The View from New Delhi: Trump vs. Biden

Introduction

In the run-up to the US elections, presumptive Democrat candidate Joe Biden’s lead over Donald Trump has been steadily rising, and is well over 10%, according to various polls. There are four months to the election, however, and it is too early predict the outcome. Many believe that the mercurial Trump is likely to have an ace up his sleeve, and that his popularity within his core constituency is very much intact. Interestingly, one area where Trump has a lead over Biden is confidence with regard to handling the US economy. Trump also scores over Biden in terms of enthusiasm. The current President is lagging behind Biden in terms of important issues like law enforcement and criminal justice issues, foreign policy, the coronavirus outbreak, race relations, and keeping the country united.

Commentators, strategic analysts, and policymakers the world over are keeping a close watch on the US election. The question on everybody’s mind is whether Biden’s foreign policy will be similar to earlier Democrat Presidents like Clinton and Obama, or distinct given the massive economic and geopolitical changes which have taken place globally. According to Trump’s former National Security Advisor, John Bolton – whose memoirs The Room Where it Happened: A White House Memoir have stirred up controversy and come at the wrong time for Trump – a Biden Presidency would essentially mean ‘another four years’ of Obama’s foreign policy.

It is true that Biden has been part of what is dubbed as the ‘Beltway.’ and would be preferred by US liberals and the class of ‘East Coast Intellectuals’ who are dominant not just in academic circles, but the policy circuit as well, given the fact that he may not be as isolationist as Trump, and is likely to be less abrasive vis-à-vis US allies.

In the changed economic and geopolitical environment, globally, the former Vice President will need to tweak his approach on complex economic and geopolitical issues. We may thus witness a significant departure from the policies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, for example, as attitudes towards trade had already begun to change during the Obama presidency.

One strong reiteration of the above point is Biden’s stand on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), which was former President Barack Obama’s brainchild, and an important component of what had been dubbed the ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy, which sought to contain China’s growing role in the Asia-Pacific region. (The Trump Administration has sought to build strategic partnerships in Asia through the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ narrative.) Biden said that he would only join a ‘re-negotiated TPP’ (one of the first steps which Donald Trump had taken when elected to office was to pull the US out of the TPP).

On China, too, Biden is likely to be more hawkish than Obama, though maybe he is less predictable and abrasive than Trump. Biden has already referred to some anecdotes in Bolton’s memoirs, where the Former NSA highlights the point that Trump, in a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Osaka, lent support to draconian measures against the Uighur minority in Xinjiang

Interestingly, in spite of Trump’s tough stance against China on economic issues, such as the imposition of trade tariffs as well as sanctions against Huawei (only recently, Chinese telecom vendors Huawei and ZTE Corporation were declared ‘national security’ threats), a number of Chinese commentators seem to prefer Trump, mostly because he has a simplistic approach, with US business interests being his primary concern. The US President has also not been very vocal on Human Rights Issues. Apart from this, Trump has given mixed signals vis-à-vis US allies. On the one hand, the Administration has spoken about the US working closely with its allies to take on China, and on the other hand Trump has taken measures which have riled allies. A recent instance being the Trump Administration’s announcement of withdrawing US troops stationed in Germany.

Similarly, Trump’s call for reforming the G7 and including Russia was not taken too kindly by countries like Germany and Canada, who believe that an expanded G7 should consist of democracies.

Trump’s rapport with authoritarian leaders

While Trump’s lack of gravitas in foreign policy has had an adverse impact on relations with US allies, he has got along well with authoritarian rulers like Russian President Vladimir Putin, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, and Chinese President Xi Jinping, and even praised them. Trump has not just turned a blind eye to human rights violations in Xinjiang, but looked the other way when it came to the brutal killing of Egyptian journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 (the CIA concluded that the Saudi Crown Prince, Muhammad Bin Salman, with whom Trump shares a close rapport, was involved in the killing of Khashoggi).

In the midst of the pandemic, and India’s escalating tensions with China, the US President also suspended non-immigrant work visas, including H1Bs (in recent years, Indians have received well over two-thirds of the total H1B visas which have been issued) until the end of the year. Biden, on the other hand, has been an ardent advocate for closer economic ties with India. The former Vice President had also backed the Indo-US Nuclear deal in 2008 (Biden was then a Senator), and during his visit to India in 2013 he also spoke in favour of a greater role for India in Asia, and the need for both countries to work closely towards this goal.

