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Posts Tagged ‘Protectionism’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These charts from their study paint a damning picture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But not everyone agrees with this position.

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

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

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

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

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

And here’s what he wants as a replacement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wall Street Journal opined on this topic last year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All of this was very predictable.

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

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

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

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

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

And what did the experts find?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what the IMF set out to measure.

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

And what are the results?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the table he put together.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it also would be good for China.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is why liberalization is so important.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Huh?!?

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

Unfortunately, whenever he wants to.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He’s actually wrong, at least technically.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And in other nations as well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s one of the charts from NBER.

That is not a pretty picture.

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

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

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

A tragic example of Mitchell’s Law in action.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that includes adopting better trade policy.

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

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

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

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

First:

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

And second:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll add one final point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the “unseen” costs are always far greater.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not that these findings should be a surprise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simply stated, trade deficits are largely irrelevant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He explains that trade is peaceful and productive cooperation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And here are the results.

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

These graphs show the main results.

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

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

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

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

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

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When I write about the benefits of trade, I periodically point out that America has a trade deficit because it has a foreign investment surplus.

And since investment is a key driver of economic growth and rising wages, that’s a good outcome.

It basically means that foreigners who earn dollars by exporting to America are helping to finance America’s future prosperity by then plowing that money back into our financial markets (see this video for more details).

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that politicians are making cross-border investment more difficult.

They are using tax and regulatory policies to hinder the flow of money, just like they use protectionist policies to hinder the flow of goods and services.

A new report from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, authored by Bruce Zagaris, explains this unfortunate development. He starts by explaining some of the bad policies imposed by Washington.

The ever-growing complexity and reach of the U.S. tax system impinges on the ability of U.S. taxpayers to live abroad, work abroad, open bank accounts abroad, or conduct business abroad. …These developments create a challenging environment, with taxpayers being subject to onerous – and sometimes conflicting – requirements. The complex array of obligations put taxpayers in legal jeopardy as governments threaten to impose sanctions on investors and businesses… The U.S. has even proactively prosecuted individuals and companies for cross-border tax activities that do not violate American laws. …The paperwork and reporting requirements for cross-border economic activity are extensive. …The icing on the cake of intrusiveness and costly compliance is the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act.

FATCA is horrid legislation, perhaps the single worst part of the internal revenue code.

And bad policy from the U.S. has given other nations an excuse to adopt similar bad rules – aided and abetted by statist international bureaucracies such as the European Commission and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The difficulties caused by extraterritorial taxation are exacerbated by similar moves by other nations, often implemented as a response to aggressive policies by the United States. … the OECD has developed compliance and enforcement initiatives. …extraterritorial tax rules also are impinging on corporations. …The EU has taken a series of aggressive steps to impose tax on cross-border transactions. …Overly aggressive tax compliance and enforcement initiatives erode globalization, impede the ability of normal commerce and the movement of people, capital, and goods, and threaten privacy.

I especially like Bruce’s conclusion. All of the rules that stifle and hinder cross-border investment only exist because politicians have adopted bad tax laws.

Most of the policies reviewed above are only necessary because governments not only tax income, but also impose extra layers of tax on income that is saved an invested, exacerbated by decisions to impose such tax laws on income earned outside national borders. In a neutral, territorial tax system that taxes economic activity only one time, such as the Hall-Rabushka flat tax, almost all international tax conflicts disappear.

Amen. If we had a flat tax, there would be no case to be made for these bad policies.

Writing for the Washington Times, Richard Rahn of the Institute for Global Economic Growth cites this new study as he warns that an ever-expanding web of global tax rules is throwing sand in the gears of the global economy.

Global economic growth, particularly foreign investment, is slowing. One reason is likely the growing complexity of engaging in cross-border financial transactions. Major companies, banks and other financial institutions have been required to pay, in some cases, multi-billion-dollar fines to various governments for some alleged tax or other violation. The question is: Why is this occurring when virtually all of these institutions have compliance officers, tax lawyers, accountants, auditors, etc.? Much of the problem seems to stem from the ever-changing regulations and laws among countries, which are increasingly impossible to understand and comply with, even by the most sophisticated businesses. …The Center for Freedom and Prosperity Foundation has just published an important paper by the highly regarded international tax lawyer Bruce Zagaris, titled “Why the U.S. and the Worldwide Tax Systems Have Run Amok.” …Overly complex and even incomprehensible rules govern many international wealth and business transfers, as well as very onerous reporting requirements for people that have foreign interests. …In his paper, Mr. Zagaris details the problems caused by FATCA and a number of other international tax-related rules and regulations. Many of the rules and regulations would never meet basic cost-benefit analysis. They create much pain for little or no gain.

I would modify that last sentence.

