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.

Mormons and California’s Gold Rush

The folks over at RealClearHistory have enjoyed my weekly column so much that they’ve invited me to write a second weekly column for their Historiat blog. I was tasked with writing the introductory essay for a blog that has been dormant for 3 years. Here’s an excerpt:

Initially the Mormon leadership in Nauvoo sought to establish a new homeland in northern California – which was far enough away from the American, Mexican, and British governments to be considered safe – and Brannan was tasked with the initial wave of settlement. Once Brigham Young reached the Salt Lake valley, however, he changed his mind and decided that the state of Deseret should be run from Salt Lake City instead of northern California. Much of this decision had to do with the fact that the trek from Nauvoo, Ill. to Utah was so arduous, and there was little inclination to keep pressing onward to northern California through the Great Basin’s high altitude desert. But Samuel Brannan’s success in San Francisco, coupled with his earlier wayward fancies, also played a part in Brigham Young’s decision to establish the Mormon church’s capital in Utah instead of northern California. Samuel Brannan was competing with Brigham Young to be the leader of the Mormon church.

Please, read the rest. I am not quite sure if there will be a specific day assigned for my Historiat posts, but my regularly-scheduled Friday column is still a thang.

I haven’t seen anybody here explain why Trump’s protectionist tariffs are horrible (yet), so here’s Jacques on the topic. Here is the NY Times on the same topic.

Stock markets and economic growth: from Smoot-Hawley to Donald Trump

In a recent article for the Freeman, Steve Horwitz (who has the great misfortune of being my co-author) argued that stock markets tell us very little about trends in economic growth. Stock markets tell us a lot about profits, but profits of firms on the stock market may be higher because of cronyism. Basically, that is Steve’s argument. He applies this argument in order to respond to those who say that a soaring stock market is the proof that Donald Trump is “good” for the economy.

I know Steve’s article was published roughly a month ago, so I am a little late. But I tend to believe it is never too late to talk about economic history. And basically, its worth pointing out that there are economic history examples to show Steve’s point. In fact, its the best example: Smoot-Hawley.

Bernard Beaudreau from Laval University has advanced, for some years, an underconsumptionist view of the Great Depression (I consider it a “dead theory”). While I am highly unconvinced by this theory (in both its original and current “post-keynesian” reformulation), Beaudreau tries hard to resurrect the theory (see here and here) and merits to be discussed. In the process, Beaudreau attempted to reestimated the effects of of Smoot-Hawley on the stock market with an events study. Unconvinced about the rest of his research, this is a clear instance of sorting the wheat from the chaff. In this case, the wheat is his work (see here for his article in Essays in Economic and Business History) on Smoot-Hawley.

Basically, Beaudreau found that good news regarding the probability of the adoption of the tariff bill actually pushed the stock market to appreciate. Thus, Smoot-Hawley -which had so many negative macroeconomic ramifications* – actually boosted the stock market. Firms that gained from the rising tariffs actually saw greater profits for themselves and thus the firms on the stock market would have been excited at the prospect of restricting their competitors. If that is true, could it be that Donald Trump is the modern equivalent (for the stock market) of Smoot-Hawley.

*NDLR: I believe that Allan Meltzer was right in saying that the Smoot-Hawley might have had monetary ramifications that contributed to the money supply collapse. It was a real shock that precipitated the collapse of weak banks which then caused a nominal shock and then the sh*t hit the proverbial fan.

From the Comments: Pushback in favor of Brexit

Dr Stocker‘s recent post arguing against Brexit elicited the following response from Chhay Lin in the ‘comments’ threads, and I think it’s worth highlighting in a post of its own:

Very well explained, Barry Stocker. Although it can be good for Britain to leave the EU, it entirely depends on how they go on from there. I am worried that Britain will move unto the path of less free trade which would be an erosion of the 4 freedoms – free movement of goods, capital, services, and people. On the other hand, it seems to me that the EU was steadily moving toward greater centralization and harmonization of regulations that would decrease the competition between its member states and thereby becoming quite harmful. I think that the EU should have never had greater ambitions than the 4 freedoms with a European Court of Justice that would protect these freedoms. Now they can impose EU-wide tariffs and quotas against products from countries outside of the EU or they can impose EU-wide sanctions. Some harmful examples of the EU: the quotas on cheap Chinese solar panels and EU-wide sanctions against Russia. A wise independent Britain would have free trade agreements with countries within and outside the EU, but I’m afraid that too large a portion of the Leave supporters are hostile to immigration and open markets.

Chhay Lin has written more about Brexit, in Dutch, on his homepage and I do recommend you check it out.