What has irked many in India, however, is Biden’s criticism of the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act), NRC (National Register of Citizens), and his support for the restoration of liberties in Kashmir on Biden’s campaign website. It would be important to note that not just Democrats, but even many Republicans, have criticised the increasing religious polarization in India in recent years, and a US government report also underscored the need for religious pluralism in India, highlighting cases of discrimination against minorities. Many right-thinking Indians, too, have been emphasizing on the point that India can not progress without social cohesion and warned against the perils of religious polarization and social divisions.

Conclusion

No US administration can afford to be soft on China any longer, and neither can India with its rising clout be ignored. The US under Biden is likely to cement ties with countries like India and Vietnam while ensuring that allies like Germany, France, and Australia are kept in good humor. What could change is the simplistic approach of Trump, where even links with allies are driven by short term economic gains. It is important to realize that US-India relations are driven by mutual interests, not just individual chemistry between leaders.

Multilateralism is alive and well in the Indo-Pacific

Introduction

The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) trade agreement, also known as CPTPP 11, consists of 11 member states (Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam).

The TPP agreement was a brain child of former US President Barack Obama. The main objective of the agreement was to bolster Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ vision, and it was signed in February 2016.

Significantly, one of the first decisions taken by US President Donald Trump upon his election was to withdraw from the agreement. The main reason cited by Trump for this decision was that the TPP agreement was not favourable towards US workers. During the Presidential campaign of 2016, Trump had repeatedly said that apart from leading to job losses of US workers, the agreement would undermine US independence.

In April 2018, Trump had stated that the US was willing to join the TPP if it was offered a better deal, but by then other countries which were part of the original TPP had moved on, and the CPTPP 11 came into force in the end of 2018 (after a majority of signatories, Australia, Canada, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, and Singapore ratified the agreement).

How the agreement has enhanced trade linkages between member states

CPTPP 11 has helped in bolstering economic cooperation between a number of member states such as Japan, Canada, and Vietnam. During Shinzo Abe’s visit to Canada in 2019, Canadian PM Justin Trudeau made a mention of how the deal had enabled Canada to increase its exports threefold to Japan. Trudeau also stated that the deal had been beneficial for strengthening economic ties between Canada and Japan.

According to estimates, the agreement has also helped in bolstering trade not just between Vietnam and Japan, but also between Vietnam and Canada.

Efforts to keep supply chains intact

In the midst of the corona virus pandemic, CPTPP 11 member states like Japan, Singapore, and New Zealand have been working assiduously towards keeping supply chains intact.

Singapore has been exporting meat and medical products from New Zealand and has also been seeking to strengthen its economic ties with Japan in the midst of the pandemic. In April, several CPTPP 11 members — Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, and Brunei — issued a joint statement along with Myanmar (a non-CPTPP 11 member) on the issue of opening trade lines, including air and sea freight.

Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, along with non-CPTPP 11 member South Korea, have also been exploring the possibility of resuming essential travel.

What is also interesting is the success of some of the CPTPP 11 member states in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, especially Vietnam and New Zealand. As of May 16, 2020, Vietnam recorded 318 coronavirus cases and did not register a single death. The ASEAN nation began to ease the lockdown in the end of April. As of May 16, 2020, the number of coronavirus cases in New Zealand was 1149, and number of deaths was 21 (New Zealand ended a 7 week lockdown on May 14, 2020).

Efforts to rope in new members into the partnership

After the coronavirus pandemic, more countries are likely to get on board with the CPTPP 11, including the United Kingdom. In Asia, Japan is also trying to get Malaysia and Thailand on board with the CPTPP 11. The main aim of Japan, which will chair the CPTPP 11 in 2021, in getting these countries on board is reducing its dependence upon China (Tokyo imports over 20% of its intermediate goods from China). Thailand could be an important addition to the CPTPP 11 because it has been relatively successful in dealing with the pandemic as of now, and apart from its economic relevance, Thailand has been working closely with several CPTPP 11 members in their endeavor to resume essential travel.

Conclusion

The CPTPP is thus important for a number of reasons. First, it is providing an alternative narrative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative — especially in the context of the Indo-Pacific (Japan’s desire to get new countries on board is a strong reiteration of the same).