The only “gain” from all these tax rules is a comparatively small amount of additional tax revenue for politicians (Obama originally promised $100 billion annually from FATCA and the actual law is projected to collect than $1 billion per year).

Yet there is great pain imposed on the private sector.

Moreover, laws to hinder cross-border capital flows are especially disadvantageous for the United States, as illustrated by this chart from Bruce’s report.

Sadly, damage to the productive sector of the economy is not something that politicians lose sleep over.

After all, they wouldn’t be imposing risky extraterritorial policies if they actually cared about what’s best for the nation.

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During my early years in public policy, back in the late 1980s, I repeatedly crossed swords with people who argued that Washington should have more power over the economy so that the United States could compete with Japan, which supposedly was an economic juggernaut because of “industrial policy” directed by wise and far-sighted bureaucrats at the Ministry of International Trade and Industry.

Given Japan’s subsequent multi-decade slump, it certainly seems like I was right to warn against giving American politicians the power to pick winners and losers.

But not everybody learned from that experience. In the words of Yogi Berra, “It’s deja vu all over again,” only this time we’re supposed to be terrified because the Chinese government wants to subsidize and promote certain industries as part of “Made in China 2025”.

At the risk of understatement, I’m not scared.

Yes, China has enjoyed some impressive growth since it partially liberalized its economy in the late 1900s, but it will remain far behind the United States unless – as I recently explained on CNBC – there is a new wave of free-market reforms.

Needless to say, a government initiative to favor certain industries is hardly a step in that direction.

Some Chinese policy makers even realize that it’s counterproductive to give that kind of power to politicians and bureaucrats.

Here are some excerpts from a report in the South China Morning Post.

“Made in China 2025” has been a waste of taxpayers’ money, China’s former finance minister Lou Jiwei has said…“[Made in China] 2025 has been a lot of talking but very little was done,” Lou, chairman of the National Council for Social Security Fund, said on Wednesday… “those industries are not predictable and the government should not have thought it had the ability to predict what is not foreseeable.” …“The negative effect of [the plan] is to have wasted taxpayers’ money.” He suggested the market should have played a greater role in developing the industries that MIC2025 was designed to push. “The [resources] should have been allocated by the market; the government should give the market a decisive role,” Lou said. “Why has the government pushed so hard on this strategy? [Hi-tech industry prospects] can all change in a few years, it is too unforeseeable.”

Sounds like Mr. Lou learned from Obama’s Solyndra fiasco that cronyism doesn’t work.

But some of his colleagues still need to be educated.

Made in China 2025 (MIC2025) strategy, Beijing’s blueprint for tech supremacy. …Since the plan’s launch in 2015, the government has poured money into MIC2025 to try to turn a number of domestic industries – including artificial intelligence, pharmaceuticals and electric vehicles – into global leaders by 2025. …Lou said: “It [the strategy] should not have been done that way anyway. I was against it from the start, I did not agree very much with it.

I hope senior government officials change their minds about this harmful exercise in central planning.

Not because I’m afraid it will work, but rather because I like China and I want the country to prosper. The partial reforms from last century produced great results for China, including huge reductions in poverty.

Additional reforms could lead to mass prosperity. But that won’t happen if the Chinese government tries to control the allocation of resources.

Let’s close with a big-picture look at central planning and industrial policy, starting with the common-sense observation that there are degrees of intervention.

Here’s my back-of-the-envelope perspective. We have examples of nations, such as the Soviet Union, where the government had near-total control over the allocation of labor and capital. And I suppose Hong Kong would be the closest example of a laissez-faire jurisdiction. And then there’s everything in between.

I’ve already shared two great videos on government planning versus the market. I strongly recommend this Prager University video, narrated by Professor Burton Folsom, on the failure of government-dictated investment. And also this video narrated by Professor Russ Roberts, which shows how a decentralized market efficiently provides a bounty to consumers.

Here’s a third, which celebrates the work of the late Don Lavoie, one of my professors when I studied at George Mason University.

By the way, there is a terrible flaw in the video. The photo that appears at 1:38 shows select faculty and students in 1987. Why is that a flaw? For the simple reason that I was part of the photo but got cropped out in the video.

P.S. Some people worry that China’s industrial policy will have a negative spillover effect on the United States because American companies will lose market share to the subsidized Chinese companies. That’s a legitimate concern and American officials should use the World Trade Organization to counter mercantilist policies.

P.P.S. To my dismay, some people don’t want China to become a rich nation. I assume those people are hoping China follows the advice of the OECD and IMF.

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One of the interesting games in Washington is deciding who on the right (however defined) is a “Trumpie” and who is a “Reaganite.”

Here are a few indicators.

But, given the huge gap in their views, trade is probably the biggest way of separating the Trumpies from the Reaganites.

And if you want a clear dividing line for Members of Congress, just see whether they support the “Reciprocal Trade Act” or the “Congressional Trade Authority Act.”

