweeping $3.5 trillion budget plan… The move to tax imports was made public Wednesday, the same day that the European Union outlined its own proposal for a similar carbon border tax, a novel tool that is designed to protect domestic manufacturing. …skeptics caution that a carbon border tax, which has yet to be implemented by any country, would be difficult to carry out, and could anger trading partners and face a challenge at the World Trade Organization. Unlike the Europeans, who outlined their plan in a 291-page document, Democrats released no details about their tax proposal on Wednesday. Calling it simply a “polluter import fee,” the framework does not explain what would be taxed, at what rate or how much revenue it would expect to generate. …verifying the amount of carbon…produced by foreign manufacturing is tricky, experts say.

It’s always a bad idea to give politicians a new source of revenue.

But it’s a worse idea to give them a new source of revenue that will require bureaucrats to measure the amount of carbon produced by every imported good. As I pointed out a few days ago when discussing the European Union’s version of this protectionist scheme, that’s a huge recipe for cronyism and favoritism.

P.S. I’ll be very curious to see how different international bureaucracies react to these anti-trade proposals. The OECD and IMF, while usually bad on fiscal issues, historically have favored unfettered trade. And the World Trade Organization exists specifically to protect global commerce. But will these organizations now change their position to curry favor with the nations that control their purse strings?

The theory of “public choice” suggests we shouldn’t be optimistic.

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Over the past four years, Donald Trump presumably was the biggest threat to global trade.

His ignorant protectionism hurt American consumers and businesses – and undermined the competitiveness of the U.S. economy.

Over the next four years (and beyond), it’s quite likely that the biggest threat to global trade will be the European Union.

More specifically, politicians and bureaucrats in Brussels want to toss a hand grenade into cross-border commerce by imposing trade taxes on nations that don’t impose carbon taxes.

The Wall Street Journal has a must-read editorial about this threat to world commerce.

Western politicians have failed to persuade their own voters to commit economic suicide by banning fossil fuels, and forget about China, Russia or India. The climate lobby’s fallback, which is starting to emerge, is to punish the foreigners and their own consumers with climate tariffs. Bureaucrats at the European Commission are due to unveil the proposed Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) later this month… Brussels wants to impose tariffs to bring the cost of carbon-dioxide emissions tied to an imported good into line with what a European producer would pay to produce the same good. …a carbon tariff would impose an enormous burden on companies seeking to sell to the EU—even the low-emitting firms—and as a result probably will trigger a trade war. …Under the leaked plan, foreign firms would have to undertake detailed carbon audits to report emissions to EU regulators, and then would have to work out what proportion of the emissions attributable to goods shipped to the EU already were covered by carbon taxes elsewhere. …The choice between costly compliance or a punitive default tariff risks deterring smaller foreign companies from trying to navigate this system.

Needless to say, the so-called carbon audits will create big openings for cronyism and favoritism.

Lobbyists will be fat and happy while businesses and consumers will get hit with higher costs.

The editorial’s conclusion wisely warns that it would be a big mistake for Europeans to trigger a trade war.

Western elites haven’t convinced their voters to pay the price of their climate obsessions. Like Donald Trump, they now want to blame foreigners. In the process they’ll force their consumers to pay more for imports and domestic goods, and they’ll harm their own exporters if countries retaliate. The last thing the world economy needs as it recovers from a pandemic is a climate-change trade war.

Writing for Forbes, Tilak Doshi speculates whether the United States will copy the Europeans.

…the European Parliament overwhelmingly endorsed the creation of a “carbon border adjustment mechanism” (CBAM) that would shield EU companies against cheaper imports from countries with “weaker” climate policies. …Now that the Biden administration has elevated climate change to its highest priority across the whole of government, it would seem that the EU and the US working together with like-minded governments in Canada and the UK would be in a position to set up a “trans-Atlantic climate club”  and thereby impose a global cost on carbon emissions. …Australian Trade Minister Dan Tehan labelled carbon tariffs “a new form of protectionism.” …For most developing countries, “worries of an increasing carbon footprint generated by economic growth are second to worries that growth many not happen at all.” …What sets off this new protectionism from its predecessors is the sheer scope of its application.

I’m actually hopeful on this issue.

Biden and his team doubtlessly are sympathetic to the E.U.’s initiative, but I don’t think Congress will approve a carbon tax on the American people.

And if the U.S. doesn’t have a carbon tax, there wouldn’t be any reason to impose discriminatory taxes on other nations that also don’t have that levy.

That being said, the Biden Administration would have some leeway to cause problems. For instance, would they push for the World Trade Organization to accept the E.U.’s attack on free trade?

When dealing with politicians, I always hope for the best, but assume the worst.

P.S. Here are my seven reasons to support free trade, as well as my eight questions for protectionists.

P.P.S. You shouldn’t be surprised to learn that the French were early advocates of carbon protectionism.

P.P.P.S. Some American politicians have pushed for regulatory protectionism.

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Biden campaigned for higher taxes and a bigger welfare state, so I haven’t been surprised by his misguided fiscal agenda.

That being said, I was modestly hopeful that he would move trade policy in the right direction after four years of Trump’s protectionism.

To be sure, I didn’t think he would do the right thing because of some long-hidden belief in sound economics. But I figured he might reduce trade barriers simply to do the opposite of his predecessor.

We should be so lucky. Regardless of the policy, we’ve been getting statism.

Catherine Rampell of the Washington Post is not impressed by Biden’s protectionism.

Several months after he left office, some of President Donald Trump’s most foolish economic policies remain in place: his sweeping trade restrictions. …Trump began waging a series of trade wars three years ago — not primarily with U.S. adversaries, mind you, but with friends. Among the dumbest and most self-sabotaging measures were global tariffs levied on nearly $50 billion of imported steel and aluminum. …the countries most affected by Trump’s move were our close economic and military allies, including the European Union, Canada and Japan. …Despite Trump’s claims otherwise, the cost of the tariffs was primarily passed through to American consumers and companies. Downstream firms that use steel or inputs made of steel, which employ about 80 times more workers than the steel industry does, faced higher costs. One estimate found that Trump’s steel tariffs alone cost U.S. consumers and businesses about $900,000 for every job created or saved.

Getting rid of taxes on imported steel and aluminum would be a positive step for the economy.

But the real goal should be getting rid of all Trump’s taxes on global trade. Garrett Watson from the Tax Foundation recently shared estimates of how this would benefit the American economy.

…repealing the tariffs imposed under President Trump’s administration would be one of the simplest ways policymakers could boost economic growth. …About $460 billion worth of goods were subject to the tariffs, raising prices for consumers. In fact, we estimated the tariffs were about an $80 billion annual tax increase, reducing consumer purchasing power. …According to the Tax Foundation model, repealing tariffs imposed since 2018 would raise long-run GDP by 0.1 percent, long-run incomes (gross national product) by 0.2 percent, and create about 83,000 full-time equivalent jobs. This growth would boost after-tax incomes by about 0.3 percent for people across the income spectrum, helping low-income and middle-class taxpayers. …Repealing the tariffs would be a simple option to boost growth because it can be done without congressional authorization by President Biden, and would provide timely relief to businesses and households.

The last sentence is key. Trump had lots of unilateral authority to impose bad trade policy, and Biden has lots of unilateral authority to undo bad trade policy.

The fact that he hasn’t exercised that authority makes him just as guilty of anti-market trade policy as Trump.

The next thing to watch for is whether he continues Trump’s bad policy of sabotaging the World Trade Organization.

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Like President Reagan, I believe in free trade rather than protectionism.

So you won’t be surprised that I agree with the message in this video

To elaborate, one of the big lessons of the Trump era is that he undermined his good policies – such as tax reform – by imposing higher taxes on global trade.

Sadly, he didn’t realize that a “trade deficit” is largely an irrelevant statistic. Indeed, it’s merely the flip side of having a capital surplus.

To state the obvious, it’s not a bad thing when foreigners decide they want to invest in the United States economy. Heck, it’s a good thing, a sign of economic strength.

Professor Douglas Irwin of Dartmouth made the same point, and many additional points, in a column for the Wall Street Journal late last year.

After four years, what have we learned? Many things, but especially that old economic truths still have value: Tariffs don’t reduce the trade deficit. …Economists have long pointed out that the trade deficit is driven by macroeconomic factors, particularly international capital flows. …The merchandise trade deficit was $864 billion in 2019, more than $100 billion higher than in 2016. …Tariffs are paid by consumers, destroy jobs and hurt the economy. Mr. Trump insisted that China would pay for the 15% to 25% duties that he imposed on $300 billion of its exports. In fact, the tariffs were passed on to American consumers, who paid more… Take steel. Higher prices might have saved some jobs in the steel industry, but..steel protection is a job-destroying policy. Economists at the Federal Reserve found that the steel and aluminum tariffs reduced overall employment in manufacturing by 75,000 workers.

But destroying jobs was just one negative effect of protectionism.

We also got more corruption, as the Wall Street Journal opined.

