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Archive for the ‘Protectionism’ Category

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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In January, I shared a short video about protectionism, which expanded on some analysis from a one-minute video from last year.

Today, here’s a short video explaining the trade deficit, which also expands on a one-minute video from last year.

Simply stated, trade deficits are largely irrelevant.

And since trade balances don’t matter, then it makes no sense to fight trade wars. Especially when protectionist-minded politicians inflict lots of casualties on their own people.

Given all the dramatic rhetoric in Washington about trade deficits – especially from President Trump, it’s worth pointing out that there’s nothing radical or unconventional about my analysis.

Kevin Williamson, for instance, made similar points when he explained the economics of trade deficits for National Review.

A trade deficit is just a bookkeeping entry, not a debt that has to be paid. Countries don’t trade — people do. Americans are no more harmed by the trade deficit with Germany than you are by your trade deficit with Kroger. …trade deficits…are not really driven by consumer behavior… It’s true that many Americans prefer German cars and French wines — and cheap electronics and T-shirts made in China — but trade deficits mostly are the result of several other causes: macroeconomic factors such as tax policies and savings rates, the strength of a country’s currency, and, most important, its attractiveness to investors. …Far from being victimized by such trade, Americans are enriched by it.

Indeed, while more trade is associated with more prosperity, Kevin notes that there’s no link with trade balances.

Trade deficits are not a sign of economic trouble, and trade surpluses are not necessarily a sign of economic health. The last time the U.S. ran a trade surplus with the world was 1975, when our economy was in a shambles. Britain ran a trade deficit from Waterloo to the Great War, a century marking the height of its power, and it grew vastly wealthy.

Neil Irwin, writing for the New York Times, points out that a trade deficit is the same as a capital surplus.

A core idea that Donald J. Trump has embraced throughout his time in public life has been that the United States is losing in trade with the rest of the world, and that persistent trade deficits are evidence of this fact. …The vast majority of economists view it differently. In this mainstream view, trade deficits are not inherently good or bad. …When a country runs a trade deficit, there is a countervailing force. …the flow of capital is the reverse of the flow of goods. And the trade deficit will be shaped not just by the mechanics of what products people in the two countries buy, but also by unrelated investment and savings decisions. The cause and effect goes both directions. …the flow of capital into the country — the inverse of the trade deficit — creates benefits that can be good for jobs, by encouraging more domestic investment.

Amen. I wrote back in 2017 about why it’s good when foreigners invest and create jobs in America.

Irwin also explains that the U.S. gets significant benefits because the dollar is the world’s reserve currency.

…the dollar isn’t used just in trade between the United States and other countries. The dollar is a global reserve currency, meaning that it is used around the world in transactions that have nothing to do with the United States. When a Malaysian company does business with a German company, in many cases it will do business in dollars; when wealthy people in Dubai or Singapore’s government investment fund want to sock away money, they do so in large part in dollar assets. That creates upward pressure on the dollar for reasons unrelated to trade flows between the United States and its partners. That, in turn, makes the dollar stronger…maintaining the global reserve currency creates…a lot of advantages. Lower interest rates and higher stock prices are among them.

For what it’s worth, politicians should ignore the trade deficit and focus instead on preserving the dollar’s special status as a reserve currency.

Let’s also review some commentary from Jeff Jacoby in the Boston Globe.

For centuries, economists have pointed out the destructive folly of tariffs and other trade barriers. Tirelessly they explain that a trade deficit is not a defeat, just as a shopper’s “deficit” with a department store is not a defeat. They implore policymakers to see that trade restrictions always impose more costs on a country’s economy than any benefits they generate. …Nations don’t trade with each other. We speak as if they do out of habit and convenience, but it’s not true. The United States and Canada are not competing firms. America doesn’t buy steel from China, and China doesn’t buy soybeans from America. Rather, hundreds of individual American companies choose to buy steel from Chinese mills and fabricators, and hundreds of Chinese-owned firms make deals to buy soybeans from far-flung American growers.