The former is sponsored by Congressman Sean Duffy of Wisconsin and would empower Trump to impose more taxes on trade.

Bryan Riley of the National Taxpayers Union is wisely skeptical.

…treating our trading partners as allies rather than adversaries has paid enormous dividends for Americans. Just since 1990, world tariffs fell by nearly two-thirds as U.S. exports more than doubled, even after adjusting for inflation. …The Reciprocal Trade Act would turn this successful approach to trade on its head. …proponents who endorse this approach often argue that tariff reciprocity is needed to as a lever to reduce foreign trade barriers. But the White House’s own case studies show this is untrue. …Trump wants to replace a successful post-World War II policy based on the understanding that trade is win-win with one that is likely to encourage foreign governments to retaliate against Americans. …History shows trade policy is more likely to succeed if it is based on the Golden Rule instead of on hostile eye-for-an eye reciprocity. It turns out that the United States benefits when we treat our trading partners the way we would like them to treat us. …Princeton University’s Robert Keohane described how countries benefit from this “sequential reciprocity”… The goal of the Trump administration’s trade policy should be to promote reciprocal trade, not reciprocal taxes.

Here’s a chart from Bryan’s study that shows how trade liberalization in recent decades has been very successful.

In an article for National Interest, Clark Packard also pours cold water on the Reciprocal Trade Act.

The United States Reciprocal Trade Act, which will soon be introduced by Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.), would expand the president’s already enormous unilateral authority to impose tariffs and other import restrictions. …the Reciprocal Trade Act would grant the president the authority to match the tariff applied to any given product by a trading partner. To use one of the administration’s favorite examples, the Europe Union applies a 10 percent tariff on imported automobiles, while the United States levies a 2.5 percent tariff on its imports. The Reciprocal Trade Act would allow the president unilaterally to raise the tariff to 10 percent on European cars as leverage for further negotiations.

He lists some of the reasons why the proposed law is bad policy.

The bill is enormously flawed and should be a nonstarter for myriad reasons. …violates U.S. commitments to the WTO’s Most-Favored Nation (MFN) principle of nondiscrimination. …The bill also would violate U.S. commitments under Article II of GATT. …the effect of the law would be that countries would retaliate against American exports and ensnare unrelated industries in a tit-for-tat. …The United States has been successful in getting other countries to lower tariffs and other trade barriers through negotiations. …the Reciprocal Trade Act would jeopardize this American-led system that has paid enormous dividends.

All of his points are accurate, though I don’t expect the president’s supporters would care about violating WTO obligations since they presumably would cheer if Trump pulled the U.S. out of the the agreement – even though it has been very beneficial for the United States.

Now let’s look at the Congressional Trade Authority Act, which would restrict rather than expand the ability of the executive branch to impose higher taxes on trade.

Adam Brandon of FreedomWorks explains the principles at stake.

…the Bicameral Congressional Trade Authority Act would ensure that all tariffs imposed by the executive branch in the name of national security must first be approved by Congress. Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution establishes that Congress “shall have the power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises.” The framers, in their wisdom, made this the very first power they delegated specifically to the legislative branch of the United States. Tariffs are taxes, and they adversely impact American consumers. Such measures should be enacted only after thoughtful debate by the elected representatives most accountable to the people of the United States. They should not be handed down unilaterally from the White House. …it’s time for Congress to reclaim their enumerated Article I power over trade. …FreedomWorks agrees with Rep. Gallagher and Sen. Toomey on the need to respect our Constitution and ensure Congress has full control over its Article I authority.

The Wall Street Journal opines favorably about Senator Toomey’s legislation.

…some on Capitol Hill are trying again to rein in the President’s tariff powers. …the Pennsylvania Republican…Mr. Toomey’s bill would require Congress’s blessing. Once a tariff is proposed, lawmakers have 60 days to pass a privileged resolution—no Senate filibuster to block consideration—authorizing it. No approval, no tariff.This is a serious reassertion of the Article I trade powers that Congress has long shirked. Since the bill is retroactive, President Trump would have to convince Congress that his tariffs on steel and aluminum are necessary. If lawmakers didn’t agree, the tariffs would end. …But that’s not all. The Commerce Secretary is now responsible for declaring that an import endangers national security. This bill would give the task, sensibly, to the Defense Secretary.

I like what Senator Toomey is trying to achieve. And I like it, not only because I don’t want politicians interfering with trade, but also because I support the Constitution.

America’s Founders deliberately set up a system based on Separation of Powers because they understood that unilateral power was a recipe for government abuse.

Interestingly, many Trumpies also claim to support the Constitution. Indeed, they are some of the biggest critics of the “administrative state,” which developed as federal agencies began to exercise legislative powers.

