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Archive for the ‘Trade’ Category

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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When I was first learning about economics in the 1970s and 1980s, Arthur Okun’s equality-efficiency tradeoff was part of just about any discussion of public policy.

Folks on the left acknowledged that their policies would lead to less prosperity, but they argued that result was acceptable because the benefits of a more-equal society would offset the cost of reduced economic output.

Needless to say, there were vigorous debates about how much additional equality could be achieved and how much economic damage might be caused by any particular policy, but few if any economists pretended that more government was actually good for growth.

Unfortunately, that has changed. A growing number of people on the left (especially those with tax-free jobs at international bureaucracies) now claim that bigger government actually is the way to get more growth.

Here’s their theory.

This illogical hypothesis is so absurd and so anti-empirical that I now get excited when I find economists who still use Okun’s framework when analyzing various reforms.

For instance, there is a new study from the European Central Bank that looks at whether a pro-growth policy (free trade) leads to less equality.

The working paper, authored by Roland Beck, Virginia Di Nino, and Livio Stracca, specifically measures the impact of membership in so-called “globalisation clubs.”

The mounting criticisms against globalisation…have sparked a lively debate about whether the narrative of the benefits of free trade and capital flows is still intact. …In this paper, we reconsider the effects of globalisation on income and inequality studying the consequences of quasi-natural experiments like accessions to “Globalisation Clubs”.Our list of Globalisation Clubs includes the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the European Union (EU) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which all require their members to pursue some form of either liberal trade or investment policies or a combination of both. …The main purpose of our study is to shed light on the hypothesis that globalisation leads to an efficiency-equity trade-off which is a fundamental concern in economics dating at least back to Okun (1975). In other words, is the hypothesis that globalisation increases economic efficiency to the detriment of cohesion and equality supported by the data?

Here are the key results.

The analysis leads to three main findings. First, with the exception of financial liberalisation we find that all our “globalisation shocks” lead to a significant increase in trade openness – a prerequisite for considering them globalisation shocks in the first place. Second, the effects on per capita income are mixed; positive for WTO accessions and trade openness shocks, insignificant for OECD accessions and even negative for EU accessions and financial liberalisations. …Finally, we find little evidence that globalisation shocks lead to more inequality. The Gini coefficients (market and net) tend not to change or even to fall, and the labour share of income to be unchanged or even rise, in the wake of a globalisation shock.Taken together, our results point to mostly positive effects for countries following globalisation shocks and challenge the view that globalisation is necessarily an efficiency-equity trade-off.

I’m not surprised by these findings.

There’s no reason to think that OECD membership will lead to better policy and there are good reasons to think EU membership might push policy in the wrong direction.

The WTO, by contrast, has a good track record of trade liberalization. So these results from the study make sense.

The primary takeaway from this research is that free trade is good for prosperity. Not only does it lead to more growth, but low-income people enjoy above-average gains.

Though I would argue that free trade would be just as desirable if rich people were the ones who enjoyed above-average gains. The key point is that all groups benefit when there are reforms to shrink the size and scope of government, and we shouldn’t get worked up if some people benefit more than others.

But there’s a secondary takeaway. This European Central Bank study also is an example of methodologically sound research (i.e., recognizing that more government is not a free lunch).

P.S. While I applaud the honesty of left-leaning economists who use Okun’s framework, that doesn’t stop me from criticizing some of their crazy conclusions.

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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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Since both political parties have sent good and bad people to the White House, I don’t think it makes much sense to compare all Democratic presidents vs all Republican presidents.

But we can learn a lot by looking at the track record of specific presidents. I’ve done that with several past chief executives (Wilson, Hoover, FDR, Nixon, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, and Obama), and today we’re going to assess Trump’s performance.

The bottom line, as you can see from the chart, is that he did really well in some areas and really poorly in other areas, so his overall record was flat. Or perhaps slightly negative.

The bottom line is that Trump was good on taxes and bad on spending and trade.

And there were some very positive moves on regulation, but they were partly offset by areas where Trump increased intervention (coal subsidies, property rights, Fannie/Freddie, and international tax rules, for instance).

By the way, I’d like to give Trump a negative grade for his failure to address entitlements, but, in the interest of fairness, I only include actual policy changes.

Having given my big-picture assessment, here are some columns and articles that offer interesting insights.