Second, the CPTPP is a clear reiteration that globalization in a post-corona world is not likely to be driven by Washington and Beijing (many members of the partnership, such as Japan, New Zealand, and Vietnam, have an important role to play).

Third, it is an interesting instance of an arrangement where not all member states have similar political systems, but are bound by common economic interests.

In the post-corona world, the relevance of the CPTPP is likely to rise, and it remains to be seen how Beijing and Washington react to this.

Biden vs. Sanders: The view from New Delhi

After Joe Biden’s remarkable performance on Tuesday, March 3, 2020, where he won 10 states, Wall Street surged on Wednesday. Many argue that the former Vice President, with his centrist economic views as compared to Senator Bernie Sanders, would be more acceptable not just to centrist supporters of the Democrats, as well as US corporates, but interestingly even some Republicans who are not comfortable with Trump’s economic policies. Donors of the Democratic Party are also rallying behind Biden, and Sanders is trying to use this point in his favor, saying that the ‘political establishment’ is not happy with his rise. The Vermont Senator, with his radical economic policies, has based his campaign on challenging the current status quo (where a section of the elite have disproportionate influence).

If one were to look at Biden’s key stand on foreign policy issues, his remarks on Afghanistan were criticised not just by Afghan leaders but also strategic analysts. Biden stated that US should not be concerned with ‘nation building’ in Afghanistan, but rather with countering terrorism. Reacting to his remarks, spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani stated:

Afghanistan fought and stood as a whole nation to the face of tyrants such as the Soviet Invasion, Terrorism invasion and now, it is in the front lines so that the other nations are safer. ISIS [Daesh] & the Taliban, the major terror networks and the enemies of the world are defeated here.

Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai stated that Biden’s remarks were ‘unrealistic and immature’ and sent a message that US was not really concerned about nation building in Afghanistan. Other observers of Afghanistan were also surprised by Biden’s remarks (as number 2 in the Obama Administration, he played a key role in the formation of the Unity government in 2014).

On China, Biden’s approach seems to be more nuanced than Trump’s. In May 2019, he stated that while US needed to watch its own interests, excessive paranoia vis-à-vis China was uncalled for. A month later (in June 2019) he stated that “China poses a serious challenge to us, and in some areas are a real threat.”

At the same time, like the Republicans and Democrats, Biden has opposed the entry of Huawei into the United States’ 5G network, arguing that this would be a security threat (in a presidential primary debate, Biden alluded to this point along with other candidates). Interestingly, an article in China’s main English-language daily, Global Times, argues that Biden would be a better bet for China than Bernie Sanders given that he is more predictable and has experience in dealing with China.

One issue on which Biden has drawn flak from Bernie Sanders is the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), a brain child of former President Barack Obama (TPP was an important component of Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy which sought to counter China’s economic and strategic influence in the Asia-Pacific region – now referred to as Indo-Pacific).

Sanders’ approach to TPP is identical to that of Trump (whose first decision was to pull out of the TPP). Sanders had praised Trump’s decision saying that this decision was in the interest of American workers.

The Vermont Senator has argued that Biden supported the TPP, which would be damaging to American workers. While seeing the popular mood, Biden has revised his stand and stated that he would go ahead with the deal but will renegotiate it (interestingly, Trump’s 2016 opponent Hillary Clinton also turned against the TPP even though as Secretary of State she had fervently backed the deal).

When in power, the approach to crucial policy issues changes and that could be the case as far as Joe Biden is concerned. On issues like China and TPP it is highly unlikely that Biden will take a fundamentally different position from the Republican Party given the current narrative prevalent in the US. Having been an insider, it is likely though that he will follow a more cautious approach and not upset the apple cart too much.

Nightcap

  1. The United States needs Chinese medical equipment Scott Sumner, EconLog
  2. How India is dealing with Turkey’s Kashmir stance Niranjan Marjani, Diplomat
  3. Cooking up a new constitution in Russia Lisa Gaufman, Duck of Minerva
  4. In praise of the Divided States of America Matthew Berry, Law & Liberty

Nightcap

  1. Gulf states and US hostility towards Iran Peter Henne, Duck of Minerva
  2. NAFTA 2.0 offers promise of stability Milton Ezrati, City Journal
  3. Free trade isn’t dead yet! Tyler Cowen, Bloomberg
  4. “All political careers end in failure” Scott Sumner, MoneyIllusion

Nightcap

  1. Bosnia’s mosques without Muslims Colborne & Edwards, Los Angeles Review of Books
  2. China and the Ricardian vice Samuel Hammond, National Affairs
  3. The closing of the conservative mind John Gray, New Statesman
  4. Europe, not America, is home to the free market Thomas Philippon, the Atlantic

A short note on Ethiopia and the African continent

Introduction

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was awarded the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize. He is the 12th winner from Africa. The Nobel Committee stated that Abiy had been awarded the Nobel for his efforts towards resolving the border conflict with Eritrea (in September 2018, Abiy and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki signed a peace deal in Jeddah).