Which gives me an opportunity to contribute something to this discussion. I’m a great admirer of the American Enterprise Institute’s Mark Perry, in part because of his very clever hypocrisy-exposing Venn Diagrams (taxation and incentives, the War on Drugs, minimum wage, Food and Drug Administration, and consenting adults).

So, in hopes of showing Trumpies the error of their ways, here’s my humble attempt to copy Mark.

P.S. Even though open trade is very beneficial for American prosperity, I would not want a future president to assert unilateral power to eliminate tariffs. Yes, I want better policy, but I also support the Constitution and the rule of law.

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Since trade promotes prosperity, I want increased market-driven, cross-border commerce between China and the United States.

But you can see in this CNBC interview that I’m worried about achieving that outcome given protectionism from President Trump and mercantilism from President Xi in China.

There’s never much chance to elaborate in short interviews, so here’s some additional analysis on the key points.

1. China’s economy is weak because of insufficient liberalization.

I have written about how China got great results – especially huge reductions in poverty – thanks to partial economic liberalization last century. But those reforms were just a step in the right direction. The country currently ranks only #107 according to Economic Freedom of the World, largely because so much of the economy is hampered by subsidies, regulation, protectionism, and cronyism. Sweeping pro-market reforms are needed if China’s leaders want their country to become rich.

2. Trump’s unthinking protectionism hurts both sides, but China may be more vulnerable.

I mentioned in the interview that Trump’s protectionism meant that he was harming both nations. This is what always happens with protectionism, so I wasn’t saying anything insightful. But it is quite likely that China will suffer more because its economy doesn’t have the flexibility and durability of America’s more market-oriented system.

That is one of the conclusion from a recent news report.

Policymakers in Europe have spared no effort to emphasize that there can be no winners in an escalated trade conflict between the United States and China. But a fresh study shows there are several beneficiaries. …But a study by research network EconPol Europe suggests such an assertion isn’t quite true — in fact, it isn’t true at all. The survey analyzes the impact of tariffs imposed by the US on China and the effect of China’s retaliatory tariffs. …The EconPol Europe study calculates that Chinese exporters are bearing approximately 75 percent of the costs… in Asia, Vietnam has been gaining the most from firms relocating their production away from China. Malaysia, Singapore and India have also been profiting from this development.

3. China’s cronyism presents a challenge for supporters of unilateral free trade.

I’m a supporter of unilateral free trade. America should eliminate all trade barriers, even if other nations want to hurt themselves by maintaining their restrictions. That being said, it’s not genuine free trade if another country has direct or indirect subsidies for its companies. As I noted in the interview, some economists say we shouldn’t worry since the net result is a wealth transfer from China’s taxpayers to America’s consumers. On the other hand, that approach means that some American workers and companies are being harmed. And if supporters of free markets are upset when American workers and companies are hurt by domestic cronyism, we also should be upset when the same thing happens because of foreign cronyism.

The challenge, of course, is whether you can use trade barriers to target only cronyism. I worry that such an effort would get hijacked by protectionists, though Professor Martin Feldstein makes a good argument in the Wall Street Journal that it’s the right approach.

China’s strategy is to give large government subsidies to state-owned companies and supplement their research with technology stolen from American and other Western companies. …That is the real reason why the Trump administration has threatened tariffs of 25% on $200 billion of Chinese exports to the U.S.—nearly half the total—unless Beijing reforms its policies. …The purpose of the tariffs is not to reduce the bilateral trade deficit but to counter Chinese technology theft and forced transfer. …the U.S. could impose heavier tariffs and other economic penalties in order to force China to play by the rules, ending its attempt to dominate global markets through subsidies and technology theft.

4. Trump should have used the World Trade Organization to encourage Chinese liberalization.

I wrote last year that the President would enjoy more success if he used the WTO to apply pressure on China.

It’s not just me making this claim. Here are some excerpts from a story in the Washington Post.

Pressure from Europe and Japan is amplifying the president’s vocal complaints about Chinese trade practices… “it wasn’t a Trump issue; it was a world issue,” said Jorge Guajardo, …a former Mexican ambassador to China. “Everybody’s tired of the way China games the trading system and makes promises that never amount to anything.” …Germany and the United Kingdom joined the United States this year in tightening limits on Chinese investment. …In September, trade ministers from the United States, European Union and Japan issued a joint statement that blasted the use of subsidies in turning “state owned enterprises into national champions and setting them loose in global markets.” The statement…also rejected forced technology transfer… The United States did win E.U. and Japanese support for a complaint to the WTO alleging China has violated U.S. intellectual property rights. But rather than use the global trade body for a broader attack on China, the administration has demanded changes in the way the organization operates. To critics, the administration missed an opportunity to marshal China’s trading partners behind an across-the-board indictment of its state-led economy.