We’ll start with some pro-Trump analysis. Professor Casey Mulligan opined in the Wall Street Journal that he restored growth (until the coronavirus, of course).

The Obama administration promulgated hundreds of new federal regulations that protected certain special interests from market competition. The beneficiaries included large banks, trial lawyers, big tech, major health-insurance companies, labor unions and foreign drug manufacturers. President Trump promised to undo all that, and in many cases succeeded, sometimes with the help of a Republican Congress. …Mr. Trump also helped remove government obstacles to innovation and competition in health care. Democrats will tell you that the first calendar-year drop in retail prescription drug prices in 46 years was mere coincidence, not the result of deregulation. …The Fed and the Obama economic team overpredicted growth almost every year from 2010-16. When growth failed to meet their rosy predictions, Mr. Obama’s advisers blamed the poor economic performance on America itself. …No one in Washington predicted that small business optimism would skyrocket to record levels when Mr. Trump was elected, that real wages would grow again (especially for blue-collar workers), that business formation would hit 20th-century highs, or that poverty and unemployment rates would quickly fall to record lows for Hispanics and African-Americans.  …Although Mr. Trump’s economic policy was imperfect, it was preferable by a long shot to Mr. Obama’s, which punished work, hiring and success rather than rewarding them. 

And here’s a chart that definitely makes Trump look good compared to Obama.

Those numbers will look much worse once 2020 numbers are included, but I won’t blame Trump for coronavirus-caused economic havoc (though I also don’t give him full credit for the good data in 2019).

Now let’s look at some less-than-flattering analysis.

Jeffrey Tucker of the American Institute for Economic Research lists some of Trump’s statist policies.

From 2015, even from his first public speeches following his presidential run, it was clear that Donald Trump was not a conservative in the Reagan tradition… This is not an American ideal. It’s not about freedom, rights, the rule of law, much less the limits on government. …Trump’s first year began with a more traditional Republican agenda of tax cuts, deregulation, and non-progressive court appointments. …That all changed on January 22, 2018. …This was the beginning of the trade war that would expand to Europe, Canada, Mexico, most of Asia, and ultimately the entire world. …What he ended up seeking was nothing short of trade autarky. …In addition to this calamity, US government spending soared 47% while the money supply registered record increases as measured by M1. The effects of this debt and money printing will be felt through next year.

Rick Newman wrote for Yahoo that Trump’s fiscal performance makes him an honorary Democrat.

Trump’s last-second objection to the $900 billion coronavirus relief bill Congress approved after eight months of negotiation is an unexpected Christmas gift for Democrats. Trump says the $600 direct payment to most Americans contained in the bill is too small. He wants $2,000. Trump could have insisted on this while Congress was drafting the bill… Democrats are gleeful. They’d happily accept a supersized stimulus payment, and even better, they now get to watch Republicans battle each other as they try to figure out what to do about Trump. Some Congressional Republicans think $2,000 is too generous, and there’s no chance of that getting into the bill unless other provisions come out. 

Newman was focusing on Trump’s spending proclivities during the pandemic, but the assertion that “maybe Trump’s a Democrat” applies to his fiscal record during his first three years as well.

P.S. I didn’t rank Trump on monetary policy for the same reason I didn’t rank Obama on that issue. Simply stated, I think both of them pursued a misguided Keynesian approach of easy money and artificially low interest rates, but we don’t have firm evidence (yet) of negative consequences.

P.P.S. I also didn’t give Trump a grade, positive or negative, regarding coronavirus. The federal government failed, but those failures largely were independent of the White House.

P.P.P.S. I generally approved of Trump’s judicial appointments, but don’t includes judges in my assessments of economic policy (though I may have to change my mind if they restore the Constitution’s protections of economic liberty and limits on the power of Washington).

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Yesterday was my review of the best and worst policy developments in 2020.

Today, I’ll share my hopes and fears for 2021.

These are not predictions (economists have a terrible track record when try to make forecasts). Instead, these are merely good and bad things that might plausibly happen.

We’ll start with the positives.

Gridlock – I don’t necessarily think Biden is a hard-core leftist, but his fiscal agenda is terrible. I want him to have an excuse to put those policies on the back burner, and that will happen if Republicans control the Senate and we have “gridlock.” Simply stated, I’d rather nothing happen in Washington than have bad things happen. By the way, I’ll openly admit to being a hypocrite on this issue. At some point, I hope there will be a White House and a Congress that want to reform the tax code and fix entitlements. When that happens, I won’t want any obstacles.