…it’s time to point out one unsightly effect of the Trump tariffs: expanding the D.C. swamp. …As Mr. Trump’s tariffs began to bite, Congress sent hundreds of letters to the USTR, supporting specific tariff exclusions. …Rep. Steny Hoyer signed a letter, “on behalf of the Congressional Fire Services Caucus,” asking for an exclusion on smoke alarms. North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis sought one for Honda’s lawn mower flywheels. For Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, it was BedJet’s “ultra-thin adjustable bed ‘device.’” For Congressman Doug Collins, Home Depot’s light fixtures. For Sen. Patty Murray, empty coffee K-cup pods. Some of these exclusions were granted, and many weren’t. It’s difficult to know if lobbying by Congress made a difference… One substantial downside is more political interference in the economy. Pretty swampy.

We saw something very similar when President Obama was granting waivers for Obamacare. That was just one of the ways insiders got rich lobbying politicians for special treatment under government-run healthcare.

Let’s wrap this up.

Writing for the Wall Street Journal in March, Senator Pat Toomey and former Senator Phil Gramm conclude Trump’s protectionism was a failure.

In his first two years as president, Mr. Trump lifted regulatory burdens and pushed through a major tax cut, which triggered a broad-based rise in income and employment. He then turned to his protectionist agenda, which reduced economic growth and failed to deliver Michigan, Pennsylvania or Wisconsin in the 2020 election. Protectionism failed both as economic policy and political strategy. …As Mr. Trump found when he imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum, the resulting increase in jobs in those industries was small. …Jobs gained in the steel and aluminum industries after the tariffs were dwarfed by jobs lost in industries that use steel and aluminum in their manufacturing process, not to mention the jobs lost due to foreign trade retaliation. …Innovation, technological development and the capacity of a market economy to adapt to change provide our only sure path to job creation and prosperity. This is a lesson all politicians, but especially Republicans, need to learn from the economic and political failure of protectionism in the Trump era.

Amen.

Protectionism didn’t work. It didn’t create jobs, and it didn’t even buy votes.

Which is why I hope this meme is the lesson that people remember from the Trump years (also the message we should have learned from the Hoover years).

The bottom line is that “Tariff Man” hurt himself and hurt the economy.

P.S. Sadly, Biden has not reversed many of Trump’s protectionist policies. But that’s not a surprise given his support for statism.

P.P.S. Though I hold out some hope that Biden will utilize the World Trade Organization as a tool to expand trade, thus reversing one of Trump’s mistakes.

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In early 2019, I released this video summarizing some of the evidence for free trade.

The bad news is that I must not be very persuasive. Trump continued with protectionist policy.

The good news is that we now have more evidence against that form of government intervention.

But first, I’m going to start with a bit of theory. Here’s a chart from the Council of Foreign Relations showing the relationship between prosperity and trade balances.

And here’s the explanation, courtesy of Benn Steil and Benjamin Della Rocca.

President Trump says that America running a trade deficit means that “jobs and wealth are being given to other countries.” …this statement is logically and historically false. The left-hand figure above shows that the relationship between trade deficits and growth in the United States, going back nearly 30 years, is the opposite. Rising growth tends to increase imports through higher consumption. The imports have not meant that “jobs and wealth are being given to other countries”: they have been a sign of a strong U.S. economy.

This is spot on. As I explained in my video on the trade deficit, people in richer, faster-growing countries can afford to buy more goods and services (regardless of where they are produced) than people in countries with anemic economic performance.

Indeed, this is why (at least in the pre-coronavirus era) America’s trade deficit was expanding.

Now let’s shift to the additional evidence that has accumulated since the video was produced.

Here’s are the key findings from a study by Kyle Handley, Fariha Kamal, and Ryan Monarch, which was just published by the Federal Reserve.

Using 2016 confidential firm-trade linked data, we document the implied incidence and scope of new import tariffs. Firms that eventually faced tariff increases on their imports ac-counted for 84% of all exports and they represent 65% of manufacturing employment. For all affected firms, the implied cost is $900 per worker in new duties. To estimate the effect on U.S. export growth, we construct product-level measures of import tariff exposure of U.S. exports from the underlying firm micro data.More exposed products experienced 2 percentage point lower growth relative to products with no exposure. The decline in exports is equivalent to an ad valorem tariff on U.S. exports of almost 2% for the typical product and almost 4% for products with higher than average exposure.

Here are some results of a recent study by Stephen J. Redding, Mary Amiti, and David Weinstein.

Using data from 2018, a number of studies have found that recent U.S tariffs have been passed on entirely to U.S. importers and consumers. …Using another year of data including significant escalations in the trade war, we find that U.S. tariffs continue to be almost entirely borne by U.S. firms and consumers. We show that the response of import values to the tariffs increases in absolute magnitude over time, consistent with the idea that it takes time for firms to reorganize supply chains.

Here’s a chart from the study showing how Trump basically tripled average trade taxes over the past couple of years.

Next we have a 2019 study authored by Davide Furceri, Swarnali A. Hannan, Jonathan D. Ostry, and Andrew K. Rose.

We estimate impulse response functions from local projections using a panel of annual data that spans 151 countries over 1963‐2014. Tariffs increases are associated with persistent economically and statistically significant declines in domestic output and productivity, as well as higher unemployment and inequality, real exchange rate appreciation and insignificant changes to the trade balance. Output and productivity impacts are magnified when tariffs rise during expansions and when they are imposed by advanced (as opposed to developing) economies; effects are asymmetric, being larger when tariffs go up than when they fall. Results are robust to a large number of perturbations to our methodology, and hold using both macroeconomic and industry‐level data.

These charts from their study paint a damning picture.

The bottom line is that Trump’s trade policies are hurting the U.S. economy (just like China’s protectionist policies are hurting that nation’s economy).

P.S. A great mystery is how some analysts understand that it’s bad to have higher taxes on trade, yet also think it’s perfectly okay to impose even bigger tax increases on work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship. The folks at the International Monetary Fund are very guilty of this type of fiscal hypocrisy.

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Last year, I released this video to help explain why the World Trade Organization has been a good deal for the United States.

My argument was – and still is – very straightforward, and it’s based on two simple propositions.

  1. Free trade is good because societies are more prosperous with free markets and open competition.
  2. The WTO has helped nations move in that direction by reducing import taxes and other trade barriers.

This outcome is particularly beneficial for the United States since other countries tend to be more protectionist.

But not everyone agrees with this position.

President Trump is a notorious critic of the WTO, for instance, which isn’t surprising since he doesn’t understand trade.

There are also plenty of opponents on the left, which also isn’t surprising since they don’t like capitalism and competition.

What is somewhat surprising, however, is that some Republican lawmakers also have decided to oppose the WTO.

In a column last week for the New York Times, Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri actually argued that it’s time to get rid of the World Trade Organization. Here’s his argument against the Geneva-based body.

The global economic system as we know it is a relic; it requires reform, top to bottom. We should begin with one of its leading institutions, the World Trade Organization. We should abolish it. …Its mandate was to promote free trade, but the organization instead allowed some nations to maintain trade barriers and protectionist workarounds, like China, while preventing others from defending themselves, like the United States. …Meanwhile, the W.T.O. required American workers to compete against Chinese forced labor but did next to nothing to stop Chinese theft of American intellectual property and products. …too many jobs left America’s borders for elsewhere. As factories closed, workers suffered, from small towns to the urban core. …Enough is enough. The W.T.O. should be abolished, and along with it, the new model global economy. The quest to turn the world into a liberal order of democracies was always misguided.

And here’s what he wants as a replacement.

The only sure way to confront the single greatest threat to American security in the 21st century, Chinese imperialism, is to rebuild the U.S. economy and to build up the American worker. And that means reforming the global economic system. …The United States must seek new arrangements and new rules, in concert with other free nations, to restore America’s economic sovereignty and allow this country to practice again the capitalism that made it strong. …For nearly 50 years before the W.T.O.’s founding, the United States and its allies maintained a network of reciprocal trade that protected our national interests and the nation’s workers. We can do it again …It means striking trade deals that are truly mutual and truly beneficial for America and walking away when they are not. It means building a new network of trusted friends and partners to resist Chinese economic imperialism.

Since Hawley doesn’t seem to appreciate the benefits of trade, the simple approach would be to criticize him for wanting politicians and bureaucrats to have the power to interfere with voluntary exchange across borders.

Such criticism is warranted, of course, but I want to take this opportunity to make four points about how there may be hope for the future.

1. Hawley is actually endorsing the status quo. After World War II, the US took the lead in creating the General Agreement on Tariff and Trade (GATT), a multilateral system of agreements which produced successive rounds of trade liberalization. The US then took the lead in creating the WTO so there would be a system (dispute resolution) to encourage nations to comply with their GATT commitments. But the dispute resolution process is now toothless because there are no longer enough judges for the system to operate (Trump has blocked the appointment of new judges). For all intents and purposes, the world is now operating under the pre-WTO rules – which seems to be what Hawley is calling for in his column.

2. The WTO no longer is a vehicle for global trade liberalization. The WTO is a consensus-based organization, which means unanimity is required for additional GATT-style reductions in global trade barriers. But since membership has expanded to include a number of countries with a protectionist mindset (most notably India, but China and Brazil also are a problem), it’s extremely unlikely that we’ll ever see another multilateral agreement for additional tariff reductions. This doesn’t change the fact that GATT was a big past success, and it doesn’t change the fact that it would be nice if the WTO’s dispute-resolution mechanism was back in operation. It simply means that we won’t be able to build on that progress.

