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Posts Tagged ‘China’

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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I get quite agitated when the folks in Washington make dumb choices that waste money and hinder prosperity.

That being said, I take comfort in the fact that governments in other nations also do stupid things.

I guess this is the policy version of “misery loves company.” And it’s also a source of horror and/or amusement.

So let’s update our collection of “great moments in foreign government.”

We’ll start in China, where a local government proved that incentives mattered.

In March, a man in Zhejiang, China…divorced his wife. He then married his sister-in-law. Shortly after, he divorced her too, in order to marry another sister-in-law. Several other members of the Pan family started to do the same with other relatives and eventually, 11 members of the brood married and divorced each other 23 times over a two-week period. Their motivation? To cash in on a compensation scheme… As part of an urban village renovation project, those living in the area are given a minimum compensation of one 40-square meter apartment, even though they didn’t own property. This was provided to any family whose hukou (household registration) was filed by April 10. But the Pan family learned that they could game the process by getting married, registering as residents of the village, and divorcing to do it again… By doing so, each family member would get their own household registration, which means more compensation. …The 11 family members involved have been arrested… Upon interrogation, one suspect said they didn’t think there was anything illegal with what they were doing.

I wonder if the Chinese government will learn anything about incentives from this episode.

Maybe, just maybe, it will then apply those lessons to tax policy (at the very least, by ignoring poisonous advice from the IMF and OECD).

In Spain, we re-confirm that governments are just as capable of wasting money on defense spending as they do on domestic programs.

A new, Spanish-designed submarine has a weighty problem: The vessel is more than 70 tons too heavy, and officials fear if it goes out to sea, it will not be able to surface. And a former Spanish official says the problem can be traced to a miscalculation — someone apparently put a decimal point in the wrong place. “It was a fatal mistake,” said Rafael Bardaji, who until recently was director of the Office of Strategic Assessment at Spain’s Defence Ministry. The Isaac Peral, the first in a new class of diesel-electric submarines, was nearly completed when engineers discovered the problem. …The Isaac Peral, named for a 19th century Spanish submarine designer, is one of four vessels in the class that are in various stages of construction. The country has invested about $2.7 billion in the program. The first was scheduled to be delivered in 2015 but the Spanish state-owned shipbuilder, Navantia, has said the weight problems could cause delays of up to two years.

Last but not least, we travel to Germany, where the government is trying to outdo New York City for the prize of most over-budget infrastructure boondoggle.

As a structure, it looks impressive enough. Until you pause, look around you, and absorb the silence. This is Berlin Brandenburg…, the new, state-of-the-art international airport… It is a bold new structure, costing billions, and was supposed to be completed in 2012. But it has never opened. BER has become for Germany not a new source of pride but a symbol of engineering catastrophe. …a “national trauma” and an ideal way “to learn how not to do things”. No passengers have ever emerged from the railway station, which is currently running only one “ghost train” a day, to keep the air moving. No-one has stayed at the smart airport hotel, which has a skeleton staff forlornly dusting rooms and turning on taps to keep the water supply moving. …Huge luggage carousels are being given their daily rotation to stop them from seizing up. …The company running the airport promises it will finally open next year, which would make it at least eight years late as well as billions over budget. …So what on Earth has happened…? politicians…set up a company to build an ambitious new airport. “The supervisory board was full of politicians who had no idea how to supervise the project,” says Prof Genia Kostka, of the Free University of Berlin. “They were in charge of key decisions.” …the politicians supervising the airport…insisted new departure gates were added to accommodate giant Airbus A380 aircraft, whose production has ended before the airport can open. …the overall cost of the project will be 6bn euros (£5.3bn) – if it opens as planned next year – up from an original projection of about 2bn euros. The final sum will be paid mostly by German taxpayers.

Of course taxpayers will get stuck with the tab. That’s the ongoing scam we call government.

But there is another question to ponder: How can a nation that is so aggressive (not to mention dogmatic and inventive) about collecting taxes be so incompetent at spending money?

The bottom line is that waste seems to be an inevitable part of government, regardless of the nation or the continent.

The moral of these stories, both from America and around the world, it that government is not the answer.

Unless, of course, you’ve asked a really strange question.

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Today, October 1, is the 70th anniversary of communists seizing power in China.

Given the horrible consequences of Mao’s rule, including tens of millions of deaths from famine and tyranny, this tweet from President Trump seems rather inappropriate.

That being said, it’s also worth pointing that today’s China is far better than Mao’s China.

Simply stated, it’s no longer a communist nation, at least in the sense that there’s been a decent amount of economic liberalization (starting in a small village in 1979).