Supreme Court tosses civil asset forfeiture – I’m recycling this item from last year because I’m hopeful that it’s just a matter of time before the Justices toss out this wretched policy that literally allows government to steal property from people who have not been convicted of any crime, or even charged with any wrongdoing.

Trade liberalization – To be charitable, Trump was a disaster on trade. Biden almost certainly will move policy in the right direction, including a restoration of the World Trade Organization‘s ability to settle disputes.

I used to list the collapse of Venezuela’s totalitarian government as one of my annual hopes and I still think that will happen, hopefully sooner rather than later. That being said, I’m getting a superstitious feeling that I’m jinxing regime change since I’ve listed that hope the past three years and it hasn’t happened.

Now let’s look at the negatives.

Absence of gridlock, leading to big anti-growth tax increases – If Democrats win both Senate seats in Georgia in a few days, that will give them control of the Senate, which will dramatically increase the danger that Biden will push his class-warfare tax policies.

Re-regulation – Trump did not have a perfect track record on red tape (coal subsidies, property rights, Fannie/Freddie, for instance), but there was a net shift in the right direction during his four years. Biden almost certainly will impose more intervention. Indeed, I’m not aware of a single regulatory issue where he’s on the right side. So don’t get your hopes up for better showerheads and dishwashers.

Kamala Harris becomes president – The Vice President-Elect staked out policies far to the left of Biden when she ran for president. And she has a reprehensible track record of trampling rights when she was California’s top cop. That’s an unsavory combination. If she’s even half as bad as her rhetoric, we all should wish Biden good health for the next four years.

P.S. If you want to see hope and fears for previous years, here are my thoughts for 2020, 2019, 2018, and 2017.

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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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One year ago, I shared this video to explain why a “trade deficit” doesn’t matter, in large part because it is simply a result of foreigners wanting to invest in America’s economy with some of the dollars they earn.

We also have a trade deficit, I pointed out, because we’re richer than most other nations. Simply stated, we can afford to buy more from people in other nations than they can afford to buy from us.

Indeed, I pointed out that the trade deficit increased in Trump’s first few years in office because better tax policy and better regulatory policy increased America’s economic performance relative to other countries.

This is why, as a general rule, it’s actually a sign of economic strength to have a so-called trade deficit.

The flip side of this observation is that trade deficits will decline if the economy is weak.

And that seems to be happening today. Christine McDaniel of the Mercatus Center, writing for the Hill, notes that the trade deficit is now falling for that unfortunate reason.

The Trump administration’s dream of reducing the trade deficit is finally coming true. …for the first two months of 2020, the U.S. trade deficit dropped to $113.5 billion. That’s down from $130.4 billion over the same period last year, a 13 percent decrease. …Needless to say, …we import less. Today, we are importing less because Americans are consuming less during an economic shut down. …We are probably on track to shrink the trade deficit even more this year. …Consumer confidence declined sharply in March, which reflects consumer sentiment — that is, their overall desire to go out and buy things, including imports. …The irony is that the pandemic is fulfilling one of his campaign promises. Nobody is treating it like good news — but this dream coming true just highlights why the metric is so flawed.

To emphasize Ms. McDaniel’s point, let’s look at the long-run data on America’s trade balance.

Here are the annual numbers from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, measured as a share of economic output.

As you can see, our last trade surplus was during the 1970s, when America was suffering from stagflation, and the trade deficit since then has always declined when there’s been a recession.

By the way, you can also see how the trade deficit increased during the Reagan years and the Clinton years. The obvious lesson is that pro-market policies make us richer, and that means we buy more and attract more investment.

That’s good outcome, even if the so-called trade deficit climbs.

The bottom line is that if we want to reduce our trade deficit (and also, by definition, reduce our capital surplus), we should adopt the Bernie Sanders agenda. We won’t be rich enough to buy much from foreigners, and people in other nations won’t be so willing to invest in America’s economy.

Maybe I’m crazy, but that seems like a bad outcome.

P.S. Trade balances also can be affected by other factors, such as shifts in monetary policy and the economic performance of major trading partners.

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Notwithstanding dalliances in other fields, I’m a policy wonk.

But I will pontificate (often incorrectly) on politics when asked, which is what happened in this interview about the electoral impact of the coronavirus.