He explains that trade is peaceful and productive cooperation.

…international trade occurs among countless sellers and buyers, all acting independently in their own best interest. …To those individuals, national trade deficits and surpluses are irrelevant. They aren’t competing — they’re cooperating. Buyers and sellers aren’t in conflict with each other, let alone with each other’s countries. On the contrary: By doing business together, traders create wealth and connections, knitting the world together in mutual interest, making the planet more harmonious.

Reminds me of Bastiat’s observation about trade and war.

But that’s a separate issue. The focus today is on the meaning (or lack thereof) of trade deficits.

Let’s close with a chart from the video (which I first shared exactly one year ago), which clearly shows that a trade deficit is simply the flip side of an investment surplus.

P.S. I’m still waiting for an anti-trade person to answer these questions I asked back in 2011.

P.P.S. And I also challenge anyone to defend Trump on this issue when compared to Reagan.

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In a video I shared two months ago included a wide range of academic studies showing that government-imposed trade barriers undermine economic prosperity.

Not that those results were a surprise. Theory teaches us that government intervention is a recipe for economic harm. And we certainly have painful history showing the adverse consequences of protectionism.

When I debate the issue, I like to cite real-world examples, such as the fact that the nations with the lowest trade barriers tend to be very prosperous while protectionist nations are economic laggards.

No wonder there’s such a strong consensus among economists.

Today, we’re going to add to pro-trade consensus.

A new study from the International Monetary Fund investigates the macroeconomic impact of trade taxes. Here’s the basic outline of the methodology.

Some economies have recently begun to use commercial policy, seemingly for macroeconomic objectives. So it seems an appropriate time to study what, if any, the macroeconomic consequences of tariffs have actually been in practice. Most of the predisposition of the economics profession against protectionism is based on evidence that is either a) theoretical, b) micro, or c) aggregate and dated. Accordingly, in this paper, we study empirically the macroeconomic effects of tariffs using recent aggregate data. …Our panel of annual data is long if unbalanced, covering 1963 through 2014; more recent data is of greater relevance, but older data contains more protectionism. Since little protectionism remains in rich countries, we use a broad span of 151 countries, including 34 advanced and 117 developing countries.

And here are the results.

Our results suggest that tariff increases have adverse domestic macroeconomic and distributional consequences. We find empirically that tariff increases lead to declines of output and productivity in the medium term, as well as increases in unemployment and inequality. … a one standard deviation (or 3.6 percentage point) tariff increase leads to a decrease in output of about .4% five years later. We consider this effect to be plausibly sized and economically significant… Why does output fall after a tariff increase? …a key channel is the statistically and economically significant decrease in labor productivity, which cumulates to about .9% after five years. …Protectionism also leads to a small (statistically marginal) increase in unemployment…we find that tariff increases lead to more inequality, as measured by the Gini index; the effect becomes statistically significant two years after the tariff change. To summarize: the aversion of the economics profession to the deadweight losses caused by protectionism seems warranted; higher tariffs seem to have lower output and productivity, while raising unemployment and inequality. … there are asymmetric effects of protectionism; tariff increases hurt the economy more than liberalizations help.

These graphs show the main results.

The simple way to think about this data is that protectionism forces an economy to operate with sand in the gears. Another analogy is that protectionism is like having to deal with permanent and needless road detours. You can still get where you want to go, but at greater cost.

The bottom line is that things simply don’t function smoothly once government intervenes.

Lower growth, reduced productivity, and higher unemployment are obvious and inevitable consequences, as shown in the IMF study.

And while I don’t worry about inequality when some people get richer faster than other people get richer in a genuine free market, it’s morally disgusting for politicians to support protectionist policies that are especially harmful to the poor.

P.S. Everything in the IMF study about the damage of trade taxes also applies to the economic analysis of other forms of taxation. Indeed, deadweight losses presumably are even higher when considering income taxes. So the IMF deserves to be castigated for putting politics above economics when it pimps for higher taxes.

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