3. Hawley is also endorsing, practically speaking, the best path forward. Another round of multilateral trade liberalization is off the table, but that doesn’t prevent nations from moving forward with bilateral free-trade agreements (FTAs are consistent with WTO rules). Interestingly, Hawley seems to support that approach. The U.S. already has nearly 20 of these pacts and is engaged in major negotiations with the United Kingdom for a new FTA that hopefully will be a template for future FTAs with other market-friendly nations.

4. Beware of the regulatory-harmonization wolf in FTA clothes. While bilateral trade pacts are desirable, it’s important to pay attention to the fine print. The European Union wants to hijack FTAs and make them vehicles for regulatory harmonization (meaning other nations have to agree to the EU’s onerous approach to red tape). If the goal is to have more trade, more competition, and more dynamism, the United States and other pro-market countries should make “mutual recognition” the foundation of future free-trade pacts.

The bottom line is that Hawley is wrong about the WTO, but he may actually be right about the best way of achieving future trade liberalization. Assuming, of course, that he actually means what he wrote about striking new deals.

In an ideal world, needless to say, these new bilateral FTAs (or even multi-nation FTAs) should be in addition to the WTO.

P.S. An under-appreciated aspect of the WTO is that it gives nations like the US a more-effective way of pressuring China to eliminate subsidies and other trade-distorting practices.

P.P.S. I’m normally very skeptical of international organizations. But the WTO encourages globalization rather than global governance, a key distinction.

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Early last year, I shared a video explaining that trade deficits generally don’t matter. I even suggested trade deficits might be a sign of economic strength because foreigners who earned dollars were anxious to invest them in the American economy.

I’m recycling this video to make a point about trade and the economy for both Trump supporters and Trump critics.

For Trump supporters, I want them to understand that the trade deficit has increased under his policies. The data from the latest Commerce Department report show that the yearly trade deficit has increased from about $500 billion at the end of the Obama years to a bit over $600 billion during the Trump years.

And the reason I’m making this point is that I want Trump supporters to realize that they shouldn’t be upset about trade balances. Indeed, they should be happy because there’s a strong argument that the trade deficit is increasing in large part because Trump’s pro-growth tax reform and regulatory reform and making America more attractive for foreign investors.

For Trump critics, I want them to understand the same point, though from a different perspective. Many of them have been (correctly) critical of Trump’s protectionism. And they’ve been happy to point out that his taxes on foreign goods haven’t reduced the trade deficit.

But I would like them to contemplate why the economy has continued to grow. Hopefully, they will realize that pro-market policies in other areas are offsetting the damage of protectionism and therefore be more supportive of capitalism.

The Wall Street Journal opined on this topic last year.

President Trump can take a bow that his tax reform and deregulation are working as intended. …The trade deficit grew… This is not bad economic news. Imports grew faster than exports as the U.S. economy accelerated and much of the world slowed. The dollar grew stronger as capital flowed into the U.S., and the trade deficit grew to offset the larger capital inflows as it must by definition under the national income accounts. …a larger trade deficit is a benign byproduct of a healthier American economy. Supply-side policies revived animal spirits and gave the economy a second wind. …The best way to respond to a trade deficit is to ignore it.

From a left-of-center perspective, Fareed Zakaria made the same point in a recent column for the Washington Post.

Trump campaigned relentlessly on the notion that America’s economy was being ruined by large trade deficits. …He promised on the campaign trail in June 2016, “You will see a drop like you’ve never seen before.”In reality, the trade deficit has risen substantially under Trump. …when the United States has grown robustly, its trade deficit has tended to rise. If you want to achieve a sharp decline in the trade deficit, it’s easy — just trigger a recession. …while the United States has a deficit in manufactured goods with the rest of the world, it runs a huge surplus in services (banking, insurance, consulting, etc.). …The United States is also the world’s favorite destination to invest capital, by a large margin. As Martin points out, when you look at this entire picture, “the trade deficit should be something to brag about rather than denounce.” …Trump’s trade policy has been an enormously costly exercise, forcing Americans to pay tens of billions in taxes on imported goods, then using tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer funds to compensate farmers for lost income (because of retaliatory tariffs)… All to solve a problem that isn’t really a problem.

Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center, writing for Reason, summarizes the issue.

President Donald Trump hates the trade deficit. …If elected, he promised, he would “end our chronic trade deficits.” …free traders…explained, a country’s trade balance is determined overwhelmingly by factors such as the U.S dollar serving as a reserve currency, the ratio of savings to investment opportunities at home and abroad, and the relative attractiveness of that country’s investment climate. As long as the United States is growing and remains an attractive place to invest, we Americans will continue to run trade deficits with the rest of the world. …They want these dollars, in part, to buy American exports. …More important, and often overlooked: Foreigners want dollars also to invest in America’s powerful economy. …the current-account deficit is a mirror image of the capital-account surplus. This is why Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute describes imports as “job-generating foreign investment surpluses for a better America.” It is thus no surprise that as the American economy grew, the trade deficit also grew.

I’ll close with a chart that’s in the video because it reinforces the three columns cited above.

As you can see, the link between the trade deficit and an investment surplus isn’t just a theoretical construct. It’s an accounting identity.

The bottom line is that people on both sides of the political debate should ignore the trade deficit and instead focus on the tried-and-true recipe for generating prosperity.

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At the beginning of the Trump era, many of us (including me) warned that his statements on trade were nonsensical.

And when Trump shifted from bad rhetoric to bad policy, Johan Norberg pointed out why trade wars are very misguided.

As you might expect, Johan is correct. More government intervention in global commerce has led to bad consequences.

Trump’s tax increases on trade have produced bad results for the American economy. Consumers have been hurt, businesses have been hurt, exporters have been hurt, and specific sectors such as farming and manufacturing have been hurt.

All of this was very predictable.

Indeed, the Trump Administration’s own economists warned back in 2018 that a trade war would backfire. Here are some excerpts from a report in the New York Times.

A White House economic analysis of President Trump’s trade agenda has concluded that Mr. Trump’s tariffs will hurt economic growth in the United States… The findings from the White House Council of Economic Advisers have been circulated only internally and not publicly released… The administration has hit Canada, Mexico, Japan and the European Union with steel and aluminum tariffs and…tariffs on a range of Chinese goods. In return, many of those countries have either imposed or threatened reciprocal tariffs on everything from steel to pork to orange juice, a move that economists say will depress economic growth. …many economists have been warning that the administration’s trade approach will undercut economic growth and partially offset any boost from the $1.5 trillion tax cut that Congress passed and Mr. Trump signed… Wall Street research firms have warned that those tariffs, and the retaliatory tariffs that trading partners have threatened in response, will slow growth in the United States. …In a…survey of an expert panel of academic economists assembled by the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, no economist agreed with the statement, “Imposing new U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum will improve Americans’ welfare.”

Needless to say, Trump ignored the good advice from his economists and imposed a bunch of tax increases on trade.

We now have some hard evidence about the wisdom of this approach. Economists at the Federal Reserve crunched the numbers as part of a new study.

While there are already vast theoretical and empirical literatures documenting the effects of changes in trade policy, …there are virtually no modern episodes of a large, advanced economy raising tariffs in a way comparable to the U.S. in 2018-2019. …these tariffs…were imposed, in part, to boost the U.S. manufacturing sector by protecting against what were deemed to be the unfair trade practices of trading partners, principally China. …This paper provides the first comprehensive estimates of the effect of recent tariffs on the U.S. manufacturing sector. …We measure the import protection channel as the share of domestic absorption affected by newly imposed tariffs. We account for declines in competitiveness associated with increased input costs as the share of industry costs subject to new tariffs.Finally, we measure an industry’s potential exposure to retaliatory tariffs by U.S. trading partners as the share of industry-level exports subject to new retaliatory tariffs. …We then relate the measures for these three channels of tariff exposure to monthly data on manufacturing employment, output, and producer prices.

And what did the experts find?

We find that tariff increases enacted in 2018 are associated with relative reductions in manufacturing employment and relative increases in producer prices. In terms of manufacturing employment, rising input costs and retaliatory tariffs each contribute to the negative relationship, and the contribution from these channels more than offsets a small positive effect from import protection. For producer prices, the relative increases associated with tariffs are due solely to the rising input cost channel. …we find that shifting an industry from the 25th percentile to the 75th percentile in terms of exposure to each of these channels of tariffs is associated with a reduction in manufacturing employment of 1.4 percent, with the positive contribution from the import protection effects of tariffs (0.3 percent) more than offset by the negative effects associated with rising input costs (-1.1 percent) and retaliatory tariffs(-0.7 percent).

In other words, the small benefits that go to the industries that are sheltered from competition are very much outweighed by the damage to other sectors of the economy (a lesson that Trump could have learned if he studied real-world evidences, such as the Great Depression).

The Wall Street Journal opined about the Fed’s study.

One mystery of the Trump -era economy has been why U.S. manufacturing slumped sharply in late 2018 and 2019 after surging the year before. The Occam’s razor culprit is the onset of trade war… Federal Reserve economists Aaron Flaaen and Justin Pierce examine the impact of the tariff outbursts of 2018 on U.S. manufacturing employment, output and prices. This is important work because 2018 marked the start in earnest of President Trump’s campaign to change the world trading order, using tariffs as his preferred bludgeon. …Mr. Trump justified his campaign in part as a way to revive American manufacturing while protecting against unfair trade practices. So how has that worked out? …the economists have bad news for tariff lovers. …the higher costs from tariffs swamped benefits to specific firms from import protection. The tariffs cost more jobs than they created. …As the Fed economists conclude, “We find the impact” from protection “is completely offset in the short-run by reduced competitiveness from retaliation and higher costs in downstream industries.” ….A previous Fed study looked at uncertainty and found it has cut U.S. GDP growth by about a percentage point, which explains the deceleration to 2% from 3% in the last year.