A border war in the years between 1998 and 2000 had resulted in the deaths of 100,000 people, and was responsible for the displacement of over one million people and the splintering of many families. The agreement has helped in reducing tensions between both countries and has led to a number of other important steps; it has paved the way for air connectivity (Ethiopian Airlines resumed its flight from Addis Abbaba to Asmara, the capital of Eritrea after two decades), resumption of communications between both countries (telephone lines had been disconnected in 1998), reduction of military hostilities, and most importantly reuniting of families.

Abiy’s reaction

While reacting to the Nobel Committee’s decision, the Ethiopian Prime Minister said that this reward was not merely for Ethiopia, but the whole of Africa, and hoped that leaders in the region would work towards peace-building.

Said the Ethiopian PM:

…It is a prize given to Africa, given to Ethiopia, and I can imagine how the rest of Africa’s leaders will take it positively to work on the peace-building process in our continent.

It would be pertinent to point out that, in recent years, the outside world has begun to take note of Ethiopia for its economic progress – in spite of numerous political challenges.

In recent years — almost a decade — the country’s economic growth has been a whopping 10% according to International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates. In 2018, Ethiopia’s growth was estimated at well over 8% (8.5), and was the fastest growing economy in Africa. One of the key factors for Ethiopia’s impressive economic performance has been the shift from the agricultural sector to the industry & service sector and favourable demographics.

Reforms introduced by Abiy Ahmed: Political Sphere

Abiy’s election has generated immense hope, as he has seemed genuine in his commitment to political and economic reforms. During his tenure, a number of political prisoners have been released. There is also a reasonable amount of press freedom. There have been no arrests of journalists ever since he has taken over (2018 was the first year since 2004 when not a single journalist was arrested).

Abiy’s reforms – both political and economic – are significant because in many countries which have made economic progress, leaders have exhibited authoritarian tendencies. In many countries with economic promise, leaders have also failed to bite the bullet, as far as big bang economic reforms are concerned. Abiy, on the other hand, has reiterated his commitment to reforms.

Reforms introduced by Abiy Ahmed: Economic Sphere

In September 2019, Abiy unveiled his vision for economic reform titled ‘Home-Grown Economic Reform,’ which focuses on drawing greater public sector participation, reducing debts, and enhancing foreign exchange reserves. While speaking on the occasion of the launch of the roll out of his government’s agenda, Abiy emphasized on the fact that this approach is holistic: pro-job, pro-growth, and pro-inclusivity.

Privatization of a number of state run enterprises, such as Ethiopian Airlines, Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation, and the sole telecom provider, EthioTelecom, has also been high on the agenda of Abiy ever since he has taken over.

Challenges

This is not to say that all is well in Ethiopia. In June 2019, Ethiopia faced two attacks, one in the Amhara regional capital of Bahir Dar and the other in the federal capital of Addis Ababa. While Abiy has made efforts towards reducing acrimony in the country’s polity, there are still numerous ethnic divisions, and a large number of political players are seeking to cash in on these schisms.

Expectations from Abiy are sky high, and the country faces numerous debts. While his agenda for reforms is well-intentioned, and does represent a significant break from the past, it is rather ambitious and it remains to be seen whether stakeholders involved in the implementation will be in sync with the PM.

Africa no longer the Dark Continent

For very long, many Western commentators have consistently adopted a patronizing approach towards Africa. The Nobel Award to the Ethiopian PM comes at an interesting time. At a time when the whole world is becoming insular, 54 African countries have signed the AfCTA (African Continental Free Trade Area) agreement. AfCTA. This is the world’s largest free trade agreement since the World Trade Organisation).