China is now ranked #113 by Economic Freedom of the World. That’s definitely not anything to cheer about, but its score of 6.42 is way higher than the 3.59 of 1980.

And, for what it’s worth, China is currently ranked higher than Kuwait (#114), Brazil (#120), Ukraine (#135), and Pakistan (#136). And none of those are considered communist nations.

This isn’t merely my opinion.

In an article for Project Syndicate, Zhang Jun explains that a shift toward capitalism – even if only partial – explains what China has enjoyed impressive growth.

The rise of China is widely attributed to its state capitalism, whereby the government, endowed with huge assets, can pursue a wide-ranging industrial policy and intervene to mitigate risks. Accordingly, China owes its success, first and foremost, to the government’s “control” over the entire economy. This explanation is fundamentally wrong. …China is using its long-term planning and robust implementation capacity not to entrench state capitalism, but rather to advance economic liberalization and structural reform. It is this long-term strategy – which has remained unswerving, despite some stumbles and short-term deviations – that lies at the heart of the country’s decades-long run of rapid economic growth. …this process of economic liberalization and structural reform is also uniquely Chinese, insofar as it has emphasized local-level competition and experimentation… The result is a kind of de facto fiscal federalism – and a powerful driver of economic transformation. …China has traveled far along the path of reform and opening up. But it should not underestimate the challenges ahead, let alone forget how it got this far in the first place.

You won’t be surprised to learn that Crazy Bernie hasn’t learned from this experience.

Here are some excerpts from a column in the Wall Street Journal by Joshua Muravchik.

Sen. Bernie Sanders’s praise for the government of China should raise eyebrows… In an interview last month with the Hill, Mr. Sanders…asserted that “what we have to say about China, in fairness to China and its leadership, is . . . they have made more progress in addressing extreme poverty than any country in the history of civilization.” …Mr. Sanders’s comment about China has a basis in fact. According to the World Bank, 88% of Chinese lived on less than $1.90 a day in 1981. Today less than 1% do. (These figures are in 2011 dollars, adjusted for purchasing power parity.) Yet that success didn’t come from socialism. It’s a product of China’s move away from socialism. And it came at the cost—at least by Mr. Sanders’s usual lights—of heightened inequality. …Mr. Sanders urges a “political revolution” and a “wholesale transformation of our society” from capitalism to socialism—the reverse of what China did 40 years ago. …Yet Mr. Sanders’s accurate observation about China’s record in ending poverty ought to give him pause. Mao Zedong’s China was the apotheosis of class warfare…and shared poverty (except Mao himself, who lived like royalty with a few of his cohorts). …the core difference between socialism, which focuses on how to distribute wealth, and capitalism, which is concerned primarily with how to produce it. China’s experience teaches anew that the latter is more important than the former, for the poor as well as the rich.

But what about the future? Is China on a reform trajectory?

There’s no way to answer that question with any certainty, but there are some worrisome signs.

Here’s a tweet from a journalist for the Economist (hopefully he has more sense than some of his colleagues). It shows a shift toward more state-driven investment.

I’m not sure if we’re seeing a trend of a blip.

But I am sure that much more reform is needed. One area is the “hukou” system, which Leo Austin describes in an article for CapX.

China has had a ‘hukou’ (or similar) household registration system…, which identifies and determines the rightful home of each individual, the place where they enjoy state education and medical services. If you are very lucky this is Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou or Shenzhen. …But for most people it is a rural county. …It is very difficult for the children of rural migrants to graduate from an urban school… The hukou system has led to a long history of wage suppression in China. Compared to its Asian neighbours, wages in China have historically been much lower than they should be at the same level of GDP. …People weren’t free to move to where the best jobs were. The huge state enterprises in their hometowns provided free education and free medical services, but they didn’t have to compete for workers and they didn’t have to pay the best wages. …If you look at consumption as a share of GDP and compare China to the other Asian Tigers, by 2016 China was consuming 20% less than Japan and 30% less than Korea did at the same level of development.

And China also is being held back by the politicized allocation of capital.

Resources go to the wrong people. State owned enterprises represent maybe a third of GDP in China today, but they still received around 82% of all the corporate bank loans in 2018, at least in the legal banking system. The money is not invested wisely. According to the Nikkei Asian Review, for the nearly 300 non-financial state owned enterprises (SOE) listed in China, returns on equity fell by half in the loose-money boom years between 2007 and 2017. Over the same period, the return on equity for comparable US and European companies rose – ending more than double the level of Chinese SOEs. All this has a serious impact on productivity – as Conference Board research shows, China’s Total Factor Productivity for the period 2013 to 2018 was negative.  In most economies, productivity improvements drive GDP growth every year in the absence of population or capital growth. In China, productivity was a drag on growth… China cannot be a true competitor to the US until it allows merit and innovation to allocate capital and rewards. An economy built on wage suppression and state investment can be large, but it cannot be competitive in the long-term. …Unless the state retreats, it may yet bankrupt the country.