5. The imperfect Trans-Pacific Partnership was an opportunity to pressure China to reduce cronyism.

Because of my concerns about regulatory harmonization, I wasn’t grievously disappointed when the United States chose not to participate in the TPP, but I fully recognized that the pact had very positive features. Including the pressure it would have placed on China to shift toward markets and away from cronyism.

6. Additional Chinese reform is the ideal outcome, both for China and the rest of the world.

Three years ago, I wrote that China needs a Reagan-style revolution of economic liberalization. That’s still true today. The bottom line is that China’s leaders should look at the progress that was achieved last century when the economy was partially liberalized and decide that the time is ripe for the free-market version of a great leap forward. In other words, the goal should be great economic success, not modest economic success.

I’ll conclude by pointing out that I don’t want China to copy the United States, even though that would be a step in the right direction.

According to data from Economic Freedom of the World, there’s a much better role model.

Indeed, I would like the United States to copy Hong Kong as well.

The recipe for prosperity is the same all over the world. The challenge is getting politicians to do what’s best for citizens rather than what’s best for themselves.

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Last November, I shared a one-minute video from Freedom Partners on the economics of trade.

Here’s a full-length (but still only four minutes) treatment of the issue from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

The first part of the video is a quick glimpse at some of the academic evidence for open trade, and I hope it helps make the case against protectionism.

I then cite some country-specific examples, including how Herbert Hoover’s protectionism contributed to the economic misery of the Great Depression.

Argentina is another bad example mentioned in the video. It used to be one of the world’s richest countries, but it plummeted in the rankings in part because of its protectionist policy of “import substitution.”

The video also mentions the examples of China and India. Since I think this point is especially compelling, I want to take this opportunity to briefly elaborate on my comments in the video.

First, let’s establish that both nations did liberalize trade. Here’s a chart from Economic Freedom of the World, and you can see that there was dramatic liberalization starting about 1990.

Both nations are still a long way from total free trade (Singapore and Hong Kong, for instance, respectively get scores of 9.29 and 9.32), but it goes without saying that there was considerable liberalization in China and India.

And how did that work out?

Trade liberalization was a slam-dunk success. Based on data from the World Bank, here’s a look at how China and India started converging with the United States after opening to the world economy.

To be sure, both nations still have a long way to go. And it’s highly unlikely that either nation will ever fully converge to American living standards unless there is a lot more pro-market reform. Not just in trade, but all facets of economic policy.

But as I mentioned in the video, the reforms that already have occurred – particularly trade liberalization – have contributed to huge reductions in poverty in China and India.

Given all this evidence, I’ll close with a version of my two-question challenge. Can anybody identify a nation that has prospered by moving to protectionism (h/t: the USA in the 1800s is not a good answer) or a nation that has suffered because of trade liberalization?

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I’m for free trade because I want more jobs and more prosperity for the United States.

Indeed, I’ve argued we should copy that incredible economic success of Hong Kong and Singapore by unilaterally eliminating all trade barriers.

But some people complain this is akin to disarmament in a hostile world. I reject that analogy. If my neighbor shoots himself in the foot, I’ve never thought I should “level the playing field” by also shooting my foot.

That being said, we all should agree that the ideal scenario is for nations to adopt free trade agreements in order the maximize the economic benefits for all consumers and businesses.

And the good news is that nations have been building on the multilateral success of the WTO by also adopting bilateral free trade agreements.

The United States, for instance, has 14 FTAs that govern trade with 20 nations, most notably NAFTA. And while I grouse about some of the E.U.’s statist tendencies, there is genuine free trade among member nations.

But there is some bad news. Politicians and bureaucrats are slowly but surely hijacking FTAs and undermining their pro-growth impact with red tape.

It’s become so much of a problem that some free traders are questioning whether the current approach is worthwhile. For example, Iain Murray of the Competitive Enterprise Institute explains why he isn’t losing any sleep about America backing out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is an example of why free trade came to have such a bad reputation with the American public. Rather than a simple agreement to lower tariffs for mutual benefit, it morphed into a massive international regulatory regime over 5,000 pages long. It was weighed down by numerous non-trade provisions aimed at appeasing non-trade special interests. …the TPP went down the road of regulatory harmonization.

He makes sure to point out that the TPP may still have been worthwhile when using cost-benefit analysis.

This is not to say that…the TPP’s tariff reductions would not have outweighed the regulatory burden.

But he argues that a much better approach is FTAs based on regulatory competition.

…there is an alternative to 5,000 pages of regulatory harmonization. …regulatory competition may be a better solution than harmonization… Regulatory competition works best by mutual recognition. For instance, Australia and New Zealand have formed a single economic market based around the Trans-Tasman Mutual Recognition Agreement, whereby…Goods legally sold in one country can be sold in the other.  This principle operates regardless of different standards, or other sale-related regulatory requirements between New Zealand and Australia. …Such an agreement would probably work very well between the U.S. and Canada – and, indeed, between the U.S. and both Australia and New Zealand in the Trans-Pacific context. …Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Chile, Singapore, and Hong Kong…A series of mutual recognition agreements with these former TPP countries would effectively form the nucleus of a Global Free Trade Association.