AfCTA is a crucial step towards strengthening intra-regional trade linkages and overall connectivity. AfCTA has the potential of connecting over 1 billion people, creating a bloc worth over an estimated $3 billion and pushing intra-Africa trade by up to 15-25% by 2040 (as of 2018, intra-regional trade was less than 20%).

It would be pertinent to point out that the Ethiopian PM has on repeated occasions reiterated his commitment to Pan-Africanism, and has been one of the most fervent backers of AfCTA.

Africa is also being viewed as the world’s next manufacturing hub (China has already moved in a big way, though of course many countries are looking to other alternatives). Political stability and investor-friendly policies of course are imperative.

Conclusion

One hopes that other leaders in Africa follow Abiy’s footsteps in focusing on economic and political changes which could pave the way for sustainable growth and prosperity.

For long the world’s attention has been driven by a Western narrative, but in recent years Africa along with Asia has begun to draw attention due to high economic growth rates. If Africa can get its act together, and growth in countries like Bangladesh and Vietnam is sustained, we could witness the rise of new Non-Western groupings (consisting of developing countries from different regions). Such groupings will not be driven by geopolitical compulsions, geographic proximity, or sheer size, but by economic consideration and could play a pivotal role in shaping a new narrative, while promoting globalization, connectivity and free trade.

Nightcap

  1. Second World soft power Ken White, Asian Review of Books
  2. Alas my love, you do me wrong Roderick Long, Policy of Truth
  3. The great fear of 1776 Jeffrey Ostler, Age of Revolutions
  4. Will no one defend free trade? Shikha Dalmia, the Week

The long-run risks of Trump’s racism

hayekvstrump

This week, the United States and much of the world has been reeling from Trump’s xenophobic statements aimed at four of his Democratic opponents in Congress. But the U.S. economy continues to perform remarkably well for the time being and despite his protectionist spasms, Trump is widely considered a pro-growth, pro-business President.

This has led some classical liberals to consider Trump’s populist rhetoric and flirtations with the far right to be a price worth paying for what they see as the safest path to keeping the administrative state at bay. Many classical liberals believe the greater risk to liberty in the U.S. is inevitably on the left with its commitment to expanding welfare-state entitlements in ways that will shrink the economy and politicize commercial businesses.

In ‘Hayek vs Trump: The Radical Right’s Road to Serfdom’, Aris Trantidis and I dispute this complacency about authoritarianism on the right. In the article, now forthcoming in Polity, we re-interpret Hayek’s famous The Road to Serfdom in light of his later work on coercion in The Constitution of Liberty.

We find that only certain forms of state intervention, those that diminish the rule of law and allow for arbitrary and discriminatory administrative oversight and sanction, pose a credible risk of turning a democratic polity authoritarian. A bigger state, without more discretionary power, does not threaten political liberty. Although leftwing radicals have in the past shown disdain for the rule of law, today in the U.S. and Europe it is the ideology of economic nationalism (not socialism) that presently ignores democratic norms. While growth continues, this ideology may appear to be compatible with support for business. But whenever the music stops, the logic of the rhetoric will lead to a search for scapegoats with individual businesses in the firing line.

Several countries in Europe are much further down the 21st road to serfdom than the U.S., and America still has an expansive civil society and federal structures that we expect to resist the authoritarian trend. Nevertheless, as it stands, the greatest threat to the free society right now does not carry a red flag but wears a red cap.

Here is an extract from the penultimate section:

The economic agenda of the Radical Right is an extension of political nationalism in the sphere of economic policy. While most Radical Right parties rhetorically acknowledge what can be broadly described as a “neoliberal” ethos – supporting fiscal stability, currency stability, and a reduction of government regulation – they put forward a prominent agenda for economic protectionism. This is again justified as a question of serving the “national interest” which takes precedence over any other set of values and considerations that may equally drive economic policy in other political parties, such as individual freedom, social justice, gender equality, class solidarity, or environmental protection. Rather than a principled stance on government intervention along the traditional left-right spectrum, the Radical Right’s economic agenda can be described as mixing nativist, populist and authoritarian features. It seemingly respects property and professes a commitment to economic liberty, but it subordinates economic policy to the ideal of national sovereignty.

In the United States, President Trump has emerged to lead a radical faction from inside the traditional right-wing Republican Party on a strident platform opposing immigration, global institutions, and current international trade arrangements that he portrayed as antagonistic to American economic interests. Is economic nationalism likely to include the type of command-and-control economic policies that we fear as coercive? Economic nationalism can be applied through a series of policies such as tariffs and import quotas, as well as immigration quotas with an appeal to the “national interest.”