My two cents is that state-directed investment is a big problem, and it is an indirect cause of bad trade relations with the rest of the world.

Let’s wrap up with a look at the history of economic freedom in China.

As you can see, there was a big improvement from 1980-2000, then very incremental improvements this century.

The good news is that China continues to move in the right direction.

The bad news is that the pace of reform is very slow.

And the big worry is that China’s score could move in the wrong direction. Especially with policies that exacerbate the nation’s debt problem.

P.S. What happens with Hong Kong is a wild card. Hopefully, Beijing will resist any temptation to intervene.

P.P.S. China definitely needs to ignore the horrible advice it’s getting from the IMF and OECD. It should also ignore the New York Times.

P.P.P.S. If nothing else, China shows us why policy makers should focus on growth rather than equality.

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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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Ronald Reagan must be turning over in his grave.

This newfound flirtation with industrial policy, mostly from nationalist conservatives, is especially noxious since you open the door to cronyism and corruption when you give politicians and bureaucrats the power to play favorites in the economy.

I’m going to cite three leading proponents of industrial policy. To be fair, none of them are proposing full-scale Soviet-style central planning.

But it is fair to say that they envision something akin to Japan’s policies in the 1980s.

Some of them even explicitly argue we should copy China’s current policies.

In a column for the New York Times, Julius Krein celebrates the fact that Marco Rubio and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez both believe politicians should have more power over the economy.

…a few years ago, the phrase “industrial policy” was employed mainly as a term of abuse. Economists almost universally insisted that state interventions to improve competitiveness, prioritize investment in strategic sectors and structure market incentives around political goals were backward policies doomed to failure — whether applied in America, Asia or anywhere in between. …In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, however, the Reagan-Bush-Clinton neoliberal consensus seems intellectually and politically bankrupt. …a growing number of politicians and intellectuals…are finding common ground under the banner of industrial policy. Even the typically neoliberal Financial Times editorial board recently argued in favor of industrial policy, calling on the United States to “drop concerns around state planning.” …Why now? The United States has essentially experienced two lost decades, and inequality has reached Gilded Age levels. …United States industry is losing ground to foreign competitors on price, quality and technology. In many areas, our manufacturing capacity cannot compete with what exists in Asia.

There are some very sloppy assertions in the above passages.

You can certainly argue that Reagan and Clinton had similar “neoliberal” policies (i.e., classical liberal), but Bush was a statist.

Also, the Financial Times very much leans to the left. Not crazy Sanders-Corbyn leftism, but consistently in favor of a larger role for government.

Anyhow, what exactly does Mr. Krein have in mind?

More spending, more intervention, and more cronyism.

A successful American industrial policy would draw on replicable foreign models as well as take lessons from our history. Some simple first steps would be to update the Small Business Investment Company and Small Business Innovation Research programs — which played a role in catalyzing Silicon Valley decades ago — to focus more on domestic hardware businesses. …Government agencies could also step in to seed investment funds focused on strategic industries and to incentivize commercial lending to key sectors, policies that have proven successful in other countries… the United States needs to invest more in applied research… Elizabeth Warren has also proposed a government-sponsored research and licensing model for the pharmaceutical industry, which could be applied to other industries as well. …Senator Gary Peters, Democrat of Michigan, has called for the creation of a National Institute of Manufacturing, taking inspiration from the National Institutes of Health. …A successful industrial policy would aim to strengthen worker bargaining power while organizing and training a better skilled labor force. Industrial policy also involves, and even depends upon, rebuilding infrastructure.

In other words, if you like the so-called Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal and Elizabeth Warren’s corporate cronyism, you’ll love all the other ideas for additional government intervention.

Oren Cass of the Manhattan Institute also wants to give politicians more control over the private economy.

My argument rests on three claims… First, that market economies do not automatically allocate resources well across sectors. Second, that policymakers have tools that can support vital sectors that might otherwise suffer from underinvestment—I will call those tools “industrial policy.” Third, that while the policies produced by our political system will be far from ideal, efforts at sensible industrial policy can improve upon our status quo, which is itself far from ideal. …Our popular obsession with manufacturing isn’t some nostalgic anachronism. …manufacturing is unique for the complexity of its supply chains and the interaction between innovation and production. …the case for industrial policy requires recognition not only of certain sectors’ value, but also that the market will overlook the value in theory and that we are underinvesting in practice. That the free market will not solve this should be fairly self-evident… Manufacturing output is only 12% of GDP in America… Productivity growth has slowed nationwide, even flatlining in recent years. Wages have stagnated. Our trade deficit has skyrocketed.