I would add the United Kingdom to Iain’s list (assuming it manages to extricate itself from the European Union).

Indeed, just yesterday I submitted a comment to the United States Trade Representative on a proposed FTA between the U.S. and the U.K.

Here’s some of that analysis.

A trade agreement between the United States and United Kingdom would be a chance to increase prosperity in both nations by eliminating all forms of trade barriers… It’s also an opportunity to refocus trade agreements in ways that recognize sovereignty and promote pro-market policies. More specifically, a free trade pact between the U.S. and U.K. would offer a much-needed opportunity to discard the clutter of exceptions, long phase out periods, and non-trade issues, which has characterized recent agreements, and instead go with a cleaner approach that would allow the simplicity of unfettered commerce. The ideal trade pact should seek to make trade between the U.S. and the U.K. as simple as trade between New York and Pennsylvania. That type of trade agreement doesn’t need to be cumbersome and doesn’t require a detailed thousand-page document.

I give my two cents on the benefits of mutual recognition and the value of reorienting FTAs in a pro-market direction.

…such a pact should be based on the principle of “mutual recognition,” which means that nations can have their own laws governing economic activity inside their borders, but they recognize that other nations have the same right. Most important, they also agree that there should be no restriction on the ability of consumers to buy from producers in the other nation(s). …Under such a regime, a company in the U.S. wouldn’t have to produce separate products for U.K. customers since there would be no policy restricting a consumer in, say, London, from buying a product made in, say, Cleveland. …A pact for free and open trade between the U.S. and U.K. could become a new role model for agreements between industrialized, high-income nations. If based on mutual recognition, such a free trade agreement should reverse the unfortunate trend of deals getting saddled with extraneous and/or harmful provisions.

And explain that FTAs based on mutual recognition produce an added benefit.

This approach respects national sovereignty and also would have the added benefit of encouraging policy competition between nations. If either the U.S. or the U.K. was over-regulating in a certain sector, it would mean a loss of sales to the other country, which surely would create pressure for regulatory relief. Very similar to the way tax competition puts pressure on governments today not to impose excessive tax rates.

By the way, we also shouldn’t have regulatory harmonization since that increases systemic fragility.

In other words, it’s not a good idea to put all your eggs in one basket.

Let’s close with a picture that powerfully captures what’s wrong with the current approach to free trade agreements. Does anybody think the new Singapore-E.U. pact is really about unfettered commerce?

Looks to me like it’s really about politicians and bureaucrats micro-managing economic activity.

My FTA would fit on one page, or a scrap of one page: “There shall be no restrictions on commerce between Country A and Country B.”

Sort of like my version of a tax system compared to the mess we have now.

P.S. It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyhow, that Switzerland should be high on the list for a pro-market FTA with the United States.

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Time for the final installment in my four-part video series on trade-related topics.

  • Part I focused on the irrelevance of trade balances.
  • Part II looked at specialization and comparative advantage.
  • Part III explained trade and creative destruction.

Here’s Part IV, which looks at the very positive role of the World Trade Organization.

My basic argument is that it is a good idea to get other nations to reduce trade barriers, but tit-for-tat protectionism is not the right approach.

As I explained when writing about Chinese mercantilism, the U.S. would have far more success by using the WTO.

Let’s look at what experts have said.

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Greg Rushford explained why the WTO is good for the United States.

President Harry S. Truman and Secretary of State George Marshall successfully pressed America’s war allies to create the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade more than 70 years ago. Leaders across the globe, mindful of how economic nationalism in the 1930s had contributed to the devastation of World War II, wanted to open the world up again. The agreement focused on slashing of tariffs and other barriers to trade—bringing unprecedented prosperity to hundreds of millions of people. The GATT, which evolved into the World Trade Organization in 1995, became the world’s most successful international economic experiment. …Despite Mr. Trump’s assertion that the WTO has been “a disaster” for the U.S., Washington has won 85% of the 117 WTO cases it has brought against foreign trading partners. Japan complained in 2003 that WTO jurists had stretched the law by determining that Japanese health officials used phony science to ban American apples. The real U.S. gripe is that foreign governments have won most of the 145 cases that they have brought against American protectionist policies. …Both political parties would be well-advised to consider the wisdom of Truman and Marshall. They understood that true national-security imperatives meant resisting protectionism.

And here’s some more background information from a column in the WSJ by James Bacchus, who served as both a Member of Congress and as a Chief Judge at the WTO.