This approach to economic management allows authorities to treat property as an object of administration in a way similar to the directions of private activity which Hayek feared can take place in the pursuit of “social justice.” It can take the form of discriminatory decisions and commands with a coercive capacity even though their authorization may come from generally worded rules. Protectionism can be effectuated by expedient decisions and flexible discretion in the selection of beneficiaries and the exclusion of others (and thereby entails strong potential for discrimination). The government will enjoy wide discretion in identifying the sectors of the economy or even particular companies that enjoy such a protection, often national champions that need to be strengthened and weaker industries that need to be protected. The Radical Right can exploit protectionism’s highest capacity for partial discriminatory applications.

The Radical Right has employed tactics of attacking, scapegoating, and ostracizing opponents as unpatriotic. This attitude suggests that its policy preference for economic nationalism and protectionism can have a higher propensity to be arbitrary, ad hoc and applied to manipulate economic and political behavior. This is perhaps most tragically demonstrated in the case of immigration restrictions and deportation practices. These may appear to coerce exclusively foreign residents but ultimately harm citizens who are unable to prove their status, and citizens who choose to associate with foreign nationals.

More Longform essays

Barry’s essays on republican libertarianism (not what you think, American readers!) and British sovereignty and isolationism are up in the new ‘Longform Essays‘ section of the blog. You’ll see that there are more in the works, too, including essays by Zak, Rick, and at least one more from Barry.

These essays join Jacques’ work on legal immigration into the United States and protectionism/free trade, as well as Mary’s essay on education and its relationship with The State.

Editing these essays makes me the luckiest dude in all of libertarian-dom! I hope there are many more in the years to come.

I still pay attention to the news cycle, but it’s so outrageous these days that it’s hard to write about, let alone analyse or interpret. What a mess. I will say that corporate media is definitely skewed to the left.

Libertarians – and economists – haven’t done a good job of explaining the benefits of free trade. Telling the man on the street that free trade is a fundamental truth has not worked. “Democracy” is another major issue; people throw the word around like a baseball, but its fundamentals are rarely discussed. Given that we’ve gone to war over democracy, on numerous occasions, I think it needs to be discussed far more often.

At any rate, enjoy the essays!

Nightcap

  1. When houses of prayer become places of shelter Bruce Clark, Erasmus
  2. Race, or the last colonial struggle in Latin America Jason McGraw, Age of Revolutions
  3. Free Trade, Unconditional and Unilateral Don Boudreaux, Cafe Hayek
  4. Remembering Peter Schramm Ken Masugi, Law & Liberty

Nightcap

  1. The politics of “now” and the fall of the world’s governing soccer body David Runciman, London Review of Books
  2. Nineteenth-century rappers, Corn Laws, and the rise of free trade Greg Rosalsky, JSTOR Daily
  3. Avocados and tamales: language lessons Joyce Bartholomae, Coldnoon
  4. North Korea’s ice-cream-colored totalitarianism Lena Schipper, 1843

Midweek Reader: The Folly of Trump’s Tariffs

With stocks plummeting this week upon an announcement of retaliatory tariffs by China in response to a recent spate of steel and aluminum tariffs from the Trump administration, it seems a midweek reader on the situation is appropriate.

  • At the Washington Post, Rick Noack explains how Trump is going into unprecedented territory since the WTO was founded, and why existing trade norms probably can’t stem a trade war. A slice:

    But while China has used the WTO to accuse the United States of unfairly imposing trade restrictions over the last months, Trump does not appear interested in being dragged into the dispute settlement process. In fact, Trump appears to be deliberately undermining the legitimacy of that process by saying that his tariffs plan was based on “national security” concerns. WTO rules mandate that a member state can claim exceptions from its trade obligations if the member’s national security is at stake.

    That reasoning has long been a no-go among WTO member states, because they understand  that triggering trade disputes under a “national security” framework could eventually render the WTO meaningless.

  • Last month at the Chicago TribuneSteve Chapman had a good op-ed showing why Trump’s justification of steel and aluminum tariffs on national security grounds is bogus:

    But putting tariffs on all imports to prevent dependence on China or Russia is like throwing away your library card to avoid bad books. It would make more sense to focus on the guilty countries rather than deploy a sprayer that also soaks the innocent.