My basic point is that Trump is much better than the average Republican about “controlling the narrative.”

In other words, he doesn’t allow the media to frame issues in a way that is adverse to his interests.

Given Trump’s Jekyll-Hyde approach to economic policy, I have mixed feelings about his Jedi-like ability.

But I will point out why narratives are so important in public policy.

Since I’ve shifted to my comfort zone of public policy, I’ll also say something about trade.

One of the big risks from the coronavirus is that it will weaken global trade. Which led me to mention in the interview that hopefully Trump might learn from this growing crisis that expanded trade is good for prosperity.

Though I admit I’m not very optimistic given his mercantilist perspective.

P.S. Textbook discussions of “robber barons” and “sweatshops” are other examples of how bad narratives lead to distorted history.

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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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Yesterday’s column was my annual end-of-year round-up of the best and worst developments of the concluding year.

Today I’ll be forward looking and give you my hopes and fears for the new year, which is a newer tradition that began in 2017 (and continued in 2018 and 2019).

With my glass-half-full outlook, we’ll start with the things I hope will happen.

Supreme Court strikes down civil asset forfeiture – It is nauseating that bureaucrats can steal property from citizens who have never been convicted of a crime. Or even charged with a crime. Fortunately, this disgusting practice already has attracted attention from Clarence Thomas and other sound-thinking Justices on the Supreme Court. Hopefully, this will produce a decision that ends this example of Venezuela-style government thuggery.

Good free-trade agreements for the United Kingdom – This is a two-pronged hope. First, I want a great agreement between the U.S. and the U.K., based on the principle of mutual recognition. Second, I want the best-possible agreement between the U.K. and the E.U., which will be a challenge since the political elite in Brussels has a spiteful desire to “punish” the British people for supporting Brexit.

Maduro’s ouster in Venezuela – I already wished for this development in 2018 and 2019, so this is my “Groundhog Day” addition to the list. But if I keep wishing for it, sooner or later it will happen and I’ll look prescient. But I actually don’t care about whether my predictions are correct, I just want an end to the horrible suffering for the people of Venezuela.

Here are the things I fear will happen in 2020.

A bubble bursts – I hope I’m wrong (and that may be the case since I’ve been fretting about it for a long time), but I fear that financial markets are being goosed by an easy-money policy from the Federal Reserve. Bubbles feel good when they’re expanding, but last decade should have taught us that they can be very painful when they pop.

A loss of economic liberty in Chile and/or Hong Kong – As shown by Economic Freedom of the World, there are not that many success stories in the world. But we can celebrate what’s happened in Hong Kong since WWII and what’s happened in Chile since the late 1970s. Economic liberty has dramatically boosted prosperity. Unfortunately, Hong Kong’s liberty is now being threatened from without and Chile’s liberty is now being threatened from within.

Repeal of the Illinois flat tax – The best approach for a state is to have no income tax, and a state flat tax is the second-best approach. Illinois is in that second category thanks to a long-standing provision of the state’s constitution. Needless to say, this irks the big spenders who control the Illinois government and they are asking voters this upcoming November to vote on whether to bust the flat tax and open the floodgates for an ever-growing fiscal burden. By the way, it’s quite likely that I’ll be including the Massachusetts flat tax on this list next year.

I’ll also add a special category for something that would be both good and bad.

Trump gets reelected – Because Trump is producing better tax policy and better regulatory policy, and because of my hopes for judges who believe in the Constitution’s protections of economic liberty, it would be good if he won a second term.

Trump gets reelected – Because Trump is producing worse spending policy and worse trade policy, and because of my concerns never-ending Keynesian monetary policy from the Federal Reserve, it would be bad if he won a second term.

Happy New Year, everyone.

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Time for my annual column highlighting the “Best” and “Worst” policy developments of the year, a tradition I sort of started in 2012 and definitely did in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018.

I’m trying to be a glass-half-full kind of guy, so we’ll start with the best policy developments for 2019.

Boris Johnson’s landslide victory – I was in London for the recent U.K. election and was pleasantly surprised when Boris Johnson won a surprising landslide. That’s not a policy development, of course, but it’s first on my list because it presumably will lead to a genuine Brexit. And when the United Kingdom escapes the sinking ship of the dirigiste European Union, I have some hopes for pro-market policies.