At the risk of sounding like a dogmatic libertarian, we now have additional confirmation that it’s not a good idea to expand the footprint of government.

That’s true about taxes. That’s true about spending. That’s true about regulation. And it’s true about trade.

P.S. Wonky readers may be interested in this chart from the Fed study, which shows the impact of Trump’s trade war on employment, production, and producer prices.

P.P.S. Trump is right when he asserts that other nations have bad protectionist policies. Unfortunately, he wrongly thinks that reducing trade deficits somehow will address those bad policies. Instead, he should have targeted the specific bad policies (such as Chinese cronyism), ideally by utilizing the World Trade Organization.

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One of my big 2018 worries was that Trump would wreck NAFTA.

We dodged that bullet, but my two cents is that the new deal is underwhelming.

The bottom line is that his revisions to the pact – which is now called USMCA – create some new barriers to trade.

But there also are a few good parts of the deal.

And at least a source of economic uncertainty is now in the past. Indeed, that’s the real victory. There’s now presumably no risk that Trump will cause a meltdown of North American trade.

The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial hits the nail on the head.

Donald Trump is the most protectionist American President since Herbert Hoover, so one of our trade-policy goals of the last three years has been damage control. That’s the best case now for supporting Mr. Trump’s revisions to the North American Free Trade Agreement…  the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade deal puts to rest Mr. Trump’s threats to abandon the 1994 agreement and blow up continental trade. The new deal preserves most of the tariff-free trade in the original Nafta. …There’s particular political value in committing both Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the left-wing economic nationalist known as AMLO, and Mr. Trump, the Republican mercantilist, to open trading rules for North America.

Sadly, the Trump Administration pushed for some European-style managed trade and regulatory harmonization.

The shame is that in many respects the new deal is worse than Nafta, especially its bows to politically managed trade. …This raises the cost of manufacturing, making North American products less competitive worldwide. Also reducing North American competitiveness is a new rule mandating that 40% of an auto qualifying for tariff-free trade in the region has to be produced by workers earning $16 an hour. Mandating wage rates ignores the relationship between productivity and output and sets a bad precedent for future trade deals. …The unions battered Mexico to allow a new enforcement process that will give American unions a new way to intrude in Mexican labor disputes. …North American auto production costs will also rise thanks to a new layer of protection for U.S. steel. The new deal mandates that 70% of steel used in North American vehicles must be made on the continent… Our concern now is that the deal’s concessions to politically managed trade will become the new baseline for future negotiations. …Senators will have to consider whether these bad precedents are worse than the benefit of saving most of the original Nafta.

I mentioned in the interview that the International Monetary Fund did an analysis of USMCA.

Here’s what the IMF set out to measure.

This paper uses a global, multisector, computable-general-equilibrium model to provide an analytical assessment of five key provisions of USMCA: (1) higher vehicle and auto parts regional value content requirement, (2) new labor value content requirement for vehicles, (3) stricter rules of origin for USMCA textile and apparel trade, (4) agricultural trade liberalization that increases U.S. access to Canadian supply-managed markets and reduces U.S. barriers on Canadian dairy, sugar and sugar products, and peanuts and peanut products, and (5) trade facilitation measures. In the context of successful ratification of USMCA, the paper also examines the effect of the removal of U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from Canada and Mexico and their reciprocal withdrawal of surtax countermeasures.

And what are the results?

Mostly nothing. There are  few good provisions and a few bad provisions, so the net result is trivial.

Indeed, it’s worth emphasizing that the the most unambiguously positive result will be the removal of Trump’s anti-growth taxes on imports of steel and aluminum.

At the aggregate level, effects of the USMCA are relatively small. According to the analysis of this paper, key provisions in USMCA would lead to diminished economic integration in North America, reducing trade among the three North American partners by more than US$4 billion (0.4 percent) while offering members a combined welfare gain of US$538 million. Effects of the USMCA on real GDP are negligible. …The results show that the tighter rules of origin in the auto sector and the labor value content requirement would not achieve their desired outcomes. The new rules lead to a decline in the production of vehicles and parts in all three North-American countries, with shifts toward greater sourcing of both vehicles and parts from outside of the region. …The three countries would gain much from ending the dispute triggered by the U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum. USMCA scenario is extended to include the removal of U.S. steel and aluminum tariffs and a reciprocal elimination of Canadian and Mexican retaliatory import surtaxes. The extension would increase the welfare gain for the Canada, Mexico and the United States by $2.5 billion.

P.S. I mentioned an ideal free trade agreement in the interview. I also should have pointed out that unilateral free trade also is a good option. Assuming, of course, one understands the benefits of trade.

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Because of Trump’s poor grasp of trade issues, I warned at the end of July that trade negotiations with China might yield “something gimmicky (like purchasing X tons of soybeans or importing Y number of cars).”

Well, Trump announced an agreement yesterday and I can pat myself of the back for being prescient.

The New York Times reports on the meager features of the purported deal.

President Trump said Friday that the United States had reached an interim deal with China… If completed, …Mr. Trump said the “substantial” agreement would involve China buying $40 billion to $50 billion worth of American agricultural products annually, along with guidelines on how it manages its currency, the renminbi. …The deal is far from the type of comprehensive agreement Mr. Trump has been pushing for, and it leaves some of the administration’s biggest concerns about China’s economic practices unresolved. …Mr. Trump’s defenders say China’s concessions will generate positive momentum for future talks… Mr. Trump and his advisers also did not mention any progress in areas that the American business community has identified as critical to its ability to compete with Chinese companies — including China’s subsidization of industries, the role of the government in the economy.

There are two things worth noting, one of them a minor point and the other a major point.

The minor point is that an agreement to buy $40-$50 billion of agricultural products is managed trade rather than free trade. Consumers in a competitive market should be determining how much is being purchased, not politicians.

The major point is that the Trump Administration has been following the wrong strategy. After nearly three years of bluster against China, we have a deal that is anemic at best. Just imagine, by contrast, where we would be if Trump had joined with our allies and used the World Trade Organization to go after China’s mercantilist policies. We’d be in much better shape today.

And with none of the collateral damage that Trump’s tariffs have caused for American farmers, exporters, consumers, manufacturers, and taxpayers!

To use a bit of economic jargon, failing to utilize the WTO is an “opportunity cost” – an approach that we overlooked and neglected because Trump preferred a trade war.

By the way, I realize that there are some people who viscerally oppose the WTO. I hope they can be persuaded to change their minds. But if that’s impossible, I want to point out that Trump’s approach is wrong even for those who advocate U.S. unilateralism.

There are things that the United States could do that specifically target China’s anti-market policies.

For instance, James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute, shares an exchange he had with Claude Barfield.

…there’s an alternative to the sweeping protectionism of the populists and progressives. …here is a podcast exchange from last April between AEI trade expert Claude Barfield and myself: Pethokoukis: As far as the enforcement mechanism, should the stick be tariffs? Should we be going after individual Chinese companies that we feel are breaking these rules, that are engaged in tech IP theft? What should be the punitive aspect? Barfield: In terms of intellectual property, if a Chinese company is found having participated in some sort of theft or — and here we have to be more vigilant in following this ourselves — using some technology or system that they’ve stolen, I would ban them from the US market. I would ban them and I would go after them in capital markets around the world. If the Chinese, for instance, continue to refuse to allow real competition and particular sectors are closed off for investment, I would ban the Chinese companies here and again, I would go after them in capital markets. In other words, I think it’s the investment side that is more productive and from the beginning has always been more productive, for me, than the tariffs.

And Derek Scissors, also from AEI, outlines additional options.

…there are many available actions which are more focused and, often, stronger than tariffs. But the Trump administration has neglected them… China’s centrally-controlled state-owned enterprises are very large and never allowed to fail due to commercial competition — the ultimate subsidy. It is thus impossible for the US to achieve balanced market access, much less free trade. …Chinese enterprises are not accidental recipients of protection from competition… These activities are orchestrated by the state. …The last step is what, exactly, to do. There are…many options.

Here’s the table he put together.

The bottom line is that there are plenty of tools available to specifically target anti-market interventionism (subsidies, cronyism, theft, etc) by China. Including options that are too onerous, or perhaps even not compliant with our WTO obligations.

Not that any of that matters. Trump wrongly thinks the bilateral trade deficit (i.e., investment surplus) with China is the problem. So we’ve wasted almost three years with a bad strategy, hurt the U.S. economy, and failed to get pro-market reforms in China.

P.S. If successful, the right approach (i.e., using the WTO or unilateralism to go after China’s anti-market policies) would produce benefits for America, and it would produce even greater benefits for China.

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Earlier this year, I shared a short video about the benefits of the World Trade Organization.

Here’s a more substantive version (though still only four minutes).

I wanted to keep the video short, so I focused primarily on how the United States disproportionately benefits because other nations are pressured to reduce their trade taxes down to American levels.

Though I also pointed out that all countries benefit as global trade increases.