So what are his solutions?

Like Julius Krein, he wants government intervention. Lots of it.

Fund basic research across the sciences… Fund applied research… Support private-sector R&D and commercialization with subsidies and specialized institutes… Increase infrastructure investment… Bias the tax code in favor of profits generated from the productive use of labor… Retaliate aggressively against mercantilist countries that undermine market competition… Tax foreign acquisition of U.S. assets, making U.S. goods relatively more attractive… Impose local content requirements in key supply chains like communications… Libertarians often posit an ideal world of policy non-intervention as superior to the messy reality of policy action. But that ideal does not exist—messy reality is the only reality… That’s especially the case here, because you can have free trade, or you can have free markets, but you can’t have both.

I’m not sure what’s worse, an infrastructure boondoggle or a tax on inbound investment?

More tinkering with the tax code, or more handouts for industries?

And here are excerpts from a column for the Daily Caller by Robert Atkinson.

When the idea first surfaced in the late 1970s that the United States should adopt a national industrial policy, mainstream “free market” conservatives decried it as one step away from handing the reins of the economy over to a state planning committee like the Soviet Gosplan. But now, …the idea has been getting a fresh look among some conservatives who argue that, absent an industrial strategy, America will be at a competitive disadvantage. …Conservatives’ skepticism of industrial policy perhaps stems from the idea’s origins. It started gaining currency during the Carter administration, with many traditional Democratic party interests, including labor unions and politicians in the Northeast and Midwest, arguing for a strong federal role… However, over the next decade, as economic competitors like Germany and Japan began to challenge the United States in consumer electronics, autos, and even high-tech industries like computer chips, the focus of debates about industrial policy broadened to encompass overall U.S. competitiveness. …There was a bipartisan response…that collectively amounted to a first draft of a national industrial policy… But as the economic challenge from Japan receded…, interest in industrial policies waned. …The newly dominant neoclassical economists preached that the U.S. “recipe” of free markets, property rights, and entrepreneurial spirit inoculated America against any and all economic threats.

As with Krein and Cass, Atkinson wants to copy the failed interventionist policies of other nations.

But that was then and this is now — a now where we face intense competition from China. …Increasingly leaders across the political spectrum are returning to a notion that we should put the national interest at the center of economic policies, and that free-market globalization doesn’t necessarily do that… Conservatives increasingly realize that without some kind of industrial policy the United States will fall behind China, with significant national security and economic implications. …So, what would a conservative-inspired, market-strengthening industrial policy look like? …it would acknowledge that America’s “traded sector” industries are critical to our future competitiveness… The right industrial policy will advance prosperity more than laisse-faire capitalism would. …there are a significant number of market failures around innovation, including externalities, network failures, system interdependencies, and the public-goods nature of technology platforms. …this is why only government can “pick winners.” …It should mean expanding supports for exporters by ensuring the Ex-Im Bank has adequate lending authority… this debate boils down to a fundamental choice for conservatives: small government and liberty versus stronger…government that delivers economic security

What’s a “market-strengthening industrial policy”? Is that like a “growth-stimulating tax increase”? Or a “work-ethic-enhancing welfare program”?

I realize I’m being snarky, but how else should I respond to someone who actually wants to expand the cronyist Export-Import Bank?

Let’s now look at what’s wrong with industrial policy.

In a column for Reason, Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center warns that American politicians who favor industrial policy are misreading China’s economic history.

…calls from politicians on both sides of the aisle to implement industrial policy. …These policies are tired, utterly uninspiring schemes that governments around the world have tried and, invariably, failed at. …As for the notion that “other countries are doing it,” I’m curious to hear what great successes have come out of, say, China’s industrial policies. In his latest book, The State Strikes Back: The End of Economic Reform in China?, Nicholas Lardy of the Peterson Institute for International Economics shows that China’s growth since 1978 has actually been the product of market-oriented reforms, not state-owned programs. …Why should we want America to become more like China? Here’s yet another politician thinking that somehow, the same government that…botched the launch of HealthCare.gov, gave us the Solyndra scandal, and can keep neither Amtrak nor the Postal Service solvent, can effectively coordinate a strategic vision for American manufacturing. …The real problem with industrial policy, economic development strategy, central planning, or whatever you want to call these interventions is that government officials…cannot outperform the wisdom of the market at picking winners. In fact, government intervention in any sector creates distortions, misdirects investments toward politically favored companies, and hinders the ability of unsubsidized competitors to offer better alternatives. Central planning in all forms is poisonous to innovation.