TABOR wins in Colorado – Without question, the best fiscal system for a jurisdiction is a spending cap that fulfills my Golden Rule. Colorado’s constitution has such a policy, known as TABOR (the Taxpayer Bill of Rights). Pro-spending lobbies put an initiative on the ballot to eviscerate the provision, but voters wisely rejected the measure this past November by a nearly 10-point margin.

Macroeconomic strength – A strong economy also isn’t a policy, but it’s partially the result of good tax reforms and much-needed regulatory easing. This has pushed up the value of stocks (though I worry we may be experiencing a bubble), but I’m much happier that it’s led to a tight labor market and increased wages for lower-skilled workers.

Now let’s look at the worst developments of 2019.

An ever-increasing burden of government spending – The federal government is far too big, and it keeps growing in size. Entitlements are the main problem, but Trump added to the mess by capitulating to another budget deal that increases the burden of discretionary spending.

Missed opportunity on China trade – Because he foolishly focused on the bilateral trade deficit, Trump missed a great opportunity to pressure China to eliminate (or at least reduce) various cronyist policies that actually do distort and undermine trade.

Repeal of the Cadillac tax – I never imagined I would be in a position of stating that it was a mistake to repeal a tax increase, but the recent repeal of the tax on high-end health plans is such bad policy in terms of health care (contributing to third-party payer) that it more than offsets my long-standing desire to deprive Washington of revenue.

I’ll close by noting my most-read and least-read columns of the year.

We’ll start with the popular items.

  1. My most-read column from 2019 discussed a very impressive (and very understandable) example of tax avoidance from France.
  2. In second place was my piece that lauded a columnist for the New York Times who admitted gun control is foolish policy.
  3. Winning the bronze medal was my column from last week celebrating the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

By the way, my most-read article in 2019 was actually a quiz about political philosophy I shared back in 2015. Those must be popular items, because other quizzes (from 2014 and 2013) were actually the third-most and fourth-most popular columns for the year.

And here are the biggest duds.

  1. The column with the least clicks (perhaps because it was only posted a couple of days ago) revolved around the technical issues of economic sanctions, extraterritoriality, and the strength of the dollar.
  2. The second-worst-performing column was from late November and discussed the International Monetary Fund’s cheerleading for higher taxes in Japan.
  3. Next on the list is my discussion from a few days ago about how Washington imposes policies that encourage households to make short-sighted financial choices.

P.S. About 80 percent of readers are from the United States, and that’s been relatively constant over the years. But it’s been interesting (at least to me) to observe where other readers reside. In the very beginning, Canada provided the second-biggest group of readers, but then the United Kingdom took over for several years, only to be dethroned by Australia in 2017 and 2018. For 2019, though, the United Kingdom reclaimed second place, presumably because I kept writing about Brexit. If we go by readers as a share of the population, I’m actually most popular in small tax havens.

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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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For my annual Independence Day columns, I sometimes try to make serious points, such as last year when I shared the very wise words of Calvin Coolidge, who is probably America’s most-underappreciated president.

Or when I wrote about the proper meaning of patriotism, as I did in 2010 and 2014.

Other years, I celebrate July 4 with some humor, such as my sarcastic Declaration of Dependency in 2011.

Or some cartoons about Obamacare vs. American principles the following year.

For 2019, let’s mix seriousness and satire.

We’ll start with the former. John Stossel’s column for Reason explains what Americans should be celebrating.

We have reason to celebrate. The Fourth honors the founding of America. It’s the anniversary of the day in 1776 that the Declaration of Independence was approved. The Declaration was important. It didn’t say that America would be the best country because it would have the biggest military, toughest leaders, most government giveaways, or tightest borders. The great innovation that day in Philadelphia was the declaration that the United States would have a limited government, rooted in the idea that every individual has inalienable rights. …It was America’s emphasis on limited government—wanting to make sure no one in government would ever again wield power like that of the British king—that made our revolution the greatest and most lasting success of recent centuries. …France created revolutionary committees that murdered dissenters. Russia replaced its czar with a communist police state that confiscated farms, killing millions. …America happened—and continues to happen—spontaneously, when its leaders are smart enough to just stay out of our way. America will do best if we remember that the Declaration of Independence talks about limited government and reminds us that every individual has inalienable rights.

Amen.

Reminds me of what Reagan said.