This is particularly relevant when you ponder President Trump’s trade spat with China. Yes, it would be good for the United States if China liberalized its economy and got rid of its mercantilist policies.

But it also would be good for China.

That’s why free trade is a good idea. It’s good if it’s unilateral free trade. It’s good if it’s bilateral free trade. And it’s good if it’s multilateral free trade.

Since we’re discussing the WTO, let’s look at some scholarly evidence.

An article by three Stanford political scientists for International Organization finds that the WTO has been beneficial for global trade.

The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the World Trade Organization (WTO) have been touted as premier examples of international institutions, but few studies have offered empirical proof. This article comprehensively evaluates the effects of the GATT/WTO and other trade agreements since World War II. Our analysis is organized around two factors: institutional standing and institutional embeddedness. We show that many countries had rights and obligations, or institutional standing, in the GATT/WTO even though they were not formal members of the agreement. We also expand the analysis to include a range of other commercial agreements that were embedded with the GATT/WTO. Using data on dyadic trade since 1946, we demonstrate that the GATT/WTO substantially increased trade for countries with institutional standing, and that other embedded agreements had similarly positive effects. Moreover, our evidence suggests that international trade agreements have complemented, rather than undercut, each other.

Meanwhile, a French think tank looks at some of the evidence in favor of the WTO’s rules-based approach to reducing trade taxes.

…the World Trade Organisation (WTO) which held a dominant position after WWII with its multilateral rules has lost influence…. From the point of view of a consumer or producer, the higher volatility of trade policy is nothing positive. …Handely and Limao (2015), Handley (2014), Pelc (2013) as well as Bacchetta and Piermartini (2011) also find empirical support for welfare gains from a rules compliant trade policy. …After WWII the average level of tariffs decreased constantly and predictably as part of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), and its successor the WTO, which are based on member commitment and reciprocity. …multilateral agreements such as the WTO offer mechanisms which provide incentives even for mercantilist politicians to reduce barriers of trade.

Here’s a chart from the study, which shows how trade taxes have been falling in the post-World War II era.

In other words, the WTO process has been successful. President Trump’s tactic of escalating tariffs, by contrast, has not worked.

By way of background, the WTO is actually nothing more than a dispute-resolution forum for the GATT system (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) that was created back in the late 1940s.

And, unlike the International Monetary Fund or Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, this is a part of the “post-war order” that’s worth preserving.

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According to the most-recent edition of Economic Freedom of the World, Brazil is only ranked #120, which is lower than nations such as Greece, Haiti, and China.

Brazil gets a horrible grade on regulation, and it’s also in the bottom half of all nations when looking at fiscal policy, quality of governance, and trade.

But things may be about to change. Voters elected a president last year, Jair Bolsonaro, who is best known for populist rhetoric, but he also expresses support for market-friendly reforms.

And even though he’s sometimes referred to as the “Brazilian Trump,” President Bolsonaro seems to have a much better understanding of trade than his American counterpart.

At least if this report from the Wall Street Journal is any indication.

President Jair Bolsonaro ’s administration is opening up one of the world’s most closed big economies, slashing import tariffs on more than 2,300 products and exposing local industries long accustomed to protectionism to the challenges of free trade. With little fanfare, the conservative government has since taking office in January eased the entry of ultrasonic scalpels, cancer drugs, heavy machinery and more, in some cases with tariffs reduced to zero from as much as 20%. The tariff cuts…reflect a significant shift in the world’s eighth-largest economy, where duties were twice as high as in Mexico, China and the European Union last year. The new opening is a central feature in Economy Minister Paulo Guedes ’s plans to make the country of 210 million more competitive, part of an effort to rekindle a moribund economy historically shielded from foreign competition and bogged down by bureaucracy. …“Brazil’s model of protectionism has failed,” Deputy Economy Minister for Trade Marcos Troyjo, one of Brazil’s chief trade negotiators, said in an interview. “It’s been 40 years without sustainable economic growth.”

Here are some excerpts about how Brazil has been hurt by trade barriers.

The problems created by protectionism are evident throughout Brazil’s economy. When Mauá University outside São Paulo imported American equipment last year that it couldn’t find in Brazil to upgrade its physics lab, for example, import tariffs doubled the price tag to $70,000, said Francisco Olivieri, a business professor and head of Mauá’s technology department. …Protectionism hurts businesses that need to import supplies or parts and face high tariffs and bureaucracy to do so, which pushes them away from global supply chains. Red tape related to tariffs at Brazilian ports mean imported supplies can take weeks to reach buyers, causing production delays. Fifty-five percent of foreign products require the importing companies to obtain permits from as many as six different government agencies, according to a recent study by the National Confederation of Industry, or CNI, a trade group that represents Brazilian factories. Importers are subject to steep fines if they fail to request a permit, but it is often difficult to determine from which agencies they must seek approval.

In other words, Brazilian companies are hit by a double-whammy of trade barriers and red tape.

This is why liberalization is so important.

Incidentally, the EFW data only captures what happened up through 2017.

And since Brazil (#87) isn’t that far behind the United States (#55) in the trade rankings, I won’t be overly surprised in a few years if Brazil jumps the United States given the combination of Bolsonaro’s good policies and Trump’s bad policies.

P.S. Brazil is also in the process of curtailing pensions and already has adopted a constitutional spending cap.

P.P.S. President Bolsonaro is quite good on gun rights.

P.P.P.S. A few years ago, I fretted Brazil has passed a tipping point of dependency. I’m somewhat hopeful that assessment was too pessimistic.

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At the risk of understatement, I’ve been rather critical of Trump’s protectionism.

But not always. Last year, I praised him for floating the idea of zero taxes on trade between nations (even if I didn’t think he was serious).

And I point out in this interview that he is right about protectionism hurting financial markets.

Just in case you don’t believe me, here’s what Trump actually said, as reported by Business Insider.

President Donald Trump said Wednesday that the Dow Jones Industrial Average would be thousands of points higher if it weren’t for the trade war with China, which he started last year in an attempt to address trade practices that officials said put the US at a disadvantage. “Let me tell you, if I wanted to do nothing with China, my stock market, our stock market, would be 10,000 points higher than it is right now,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “But somebody had to do this. To me, this is much more important than the economy … It was out of control. They were out of control.”

Incidentally, what Trump is saying at the end of the excerpt could be true. There are times when growth should be a secondary concern.

To take an obvious example, it’s perfectly reasonable to have laws prohibiting companies from selling advanced military technology to potentially hostile governments.

My concern is that the president is too fixated on China’s largely irrelevant bilateral trade deficit. After all, that’s simply the flip side of America’s enormous investment surplus with China.

Instead, Trump should be pressuring Beijing to get rid of subsidies, cronyism, and other mercantilist policies (ideally by using the WTO).

Such reforms would help American companies since they would be competing on more of a level playing field.

And China’s economy would benefit even more since there would be less government intervention.

In other words, there’s a potential win-win conclusion to this trade war. But I’m not overly confident that President Trump or President Xi have the right goal in mind.

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Earlier this year, I identified Trump’s “worst ever tweet.”

I was wrong. That tweet, which displayed an astounding level of economic ignorance, is now old news.

Trump issued a tweet yesterday that is far worse because it combines bad economic theory with horrifying support for massive economic intervention. Pay special attention to the part circled in red.

Huh?!?

Since when does the President get to dictate where companies can do business?

Unfortunately, whenever he wants to.

Congress has delegated to the President massive “emergency” powers over the economy. Specifically, the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) is a blank check.

Here are some excerpts from a report by the Congressional Research Service.

By the twentieth century, …Congress created statutory bases permitting the President to declare a state of emergency and make use of extraordinary delegated powers. …The International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) is one such example of a twentieth-century delegation of emergency authority. …IEEPA grants the President extensive power to regulate a variety of economic transactions during a state of emergency. …Since 1977, Presidents have invoked IEEPA in 54 declarations of national emergency. On average, these emergencies last nearly a decade. Most emergencies have been geographically specific, targeting a specific country or government. …No President has used IEEPA to place tariffs on imported products from a specific country or on products imported to the United States in general. However, …such an action could happen. In addition, no President has used IEEPA to enact a policy that was primarily domestic in effect. Some scholars argue, however, that the interconnectedness of the global economy means it would probably be permissible to use IEEPA to take an action that was primarily domestic in effect. …Neither the NEA nor IEEPA define what constitutes a “national emergency.” …While IEEPA nominally applies only to foreign transactions, the breadth of the phrase, “any interest of any foreign country or a national thereof” has left a great deal of room for executive discretion.

You can click here for the actual legislative language of IEEPA.

You’ll see that the President has the power, for all intents and purposes, to severely disrupt or even block financial transactions between people and/or companies in the United States and people and/or companies in a designated foreign country.

And there’s no limit on the definition of “emergency.”

One could argue that an emergency declaration and a ban on the movement of money wouldn’t necessarily prohibit a company from doing business in a particular jurisdiction, but it surely would have that effect.

The economic consequences would be profound. In a negative way.

By the way, the White House Bureau Chief for the Washington Post responded to Trump’s tweet with one of his own.

He says the President, who criticizes socialism, is acting like a socialist.

He’s actually wrong, at least technically.

Socialism is government ownership and control of the means of production.

What Trump is seeking is private ownership and government control. And there’s a different word for that economic policy.