As usual, Veronique is spot one.

I’ve also explained that China’s economy is being held back by statist policies.

Veronique also addressed the topic of industrial policy in a column for the New York Times,

With “Made in China 2025,” Beijing’s 2015 anticapitalist plan for an industrial policy under which the state would pick “winners,” China has taken a step back from capitalism. …China’s new industrial policy has worked one marvel — namely, scaring many American conservatives into believing that the main driver of economic growth isn’t the market but bureaucrats invested with power to control the allocation of natural and financial resources. …I thought we learned this lesson after many American intellectuals, economists and politicians were proven spectacularly wrong in predicting that the Soviet Union would become an economic rival. …government officials cannot outperform the market at picking winners. In practice it ends up picking losers or hindering the abilities of the winners to achieve their greatest potential. Central planning is antithetical to innovation, as is already visible in China. …the United States has instituted industrial policies in the past out of unwarranted fears of other countries’ industrial policies. The results have always imposed great costs on consumers and taxpayers and introduced significant economic distortions. …Conservatives…should learn about the failed United States industrial policies of the 1980s, which were responses to the Japanese government’s attempt to dominate key consumer electronics technologies. These efforts worked neither in Japan nor in the United States. The past has taught us that industrial policies fail often because they favor existing industries that are well connected politically at the expense of would-be entrepreneurs… We shouldn’t allow fear-mongering to hobble America’s free enterprise system.

Amen.

My modest contribution to this discussion is to share one of my experiences as a relative newcomer to D.C. in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

I had to fight all sorts of people who said that Japan was eating our lunch and that the United States needed industrial policy.

I kept pointing out that Japan deserved some praise for its post-WWII shift to markets, but that the country’s economy was being undermined by corporatism, intervention, and industrial policy.

At the time, I remember being mocked for my supposed naivete. But the past 30 years have proven me right.

Now it’s deja vu all over again, as Yogi Berra might say.

Except now China is the bogeyman. Which doesn’t make much sense since China lags behind the United States far more than Japan lagged the U.S. in the 1980s (per-capita output in China, at best, in only one-fourth of American levels).

And China will never catch the U.S. if it relies on industrial policy instead of pro-market reform.

So why should American policy makers copy China’s mistakes?

P.S. There is a separate issue involving national security, where there may be legitimate reasons to deny China access to high-end technology or to make sure American defense firms don’t have to rely on China for inputs. But that’s not an argument for industrial policy.

P.P.S. There is a separate issue involving trade, where there may be legitimate reasons to pressure China so that it competes fairly and behaves honorably. But that’s not an argument for industrial policy.

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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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A week ago, I wrote about the turmoil in Hong Kong and pointed out that a crackdown would be bad for China’s already-faltering economy.

I had a chance to again address the issue yesterday.

What made this interview different is that it included a discussion of what Trump should do.

My expertise is economics rather than diplomacy, but I speculated that public warnings and/or threats by Trump might backfire.

The Wall Street Journal opined today on this issue and they want Trump to be aggressive. Here are some excerpts.

The stakes are rising in Hong Kong, as clashes between pro-democracy protesters and the local government backed by China are escalating. The damage could be global if President Xi Jinping orders a bloody crackdown, and President Trump should be warning the Chinese President not to do it. …The protests began in June when the Legislative Council tried to ram through a bill that would allow Beijing to extradite anyone in Hong Kong to the mainland. Amid overwhelming public opposition, Ms. Lam has declared the legislation “dead” but refused to withdraw it. Police have responded to the protests with hundreds of arrests and increasing brutality. Hong Kong’s cause should be the free world’s… An invasion of Hong Kong would violate China’s treaty with Britain and poison U.S.-Chinese relations.

I agree that the Trump Administration should seek to deter intervention, but I think any warnings – at least at this point – should be conveyed behind the scenes.

In my fantasy world, Trump would strike a deal with China, and agree to drop his misguided trade taxes in exchange for China not messing with Hong Kong.

Sadly, my fantasies rarely become reality.

So I’ll close with a practical point. I mentioned in the interview that the people of Hong Kong are much richer than the people of China. Here’s the evidence, based on the Maddison database, as well as the numbers from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

My takeaway from these numbers, as I suggest in the title, is that China should send economists to Hong Kong rather than troops. They could learn important lessons about the benefits of free markets and limited government.

Heck, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to send American economists as well. Indeed, since it gets the top score from Economic Freedom of the World, the entire world can learn from Hong Kong’s spectacular success.

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