    The national security risk is minuscule, though. Imports make up only one-third of the steel we use, and the Pentagon requires less than 3 percent of our domestic output. No enemy has us over a barrel, because we buy steel from 110 different countries.

    Most of what we import comes from allies and friends, including Canada, South Korea and Mexico, which would have no reason to cut us off in a crisis. If China stopped shipping to us, friendlier countries would leap to grab the business.

  • Also at the Washington Post last month, historian Marc-William Palen gives numerous historical examples of how nobody wins in trade wars and how they can threaten our national security by arousing populist resentment of the US abroad. A slice:

    The trade wars that followed the Republican passage of the protectionist Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930, which raised duties on hundreds of imports, similarly contain illustrative lessons for today. Canada responded with tariff increases of its own, for example, as did Europe.

    In a widely cited study from 1934, political economist Joseph M. Jones Jr. explored Europe’s retaliation. His study provided a warning about the trade wars that can arise when a single nation’s tariff policy “threatens with ruin” specialized industries in other countries, arousing “bitterness” throughout their populations.

  • At Cato’s At LibertyDaniel Ikeson explains how Trump’s tariffs establish a dangerous international precedent that will threaten US interests elsewhere:

    By signing these tariffs into law, President Trump has substantially lowered the bar for discretionary protectionism, inviting governments around the world to erect trade barriers on behalf of favored industries.  Ongoing efforts to dissuade China from continuing to force U.S. technology companies to share source code and trade secrets as the cost of entering the Chinese market will likely end in failure, as Beijing will be unabashed about defending its Cybersecurity Law and National Security Law as measures necessary to protect national security.  That would be especially incendiary, given that the Trump administration is pursuing resolution of these issues through another statute—Section 301 of the Trade act of 1974—which could also lead the president to impose tariffs on China unilaterally.

  • The Independent Institute’s Robert Higgs reminds us that citing trade deficits is misleading:

    In reality, individuals, firms and other organizations, and governments trade with other such entities, some of which are located in the same country and others of which are located in other countries. The location of the trading partners has no economic significance whatsoever. Trading entities enter into exchanges voluntarily, each one in each transaction anticipating a gain from the trade. Hence, in expectational terms, every such trade entails a gain from trade, or in other words an addition to the trader’s wealth.

  • At American Greatness, Henry Olsen tries to give a communitarian justification of protectionism:

    So-called populist movements around the world are gaining strength because their voters no longer feel like valued members of their nations. They do not believe their worth should decline because the owners of capital say so, nor do they think their life dreams or values should be denigrated simply because the most educated have different visions.

    Populists like Trump address this spiritual yearning and fulfill the deepest need every human has, to be valued and to belong to a group that values you. In this, and perhaps in this need alone, all men are truly created equal. Tariffs are simply an economic means to fulfill this spiritual need. Tariff opponents can only win if they first recognize this need and promise a more effective way to fulfill it.

  • At Bleeding Heart Libertarians, Jason Brennan explains why communitarianism cannot justify protectionist policies:

    Second, if tariffs don’t actually succeed in helping these workers, then the symbolic argument falls flat. Imagine an artist said, “I’m so concerned about the plight of people living in tenements, I’m going to do a performance art project where I burn down all their homes and leave them on the street. Sure, that will make them even worse off, but my heart is in the right place, and I thereby express my concern for them.” This artist would be…a contemptible asshole.

  • Finally, given its relevance at the moment, it’s worth revisiting Paul Krugman’s classic essay “Ricardo’s Difficult Idea” which remains the best account of why non-economist intellectuals have a hard understanding free trade:

    (i) At the shallowest level, some intellectuals reject comparative advantage simply out of a desire to be intellectually fashionable. Free trade, they are aware, has some sort of iconic status among economists; so, in a culture that always prizes the avant-garde, attacking that icon is seen as a way to seem daring and unconventional.

    (ii) At a deeper level, comparative advantage is a harder concept than it seems, because like any scientific concept it is actually part of a dense web of linked ideas. A trained economist looks at the simple Ricardian model and sees a story that can be told in a few minutes; but in fact to tell that story so quickly one must presume that one’s audience understands a number of other stories involving how competitive markets work, what determines wages, how the balance of payments adds up, and so on.

From the Comments: More trade, more states?