…let’s say Mr. Trump managed to get his way and pull the U.S. out of the WTO. The consequences for the world and U.S. economies would be immense. Among them: diminished trade growth, costly market and supply-chain disruptions, and the destruction of jobs and profits, especially in import- and export-dependent U.S. industries. The resulting trade barriers would compel some American companies either to downsize or move offshore. The global economic spiral set in motion by Mr. Trump’s reckless trade actions on steel, aluminum, Canada, Mexico, China, and Europe would accelerate. …WTO membership provides goods and services produced in the U.S. with protection against discrimination in foreign markets. Nondiscrimination rules are the heart of the WTO trading system, which currently applies in 164 countries and to 98% of all global commerce. …Instead of waging war on the WTO, the U.S. should help modernize it by making it more effective in addressing digital trade, services, subsidies, sustainability and intellectual property. Internationally agreed rules for international trade—and a process for resolving disputes about those rules—are an indispensable pillar of national prosperity.

I agree with everything in both columns.

And I’ll add one very simple – and hopefully very powerful – point.

Here’s a chart from the WTO showing that the United States is one of the world’s most pro-trade nations, with average tariffs of only 3.48 percent. Not as good as Hong Kong (0.0 percent) or Singapore (0.1 percent), but definitely good compared to most other nations.

In other words, it would be good if we could convince other nations to lower their trade barriers to our level.

Yet that’s exactly what’s been happening thanks to the WTO (and GATT, the predecessor pact). Here’s a chart prepared by the Confederation of British Industry, which shows how trade barriers have been continuously dropping. And dropping most rapidly in other nations, which is something Trump should be happy about.

The bottom line is that the WTO unambiguously advances U.S. interests, as I noted in the conclusion of the video.

But it actually advances the interests of all nations by gradually reducing global barriers to trade.

Is it as good as unilateral free trade? No, but it is a big win-win for America and the rest of the world.

Which is why, despite my usual disdain for international bureaucracies, I’m a big fan of the WTO.

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I started my end-of-year “best and worst” series back in 2013, but didn’t begin my start-of-year “hopes and fears” series until 2017.

In that first year, I got part of what I hoped for (some tax reform and a bit of regulatory easing) and part of what I feared (no Medicaid and Medicare reform), but I mostly felt relieved that some of my fears (border-adjustment tax and an infrastructure boondoggle) weren’t realized.

For 2018, none of my hopes (government collapse in Venezuela and welfare reform) became reality, but we dodged one of my fears (Trump killing NAFTA) and moved in the wrong direction on another (a bad Brexit deal).

Time for third edition of this new tradition. It is the first day of the year and here are my good and bad expectations for 2019.

We’ll start with things I hope will happen in the coming year.

  • Hard Brexit – There is a very strong long-run argument for the United Kingdom to have a full break with the European Union. Unfortunately, the political establishment in both London and Brussels is conspiring to keep that from happening. But the silver lining to that dark cloud is that the deal they put together is so awful that Parliament may vote no. Under current law, that hopefully will lead to a no-deal Brexit that gives the U.K. the freedom to become more free and prosperous.
  • Supreme Court imposes limits of Washington’s power – I didn’t write about the fight over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court because I don’t know if he believes in the limits on centralized power in Article 1, Section 8. But I’m semi-hopeful that his vote might make the difference in curtailing the power of the administrative state. And my fingers are crossed that he might vote with the Justices who want to restore the Constitution’s protection of economic liberty.
  • Gridlock – Some people think gridlock is a bad thing, but it is explicitly what our Founders wanted when they created America’s separation-of-powers system. And if the alternative to gridlock is politicians agreeing to bad policy, I will cheer for stalemate and division with great gusto. I will be perfectly content if Trump and House Democrats spend the next two years fighting with each other.
  • Maduro’s ouster – For the sake of the long-suffering people of Venezuela, I’m going to keep listing this item until it eventually happens.
  • Limits on the executive branch’s power to impose protectionism – Trade laws give a lot of unilateral power to the president. Ideally, the law should be changed so that any protectionist policies proposed by an administration don’t go into effect unless also approved by Congress.
  • Chilean-style reform in Brazil – Brazil recently elected a president who is viewed as the Trump of Latin America. But he might be the good kind of populist who uses his power to copy Chile’s hugely successful pro-market reforms.

Here are the things that worry me for 2019.

  • Trump – The President does not believe in small government, so I’m concerned we may get the opposite of gridlock. In my nightmare scenario, I can see him rolling over to Democrat plans for a higher minimum wage, infrastructure pork, wage subsidies, and busting (again) the spending caps.
  • Recession-induced statism – If there’s an economic downturn this year, then I fear we might get an Obama-style Keynesian spending orgy in addition to all the things I just mentioned.
  • More protectionism – Until and unless there are limits on the president’s unilateral power, there is a very real dangers that Trump could do further damage to global trade. I’m particularly concerned that he might pull the U.S. our of the very useful World Trade Organization and/or impose very punitive tariffs on auto imports.
  • Fake Brexit – This is the flip side of my hope for a hard Brexit. Regardless of the country, it’s not easy to prevail when big business and the political elite are lined up on the wrong side of an issue.