P.S. It’s a good idea for the U.S. government to have powers to respond to a genuine emergency. But it shouldn’t be the decision of one person in our separation-of-powers system. It was a bad idea when Obama was in the White House, and it’s a bad idea with Trump in the White House.

In peacetime, an emergency should require the approval of Congress. In wartime, it should require approval of the House and Senate leadership from both parties.

P.P.S. Trade laws are another example of Congress delegating too much power to the executive branch.

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I wrote two days ago about how the White House is contemplating ideas to boost the economy.

This is somewhat worrisome since “stimulus” plans oftentimes are based on Keynesian economics, which has a terrible track record. But there are policies that could help growth and I comment on some of them in this interview.

The discussion jumped from one idea to the next, so let’s makes sense of the various proposals by ranking them from best to worst.

And I’m including a few ideas that are part of the discussion in Washington, but weren’t mentioned in the interview.

  1. Eliminate Trade Taxes – Trump’s various trade taxes have made America’s economy less efficient and less productive. And, as I explained in the interview, the president has unilateral power to undo his destructive protectionist policies.
  2. Index Capital Gains – The moral argument for using regulatory authority to index capital gains for inflation is just as strong as the economic argument, as far as I’m concerned. Potential legal challenges could create uncertainly and thus mute the beneficial impact.
  3. Lower Payroll Tax Rates – While it’s always a good idea to lower the marginal tax rate on work, politicians are only considering a temporary reduction, which would greatly reduce any potential benefits.
  4. Do Nothing – As of today, based on Trump’s statements, this may be the most likely option. And since “doing something” in Washington often means more power for government, there’s a strong argument for “doing nothing.”
  5. Infrastructure – This wasn’t mentioned in the interview, but I worry that Trump will join with Democrats (and some pork-oriented Republicans) to enact a boondoggle package of transportation spending.
  6. Easy Money from the Fed – Trump is browbeating the Federal Reserve in hopes that the central bank will use its powers to artificially reduce interest rates. The president apparently thinks Keynesian monetary policy will goose the economy. In reality, intervention by the Fed usually is the cause of economic instability.

In my ideal world, I would have included spending cuts. But I limited myself to ideas that with a greater-than-zero chance of getting implemented.

I’ll close with some observations on the state of the economy.

Economists have a terrible track record of predicting twists and turns in the economy. This is why I don’t make predictions and instead focus on analyzing how various policies will affect potential long-run growth.

That being said, it’s generally safe to assume that downturns are caused by bad economic policy, especially the Federal Reserve’s boom-bust monetary policy.

Ironically, some people then blame capitalism for the damage caused by government intervention (the Great Depression, the Financial Crisis, etc).

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I’m worried. There’s a lot of talk in Washington about Trump trying to goose the economy with either Keynesian monetary policy or Keynesian fiscal policy.

It would be much better, as I discuss in this interview with Yahoo Finance, if Trump instead declared a ceasefire in the trade wars he’s started.

The interview largely revolved around trade policy and monetary policy, so I was mostly critical of Trump.

But I want to focus on the point I made midway through the discussion, when I said that Trump is undermining and offsetting some of his Administration’s good policies – most notably tax reform and regulatory easing.

As an economist, I’m frustrated by this inconsistency. It’s akin to a watching a kid get good grades in some classes and bad grades in others (and I worry his GPA is declining).

Though I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. This is what the theory of “public choice” tells us to expect.

I can only imagine, though, how frustrating this must be for Republican political operatives. They’re focused on winning in 2020 and the President is sabotaging that goal with bad trade policy.

P.S. Toward the end of the interview, I pointed out that Trump should have gone through the World Trade Organization in his effort to curtail China’s protectionism. When the history of the Trump presidency is written, I suspect this will be viewed as a major mistake.

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In this interview with Fox Business, I make my usual points (trade barriers are misguided, China is protectionist, Trump’s not responding wisely, etc).

For today’s column, though, I want to discuss who actually bears the burden of Trump’s trade taxes.

All of us (including the host) pointed out that consumers will pay more. To be sure, the tax technically is paid by importers as goods enter the country, but there’s near-universal agreement that the cost is largely passed along.

But keep in mind that American consumers are not the only victims. As I pointed out last year, as well as earlier this year, there’s lots of secondary damage. Taxpayers, workers, retailers, exporters, manufacturers, and investors in the United States also suffer.

And in other nations as well.

From an economic perspective, the key thing to understand is that there are direct costs and indirect costs. The importer bears the direct costs of the trade tax (i.e., they’re the folks who actually send money to the government).

The rest of us bear the indirect costs because the economy is less efficient and productive.

  • As consumers, we pay more.
  • As workers, we get paid less.
  • As investors, we earn lower returns.

There also are added costs on specific trade-dependent sectors (agriculture, for instance), as well as future victims since protectionism by the U.S. triggers protectionism by other nations.

And this doesn’t even consider the potential harm of currency devaluations. Geesh, no wonder financial markets are spooked.

The bottom line is that Trump is playing with fire. I’ve been happy to give him credit for his good policies (tax plan, regulatory easing), but what he’s doing on trade is definitely doing a lot of damage (exacerbated by the reckless spending).

To be sure, China also is suffering. But hurting ourselves to hurt China is not a smart strategy.

P.S. Taxes on trade are like taxes on business. In the former case, politicians say they’re imposing taxes on other countries, but people (consumers, workers, investors) are the victims. In the latter case, politicians say they’re imposing taxes on corporations, but people (consumers, workers, investors) are the victims.

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As I explained last year, Trump is right and wrong about China and trade. He’s correct that China doesn’t play fair, but he mistakenly fixates on the trade deficit rather than going after China’s subsidies and cronyism.

And, as I note in this brief interview from yesterday, he’s making a mistake by not using the World Trade Organization to curtail China’s anti-market policies.

For further information, I wrote a column about the five things everyone should understand about the US-China trade squabble.

But I also think there are two points from the interview that deserve elaboration.

  • First, I should not have said the WTO was a “threat” to China. Yes, the Geneva-based organization almost surely would rule against many of China’s policies, but getting rid of subsidies and cronyism would be very beneficial for the Chinese economy. In other words, China would enjoy more growth and prosperity if it had to fix its bad policies in response to adverse WTO rulings. And, of course, the United States and other countries also would benefit as well.
  • Second, I want to explain what I meant in my closing point about whether China could “trick Trump.” The best outcome of negotiations is genuine free trade between the US and China, with no subsidies and cronyism to tilt the playing field. But since Trump wrongly fixates on trade balances, I worry that China might seek to preserve its bad policies and instead mollify the president by agreeing to something gimmicky (like purchasing X tons of soybeans or importing Y number of cars).

I’ll close by addressing a common complaint that the WTO would not be an effective vehicle for liberalization.

Given how trade taxes have dropped since the WTO was created, I think this is a very bizarre assertion.

Unlike other international organizations, which have dismal track records, the WTO has actually helped increase economic freedom around the world.

And that’s good news for America. And the rest of the world as well.

The WTO also is willing to stand up to China when it’s wrong. Here are some excerpts from a recent report by Reuters.

China has halted a dispute at the World Trade Organization over its claim to be a market economy, a panel of three WTO adjudicators said on Monday… One trade official close to the case said so much of the ruling had gone against Beijing that it had opted to pull the plug before the result became official. “They lost so much that they didn’t even want the world to see the panel’s reasoning,” the official said. …China had insisted that they treat it as a “market economy”, countering their view that the price of Chinese exports could not be taken at face value due to state interference in the economy. …the United States and the EU…said Chinese goods — especially commodities such as steel and aluminum — were still heavily underpriced because of subsidies and state-backed oversupply.

Last but not least, here’s a chart from the Peterson Institute showing how the United States has been the most active participant in the WTO’s process for dispute resolution.

The bottom line is that both China and the United States will benefit if there’s more economic freedom and less government intervention.

But Trump doesn’t understand trade and China’s leaders don’t want to give up their grip on the allocation of capital. So I’m not holding my breath waiting for a good outcome.

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What’s worse, a politician who knowingly supports bad policy or a politician who actually thinks that bad policy is good policy?

I was very critical of the Bush Administration (I’m referring to George W. Bush, but the same analysis applies to George H.W. Bush) because there were many bad policies (education centralization, wasteful spending, TARP, etc) and the people in the White House knew they were bad policies.

For what it’s worth, I think it’s reprehensible when politicians knowingly hurt the country simply because they think there’s some temporary political benefit.

I’m also critical of many of Trump’s policies. But at least in the case of protectionism, he genuinely believes in what he’s doing.

But that doesn’t change the fact that protectionism is bad policy. Higher taxes on trade hurt prosperity, just like higher taxes on work, saving, investment, and other forms of economic activity are harmful.

And, according to the National Taxpayers Union, Trump’s various tax hikes on trade cumulatively represent a giant tax increase.

The Trump administration has imposed 25 percent taxes on $234.8 billion in imports from China under Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974. This represents a nominal tax hike of as much as $58.7 billion — the third-largest in inflation-adjusted dollar terms since World War II ended. But things could soon get much worse. President Trump plans to impose a 5 percent tariff on imports from Mexico starting on June 10, possibly increasing to 25 percent by October 1. He is also considering adding a 25 percent tariff to an additional $300 billion in imports from China. Tariffs on washing machines, solar goods, steel, and aluminum add billions of dollars more to the burden on U.S. taxpayers. If the Trump administration follows through on all its tariff threats, the combined result will be far and away the largest tax increase in the post-war era in real dollar terms. …tax increases of this scale threaten to undermine the economic expansion that has driven unemployment down to levels not seen since 1969.