One of the key takeaways is that American ideals are inspiring, but government policies often leave much to be desired.

Harry Stewart, one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, has a great essay in the Wall Street Journal on patriotism even when your government is flawed.

On June 27, 1944, I graduated from Tuskegee Army Flying School, established in Alabama shortly before America’s entry into World War II to train young African-American men as Army combat pilots. …The train ride down South was eye-opening for a teenager who’d never traveled far from New York. When the train crossed the Mason-Dixon Line, the conductor came by and pointed at me: “Move to the colored car.” It was disconcerting, but I saw it as an unavoidable hurdle to earning my wings. I swallowed hard and kept going. …You weren’t just learning to fly; you were serving your country, and you were going to fight. …I flew 43 combat missions with the 332nd Fighter Group… Our commander was the legendary Benjamin O. Davis Jr., who had endured four years of the silent treatment from white cadets at West Point but nevertheless managed to graduate 35th out of a class of 276. …His convictions were encapsulated in his statement: “The privileges of being an American belong to those brave enough to fight for them.” …I am proud that I contributed to the cause. We called it winning the Double V, victory against totalitarianism abroad and institutional racism at home. July 4 is my birthday, but I celebrate my country’s birthday too. America was not perfect in the 1940s and is not perfect today, yet I fought for it then and would do so again.

There’s a lesson in those words for Colin Kaepernick.

Now let’s enjoy some satire, though combined with a serious message.

Bryan Riley of the National Taxpayers Union has a July 4th-themed column on Trump’s destructive trade taxes.

…the next round of tariffs symbolizes just how un-American this trade war has become. …on $300 billion in imports, would include tariffs on tea and fireworks. They might as well be considering a tax on bald eagles. …the 1773 Boston Tea Party was a response to England’s 3 pence per pound tariff on tea imported from China. As President John F. Kennedy observed, “When the people of Boston in 1773 threw cargoes of tea into the harbor, the American Revolution was in effect under way, symbolized by this revolution against a tariff–a tariff which meant taxation without representation.” …As we celebrate our country’s 243rd birthday, let’s also celebrate the American patriots who are following in the footsteps of our country’s founders by opposing costly new tariffs. …As we celebrate our country’s 243rd birthday, let’s also celebrate the American patriots who are following in the footsteps of our country’s founders by opposing costly new tariffs.

Reminds me of the clever AAF visual on how government makes it more expensive to celebrate today.

Last but not least, here’s an alien learning about the long-term consequences of America’s fight for independence, which began as a tax revolt.

Taxation without representation wasn’t very appealing, but the cartoon makes a very good point about the downside of taxation with representation.

Which is a good opportunity to remind everyone why America’s Founders were wise to create a republic rather than a majoritarian democracy.

Too bad the Supreme Court, most recently with Obamacare, has failed in its job to protect economic liberty.

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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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I shared a video last year that pointed out that Americans live in a nation that became prosperous thanks to “creative destruction.”

That’s the term developed by Joseph Schumpeter to describe the economic churning caused by competition, innovation, and markets (international trade is just a minor part of this process, though it’s the part that generates the most controversy).

The bad news is that some people lose their jobs as the economy evolves and changes. And some companies go bankrupt. There are real victims and tragic stories.

But the good news is that other jobs are created. And entrepreneurs start new businesses.

And the better news is that our living standards increase. Especially over time. Even for many of those who lost jobs in the short run.

That’s why we’re much richer, on average, than our parents and grandparents.

Needless to say, a key measure of a healthy and dynamic economy is for the job gains to exceed the job losses.

So when I spoke to congressional staff earlier this week about trade and protectionism, I figured I should go beyond theory and include some numbers.

I went to the relevant website at the Bureau of Labor Statistics and found that more than 28 million jobs were lost in 2017 (final data for 2018 is still not available).

That sounds terrible. And for many workers, it was horrible news.

But the good news, as you can see in the screenshot below (click to expand), is that the U.S. economy created more than 30 million new jobs that year.

The obvious takeaway from this data is that the crowd in Washington should adopt policies that ensure we have strong growth so that people who lose jobs have lots of good options for new employment.

In other words, don’t impose the kind of policies that have created high unemployment and economic stagnation in many European welfare states.

For what it’s worth, that message seems to be lost on Bernie Sanders, who has a long list of policies that would turn America into a version of GreeceFrance, and Italy.

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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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