Sadly, I think my fears for 2019 are more likely than my hopes.

And I didn’t even mention some additional concerns, such as what happens if China’s economy suffers a significant downturn. I fear that is likely because there hasn’t been much progress on policy since the liberalization of the 1980s and 1990s.

Or the potential implications of anti-market populism in important European nations such as Germany, Sweden, and Italy.

Last but not least, we have a demographic sword of Damocles hovering over the neck of almost every nation.

That was a problem last year, it’s a bigger problem this year, and it will become an even-bigger problem in future years.

We know the right answer to this problem, but real solutions are contrary to the selfish interests of politicians.

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One of my annual traditions is to share the “best and worst news” for each year. I started in 2013, and continued in 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017.

Looking back, 2016 clearly was the best year, though entirely because of things that happened overseas (the Brits vote for Brexit, Brazil adopting spending caps, abolition of the income tax in Antigua, and Switzerland’s rejection of a basic income).

What about this year?

Sadly, there’s not much to cheer about. Here’s the meager list.

Amendment 73 rejected in Colorado – As part of a plan to expand the burden of government (for the children!), the left wanted to gut the state’s flat tax and replace it with a so-called progressive tax. Fortunately, voters realized that giving politicians the power to tax the rich at higher rates would also mean giving them the power to tax everyone at higher rates. The proposal was defeated by 11 percentage points.

Deregulation – The Administration’s record is certainly far from perfect on regulatory issues. But big-picture measures of the regulatory burden indicate that the overall trend is positive. Easing dangerous Obama-era car mileage rules may be the best step that’s been taken.

Positive trends – I’m having to scrape the bottom of the barrel, but I suppose a drop in support for bad ideas has to count as good news, right? On that basis, I’m encouraged that the notion of universal government handouts became less popular in 2018. Likewise, I’m glad that there’s so much opposition to the carbon tax that some supporters of that new levy are willing to throw in the towel.

Now let’s look at the bad news.

Here are the worst developments of 2018.

Aggressive protectionism – It’s no secret that Trump is a protectionist, but he was mostly noise and bluster in 2017. Sadly, bad rhetoric became bad policy in 2018. And, just as many predicted, Trump’s trade taxes on American consumers are leading other nations to impose taxes on American exporters.

The Zimbabwe-ization of South Africa – My trip to South Africa was organized to help educate people about the danger of Zimbabwe-style land confiscation. Sadly, lawmakers in that country ignore me just as much as politicians in the United States ignore me. The government is moving forward with uncompensated land seizures, a policy that will lead to very grim results for all South Africans.

More government spending – Ever since the brief period of fiscal discipline that occurred when the Tea Party had some influence, the budget news has been bad. Trump is totally unserious about controlling the burden of government spending and even routinely rolls over for new increases on top of all the previously legislated increases.

The good news is that this bad news is not as bad as it was in 2015 when we got a bunch of bad policies, including resuscitation of the corrupt Export-Import Bank, another Supreme Court Obamacare farce, expanded IMF bailout authority, and busted spending caps.

I’ll close by sharing my most-read (or, to be technically accurate, most-clicked on) columns of 2018.

  1. In first place is my piece explaining why restricting the state and local tax deduction was an important victory.
  2. Second place is my column (and accompanying poll) asking which state will be the first to suffer a fiscal collapse.
  3. And the third place article is my analysis of how rich nations can become poor nations with bad policy.
For what it’s worth, my fourth-most read column in 2018 was a piece from 2015 about political and philosophical quizzes. And the fifth-most read article was some 2012 satire about using two cows to describe systems of government.

I guess those two pieces are oldies but goodies.

Now for the columns that didn’t generate many clicks.

  1. My worst-performing column was about how DC insiders manipulate so-called tax extenders to line their own pockets.
  2. Next on the least-popular list was a piece that looked at proposals to make taxpayers subsidize wages.
  3. And the next-to-next-to-last article explained how expanding the IMF would increase the risk of bailouts and bad policy.

I’m chagrined to admit that none of these columns reached 1,000 views.  Though I try to salve my ego by assuming that many (some? most?) of the 4,000-plus subscribers eagerly devoured those pieces.

The other noteworthy thing about 2018 is that I posted my 5,000th column back in July.

And I also shared data indicating that I’m relatively popular (or, to be more accurate, I get a lot of clicks) in places like the Cayman Islands, the Vatican, Monaco, Bermuda, Jersey, and Anguilla.

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