Here’s a chart from the NTU report. They have two ways of measuring Trump’s trade taxes. In either case, the transfer of money from taxpayers to politicians is bigger than any previous tax hikes.

The National Bureau of Economic Research also has some estimates of how Trump’s protectionism has undermined the U.S. economy.

Two new NBER working papers analyze how this “trade war” has affected U.S. households and firms. The recent tariffs, which represent the most comprehensive protectionist U.S. trade policy since the 1930 Smoot-Hawley Act and 1971 tariff actions, ranged from 10 to 50 percent on about $300 billion of U.S. imports — about 13 percent of the total. Other countries responded with similar tariffs on about $100 billion worth of U.S. exports. In The Impact of the 2018 Trade War on U.S. Prices and Welfare (NBER Working Paper No. 25672), Mary Amiti, Stephen J. Redding, and David Weinstein find that the costs of the new tariff structure were largely passed through as increases in U.S. prices, affecting domestic consumers and producers who buy imported goods rather than foreign exporters. The researchers estimate that the tariffs reduced real incomes by about $1.4 billion per month. …Pablo D. Fajgelbaum, Pinelopi K. Goldberg, Patrick J. Kennedy, and Amit K. Khandelwal adopt a different methodological approach to address the welfare effect of recent tariffs. They also find complete pass-through of U.S. tariffs to import prices. In The Return to Protectionism (NBER Working Paper No. 25638), they estimate that the new tariff regime reduced U.S. imports by 32 percent, and that retaliatory tariffs from other countries resulted in an 11 percent decline of U.S. exports. … They estimate that higher prices facing U.S. consumers and firms who purchased imported goods generated a welfare loss of $68.8 billion, which was substantially offset by the income gains to U.S. producers who were able to charge higher prices ($61 billion). The researchers estimate the resulting real income decline at about $7.8 billion per year.

Here’s one of the charts from NBER.

That is not a pretty picture.

Especially since Trump is using the damage he’s causing as an excuse to adopt additional bad policies.

Here’s some of what George Will recently wrote for the Washington Post.

The cascading effects of U.S. protectionism on U.S. producers and consumers constitute an ongoing tutorial about…“iatrogenic government.” In medicine, an iatrogenic ailment is one inadvertently caused by a physician or medicine. Iatrogenic government — except the damage it is doing is not inadvertent — was on display last week. The Trump administration unveiled a plan to disburse $16 billion to farmers as balm for wounds — predictable and predicted — from the retaliation of other nations, especially China, against U.S. exports in response to the administration’s tariffs. …The evident sincerity of his frequently reiterated belief that exporters to the United States pay the tariffs that U.S. importers and consumers pay is more alarming than mere meretriciousness would be. …So, taxpayers who are paying more for imported goods covered by the administration’s tariffs (which are taxes Americans pay) are also paying to compensate some other Americans for injuries inflicted on them in response to the tariffs that are injuring the taxpayers. …Protectionism is yet another example of government being the disease for which it pretends to be the cure.

A tragic example of Mitchell’s Law in action.

The trade issue is also another example of hypocrisy in action.

Back in 2016, I applauded the IMF for criticizing Trump’s protectionist trade taxes, but simultaneously asked why the bureaucrats weren’t also criticizing Hillary Clinton’s proposed tax increases on work, saving, and investment.

Now I spend a lot of time wondering why Republicans, who claim to be on the side of taxpayers, somehow forget about their anti-tax principles when Trump is unilaterally imposing higher taxes on American consumers and producers.

What’s ironic about this mess is that Trump very well may be sabotaging his own reelection campaign. As he imposes more and more taxes on trade (and as foreign governments then impose retaliation), the cumulative economic damage may be enough to completely offset the benefits of his tax reform plan.

If he winds up losing in 2020, I wonder if “Tariff Man” will have second thoughts about the wisdom of protectionism?

Since he’s a true believer in trade barriers, he may think it was worth it. I doubt other Republicans in Washington will have the same perspective.

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I periodically deal with people who generally sympathize with capitalism but nonetheless are supportive of protectionism.

In part, they incorrectly think that a “trade deficit” is a problem that must be fixed.

In other cases, they don’t understand the economic downsides of protectionism.

As I discuss the issue with them, I sometimes do a history quiz. I ask them a series of questions.

  • Why did the Union impose a blockade against the Confederacy during the Civil War?
  • Why did the British impose a blockade against the French during the Napoleonic War?
  • Why did the United States impose a blockade against Cuba during the Cold War?

In every case, the answer is the same. The blockade was imposed to weaken a country by denying it the benefit of trade. Simply stated, a nation will be poorer if it can’t take advantage of the fact that it makes more sense to import certain items.

I’ve never seen a meme that effectively captures the above principle, but Professor Don Boudreaux shared this image earlier today.

Given Trump’s promiscuous imposition of tariffs, it’s certainly timely.

And it does capture the essence of Trump’s trade policy.

Yes, he’s hurting Mexico, China, and other nations that are being hit with tariffs.

But the United States is the main victim. Tariffs are taxes on Americans who want to buy foreign goods and services. Tariffs are taxes that create inefficiencies in the American economy. Tariffs are taxes that create special advantages of cronyists at the expense of fair competition.

P.S. The little girl in the picture also is the star of a meme about Keynesian economics.

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When I want to feel optimistic about China, I look at data from Economic Freedom of the World to confirm that there was a lot of economic liberalization (triggered in part by some civil disobedience) between 1980 and the early 2000s.

Then I look at how that period of capitalist reform dramatically improved living standards and reduced poverty.

But I also look at the same data if I want to feel pessimistic about China. That’s because there hasn’t been any additional liberalization in the past 15 years. China is basically treading water, and that means it is actually losing ground as other nations reform.

Indeed, it is now ranked #107 after being ranked as high as #87.

Which is why I’ve arguedrepeatedly – that China needs a new period of free-market reform.

And that includes adopting better trade policy.

Which raises an interesting question: Is Trump’s saber rattling on China trade helping or hurting?

Here’s some of what I wrote for Inside Sources on this issue.

President Donald Trump has launched a new attack in his trade war with China… Is it possible…that his bluster will produce a good long-run deal to offset short-run costs? Let’s hope so, but it’s unclear…we all have a stake in the outcome of these trade negotiations. So here are five things to understand as discussions continue.

Starting with two reasons why there’s a trade deficit and why it doesn’t matter.

First:

Americans are much richer than their counterparts in China. …per-capita economic output in the United States is six times larger than it is in China ($60,000 compared to $10,000). This means Americans can afford to buy a lot more, including more goods and services from around the world. As such, a bilateral trade deficit with China is neither surprising nor worrisome.

And second:

The United States enjoys a far higher level of economic freedom than China. …the United States is ranked No. 6 while China is a lowly No. 107. This helps to explain why Chinese entrepreneurs who earn dollars by selling to American consumers often decide to invest those dollars in the American economy (the United States is the world’s top destination for global investment). This means the trade deficit is matched by a capital surplus.

I then explain China is guilty of protectionism and it would be good for both nations if these barriers were eliminated.

China has more protectionist barriers than America. …average Chinese tariffs are nearly three times higher than America tariffs. And China is also guiltier of using subsidies to help domestic companies. …people of both nations are the main victims of these bad policies, but it would be good for all of us if those trade barriers were reduced.

But what’s the best approach to encourage better policy from China?

I don’t think Trump’s unilateral protectionism will be successful.

Bullying and tit-for-tax retaliation is not an effective strategy. …tariffs hurt China, but they also hurt the United States by raising the price of consumer and intermediate goods. Taxes on Chinese goods also reduce incentives for America companies to become more efficient and better producers. Perhaps most important, there is little reason to think these taxes will have the desired effect of altering Chinese behavior.

I’d be much more hopeful if Trump used the World Trade Organization to push for good policy.

The WTO is an underused tool for trade liberalization. It has a dispute resolution process that has been successfully used to cajole and pressure nations into reducing trade barrier. The president has publicly criticized the WTO, but he probably doesn’t realize that the United States wins about nine out of every 10 cases when it challenges other nations’ trade barriers. …many other nations would have supported the United States if we had used the WTO as a vehicle to achieve more liberalization.

The bottom line, for what it’s worth, is that I’m not terribly hopeful.

It’s not too late for the president to select that strategy, of course, but that won’t be likely as long as he mistakenly sees trade as a zero-sum proposition.

Let’s close by looking at relevant excerpts from three other articles.

First, a columnist for National Review explains how cronyism infects the Chinese economy.

…just because China has many private companies, allows Communist-Party member Jack Ma to become a billionaire as head of Alibaba Group, and translates capitalist classics into Mandarin doesn’t mean it’s capitalist. The fact that few describe the Chinese economic system without putting a modifier in front of the term “capitalism” — “authoritarian,” “state,” “predatory,” “Communist,” etc. — should tell us something. …China has more than 150,000 state-owned enterprises, accounting for 40 percent of industrial assets. However, Chinese state capitalism is not just, or even principally, about the number and size of such enterprises; it’s about the central role the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) plays in virtually all aspects of economic life. …Chinese state capitalism is a system in which the purpose of firms — private and public — is to fulfill the goals of the Communist Party. …capitalism is…a system in which…property owners have considerable…freedom to pursue their goals without influence from the state. By this standard, China’s is far from a capitalist economy.