Nguyen Ha left this thoughtful comment about my post on protectionism in Africa that I am embarrassed I missed:

Would you care to explain how “stronger economic ties will hasten the demise of current African states’ superficial institutions”?

What a tough question! First, though, I stated that it was my hope that deeper trading ties would lead to more states, not my prediction. My hope is based on current trends around the world: stronger economic ties have led to more states (and more aspirations for statehood within existing states).

The best academic treatment on this topic comes from Giacomo Ponzetto, an economist currently at CREI in Barcelona (he’s been mentioned at NOL on more than one occasion, too), and especially the Introduction and Section 5 of his working paper titled “Globalization and Political Structure.” Here:

As globalization proceeds, localities remove borders by increasing the size of countries. The number of countries declines and the mismatch between each locality is ideal and actual provision of public services grows. Eventually, this mismatch is large enough to justify a move to a two-level governance structure. The world political structure shifts from a few large countries to many small countries within a world economic union. The two-level structure is more expensive, but it is nonetheless desirable because it facilitates trade and improves preference-matching in the provision of public services.

By “two-level governance structure” Ponzetto means one level, a locality, that’s focused on delivering public goods to that specific locality, and another level, a world economic union, that’s focused on protecting property rights and eliminating border costs.

You can see this concept play out in a few different federative structures, especially the EU, the US, India, and China. In the European Union, multiple localities have tried to separate from countries (Catalonia from Spain, Scotland from UK) while still remaining part of the international economic union in place. Deeper trade ties, more states.

Three new states were created in India in 2000, and China is currently grappling with federalism as a way to keep up with its predictable economic success. The US hasn’t seen any new states added since 1959, but that’s because its system does a good enough job overall to keep all its member states content (happy, even).

The free trade zone in Africa will be interesting to watch because there are so many different variables at play than in China, the EU, India, or the US. India was governed by one overseas empire; the EU has been able to maintain stability because of American military power and the security umbrella it provides; China has been unified on and off again for centuries; and the US is, for all intents and purposes, a polity underscored by British cultural, economic, and political mores. Africa has none of these traits, yet its various leaders recognize that free trade leads to prosperity and often (not always) to better diplomatic ties.

If all goes well, and current trends elsewhere are any indication, Africa would see more states come into being to go along with its deeper economic ties. (This might be a major factor why Nigeria refused to join; Abuja fought a vicious civil war in the 1970s against separatists in Biafra and its leaders are probably tacitly aware of current global trends.) If all doesn’t go well, then violence and poverty will be just around the corner.

Who are the protectionists in Africa?

Rwanda, a country that thankfully avoided “humanitarian” military intervention by Western powers during a nasty killing spree in the 90s, is leading the charge on free trade in Africa. Of the 54 countries on the African continent, 44 have signed the agreement, but the traditional economic giants of the continent – Nigeria and South Africa – have not. Surprisingly, Botswana, an example often cited by economists as an African success story, has not signed it either.

CNBC reports on why Nigeria has so far refused to join the agreement, citing a consultant who specializes in global trade:

There is a general sentiment among (labor unions and industry bodies) that Nigeria’s export capacity in non-oil sectors isn’t sufficiently robust yet to expose itself to external competition.

Unions and “buy local” capitalists: The scourge of prosperity and progress worldwide, but also not much of a surprise.

What will be interesting to see is where this bold experiment leads. How can 44 countries with poor institutions come together to form a free trade pact? I am hoping this will lead to more states in Africa. My logic goes something like this: stronger economic ties will hasten the demise of current African states’ superficial institutions, while allowing informal institutions to flourish. Because these informal institutions are better at solving coordination problems, they’ll eventually be recognized as states. Here’s how I put it back in 2012:

A better way of looking at it, and one that I have pointed out before, is to look at Europe realize that it shares roughly the same amount  of polities as does Africa (50-ish) despite being four times smaller. I bring up the comparison with Europe because in the Old World things like ethnicity still have a strong hold on how individuals identify themselves with their various social spheres. Rather than the 50-ish number of  polities in Africa that we have today, a better way of solving Africa’s problems would be to let the polities currently in place dissolve into 400 polities. Or 500. Then, I think, Africans would know peace and prosperity.

I’d add, today, that this would only be possible if the links built by this free trade pact endure. Economic integration is vital to the dissolution of Africa’s despotic states. (h/t Barry)