Second, here are some excerpts from an Atlantic column about why it is difficult to alter China’s misguided approach.

…the trade dispute is about far more than tariffs and deficits. It is a contest of two very different national ideologies. Though the Trump administration has deviated from this somewhat, the United States believes that openness—political, economic, and social—creates prosperity, resolves disagreements within society, and promotes the diversity that spawns innovation and progress. China—or, more accurately, its leadership—sees government control as critical to developing the economy, achieving social peace, and forwarding the best interests of the nation overall. Americans tend to think open, free markets that are operating in a fair regulatory environment produce the best economic results. Beijing, on the other hand, doesn’t trust market forces and instead wants the state to play a more direct role in achieving the economic outcomes it determines are necessary for the country. …As a result, what Trump is demanding is extremely difficult to achieve: a “level playing field” for American firms. In fact, nothing of the sort actually exists in China, even for Chinese companies. The state has a nasty tendency to favor its own, with government-controlled businesses enjoying a smorgasbord of official assistance, including tax credits, low-interest loans from state banks, and other subsidies that give them an undue edge in local competition. That leaves private Chinese companies and entrepreneurs often facing the same kinds of hurdles to doing business that foreign ones face.

Third, Professor Deirdre McCloskey has a more optimistic assessment, arguing that it is foolish for the U.S. government to fixate on China’s distortionary policies.

The White House is pursuing two stupid policies, trying to reduce the United States’ “balance of payments” with China and trying to protect “intellectual property” from China’s thievery. These policies are leading to a crash in the Chinese economy, which has been grossly ill-managed under President Xi Jinping. …when did you last feel the U.S. balance of trade? You feel only the idiotic policies advocated in reaction to it by Peter Navarro, a White House economist who never learned economics. (His Ph.D. is from Harvard. I’m thinking of turning mine back in.) It would be better if the government did not calculate and announce the balance of payments at all. It’s meaningless and an occasion for sin. What about China stealing intellectual property? Intellectual property sounds nice. …Patents and copyrights make things that are free in nature artificially scarce in order to cream off profit for the influentials. They are comparable to hack medallions, recently threatened by monopoly breakers Uber and Lyft. …Economists would be satisfied with a rough-and-ready rule of, say, a 10-year monopoly. But asserting an expansive right to intellectual property, which Congress then regularly extends in order to preserve the privileges of drug companies and the Walt Disney Corporation, is no solution.

I’ll add one final point.

We should support Chinese economic reform because it is good for the United States and good for China.

Here’s a chart showing 2017 World Bank data and 2019 IMF data on per-capita economic output in both nations.

In other words, notwithstanding all the growth China has enjoyed, it is still well behind the United States.

That’s the price the country is paying for insufficient reform.

Beijing should copy Hong Kong and Singapore if it wants to converge with America.

P.S. The last thing China should do is listen to the OECD or IMF.

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Back in 2015, when Trump was a long-shot candidate for the Republican nomination, I criticized him for not signing the no-tax-hike pledge.

But he then pushed through a better-than-expected tax plan after getting the White House. And that package reduces the tax burden (at least for the first nine years).

So is it time for me to retract my 2015 criticism?

Nope.

Look at this horrifying tweet that Trump issued yesterday. The President is actually claiming that the economy is doing well because of higher tax payments.

This has to be Trump’s worst-ever tweet, at least with regards to economic policy.

Normally, only hard-left politicians and international bureaucracies have the gall to claim that you can strengthen an economy by having governments collect more money.

Needless to say, it’s strange to see a Republican president make the same argument.

But Trump’s tweet isn’t just bad from the perspective of fiscal policy.

He also shows that he doesn’t understand trade policy, either from a technical perspective or an economic perspective.

For instance, the tariffs (i.e., trade taxes) technically are paid by those making the purchases (i.e., importers), not by the sellers (i.e., Chinese companies).

But just as the corporate income tax is really a tax on people (either as workers, consumers, or shareholders), the burden of trade taxes also falls on people.

In other words, American consumers are paying for Trump’s tariffs.

Which gives me an excuse to share Trump’s second-worst-ever tweet, which was issued this morning.

At the risk of understatement, the United States doesn’t “lose” $500 billion by trading with China.

Americans voluntarily purchase lots of output from China and both sides benefit (otherwise the transactions wouldn’t occur).

And many Chinese use the dollars they earn to invest in the U.S. economy, another set of win-win transactions.

The net result of all these voluntary transactions is that America has a trade deficit, which is a meaningless figure. Basically the flip side of having a capital surplus.

The bottom line is that Trump should stick to tax policy and regulatory policy, since those are areas where his policies have been beneficial.

P.S. If Trump was focused on Chinese technology theft or Chinese industrial subsidies, I would be at least partly sympathetic. Especially if he utilized the World Trade Organization and included our allies. But he’s mostly attacking China because he doesn’t like the voluntary decisions of American and Chinese consumers and businesses.

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When I pontificate about trade, I often point out that protectionism is a net negative for the economy.

Yes, it is possible to erect trade barriers that benefit specific sectors and protect certain jobs, and this is the “seen” benefit.

But the “unseen” costs are always far greater.

Simply stated, protectionism inevitably results in higher prices, foregone prosperity, and economic inefficiency.

Which is exactly what was determined in new research by three economists when they investigated Trump’s trade taxes on washing machines.

We analyze several rounds of U.S. import restrictions against washing machines. Using retail price data, we estimate the price effect of these import restrictions by comparing the price changes of washers with those of other appliances. We find that in response to the 2018 tariffs on nearly all source countries, the price of washers rose by nearly 12 percent; the price of dryers—a complementary good not subject to tariffs—increased by an equivalent amount. Factoring in the effect of dryers and price increases by domestic brands, our estimates for the 2018 tariffs on washers imply a tariff elasticity of consumer prices of between 110 and 230 percent. …The result is an increase of 1.542 billion USD in consumer costs per year. …calculated duties from February 2018 to January 2019 amounted to just under 82 million USD for washing machines, and about 355,000 USD for washing machine parts. …Combining these numbers together reveals a consumer cost per job of roughly 817,000 USD annually.

Here’s a chart from the study showing how prices increased after the tax was imposed.

A report in the New York Times highlights some of the findings.

President Trump’s decision to impose tariffs on imported washing machines..is a case study in how a measure meant to help domestic factory workers can rebound on American consumers, creating unexpected costs and leaving shoppers with a sky-high bill for every factory job created. …consumers bore between 125 percent and 225 percent of the costs of the washing machine tariffs. The authors calculate that the tariffs brought in $82 million to the United States Treasury, while raising consumer prices by $1.5 billion. And while the tariffs did encourage foreign companies to shift more of their manufacturing to the United States and created about 1,800 new jobs, the researchers conclude that those came at a steep cost: about $817,000 per job. …The costs of tariffs are paid by some combination of consumers, in the form of higher prices for the products they buy, and companies, which sometimes accept lower profit margins in order to avoid losing sales when tariffs are applied. …

Not that these findings should be a surprise.

There have been numerous studies showing that protectionism is very costly.

Indeed, the NYT story cites a few of these examples.

Other studies support the idea that tariffs are an expensive way to bolster job-creation in the United States. A study by the Peterson Institute found that tire tariffs imposed by Mr. Obama cost about $900,000 per job created. A more recent one found that Mr. Trump’s steel tariffs raised prices on steel users by $650,000 for every job they supported.

By the way, I suspect all this research is incomplete because it mostly measures how consumers have to pay higher prices.

That’s a real cost, of course, but what about secondary costs? What economic activity is being lost because consumers (in the case of washing machines) no longer have $1.542 billion available for other expenditures?

I explored this issue when writing about the green-energy programs that were part of the Obama Administration’s stimulus scheme. Here’s some of that column.

You don’t measure the job impact…simply by dividing the number of jobs into the amount of money… That only gives you part of the answer. You also have to estimate how many jobs would have been created if the $19 billion (or full $38.6 billion) had been left in the private sector rather than being diverted by the heavy hand of government. …Keeping in mind that good analysis requires us to measure the “seen” and “unseen,” let’s now look at net job creation, which is where the rubber meets the road. The federal government is going to divert $38.6 billion from private capital markets for its green energy program, and the Administration claims this will lead to 60,000-65,000 jobs. However, based on the existing ratio of non-financial capital to employment, that same $38.6 billion, if left in the productive sector of the economy, would create about 240,000 jobs. In other words, for every one job “created” by the government, almost four jobs will be foregone. The Obama White House isn’t defending a program that spends a lot of money to create very few jobs. The Administration is defending a program that spends a lot of money and – as a result – reduces total jobs by perhaps 180,000.

I freely confessed in that column that these were back-of-the-envelope calculations, so perhaps the economic costs would show up as lower average wages instead.

None of that changes my point that the economy suffers because of government intervention (whether Obama-style fake stimulus or Trump-style trade taxes).

P.S. Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute added his two cents on this issue and shared these examples of costly protectionism.

P.P.S. I much prefer Reagan’s approach to trade (see here, here, and here).

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