Brexit, free trade, and the EU

I posted this on Facebook twenty hours before the results were known:

The United Kingdom will not leave the EU. If it does, there will be concrete talks of a trade agreement between the UK and the Union within a week. Free trade is the best part of the EU anyway. It may be the only worthwhile part. At least, it undeniably works. The EU has a free trade agreement with Norway and with Switzerland already. I don’t see it denying the UK, not even out of collective pique.

My guess (guess) is that the UK will have done the EU a favor by pointing out that much of the European Union’s bureaucratic, abstract, nebulous project is simply overambitious. The UK taught the world democracy and soccer (football). It can teach its European neighbors pragmatism.

Obviously, I called the referendum wrong. The mistake I made was to guess that people who were going to vote for staying were more likely to lie to pollsters than partisans of Leave. That would have given an underestimate for the “stays.” I should not have called it. I am not inside British culture enough to make this kind of guess. I shouldn’t have. I won’t again.

I am perplexed by some of the comments I heard all day in the US media. Perhaps as a result of a bit of psychological projection, American commentators state that anti-immigration sentiment played the main part in the victory of the “leave.” This may be the case; I don’t know enough to pronounce but I need to make a technical point that the pundits don’t seem to be completely aware of. Leaving the European Union can only lessen the flow of European immigrants into the UK: Polish (plumbers), Romanian carpenters, and tens of thousands of French citizens, at least. Since about one million Brits leave abroad and almost all in the EU, I see an exchange agreement in the making. Don’t you?

Leaving the EU will do nothing or nearly nothing to reduce the intake of immigrants of color and of Muslims. Those landed in the UK and continue to land there as a consequence of past colonial relationships. I say this because I suspect (I suspect; I don’t know) that Brits are more exercised about large numbers of dark-skinned Muslims than they are about fewer dishwater-white Catholic Poles. Call me a cynic!

Second technical point. Many of the American commentators I heard today, including those predicting Armageddon as a result of the British referendum, seem to have vague ideas about what the European Union actually is. It’s actually fairly complicated but I don’t excuse them. If they want to comment, they should do their homework. Anyway, the EU is first and foremost a free trade area and and free investment area. In this capacity, it works very well. I mean by this that any step backward would impoverish all Europeans to some extent.

I don’t see how British industry and British commerce can really face the possibility of meeting with tariff walls and other discriminatory treatments in a market of 27 countries until now wide open to them.

The Brits have two years to finalize their exit. I think (but I have been wrong before; see above) that they will say to the EU: We are leaving except that… we want to be included in your free trade and free investment area, like Iceland and like Norway. As I mentioned above, I also think they will want some mutual arrangement about citizens of the EU living in the UK and citizens of the UK living in the EU. I think there are going to be many rounds of negotiations around the theme: “We are leaving but…” It’s also possible that the most fervent Leave-ers will ultimately be satisfied with having made a rude gesture toward Brussels, the capital of the European Union. I am repeating (in fear this time) my prediction that the British referendum will cause the EU to reform itself. In fact, think it already has.

See also “Protectionism; Free Trade….” It was written for the intelligent uninformed.

Free Trade and Labor Market Displacement

A few days ago, I saw Noah Smith’s piece on free trade and why opening up with China may have yielded some undesirable results. In essence, his argument is that labor market adjustments have been slow. It created a small storm in the economics blogosphere. I wanted to reply earlier. I did not and I regret that. However, better late than never. So here are my three key reactions to the piece written by Smith (see his blog here).

  1. Slow labor market adjustments are not a cause of free trade: If anything, they are the results of a series of government intervention. Countries like Denmark, which may have large governments combined with fewer regulations on businesses, are very well able to adapt to free trade. The ability to start businesses is basically the ability to properly channel inputs towards more valued output. If you prevent an entrepreneur from doing just that while you open your borders to more efficient producers, it is quite obvious that free trade could be “less” beneficial. This point can be well seen in the role of states with “right to work (RTW) laws”. Although there is a debate as to whether or not RTW laws increase wages (James Sherk at Heritage says yes, the good people at the Employment Policy Institute say no and I say that both don’t get it, we should care about regionally adjusted real wage growth), it does seem that it helps industrial activity while boosting employment levels (see here too).  Unions would hinder adjustments to changes in trade patterns. In fact, its worth pointing out that of the 11 states that had RTW laws before 1948 – in only three of those states did the income share of the top 10% exceed that on the whole United States (see the data here) in 2013. While the entire country has seen an increase in income inequality, the RTW states have seen the share of all income of the top 10% increase by only 26% (1947 to 2013) compared to 42% nationwide. This suggests that RTW laws are probably helping workers adjusts to changes caused by free trade (otherwise, there would be a state-level increase in inequality). This finding seems to conform to large section of the literature on the links between RTW and inequality (here and here).  I am sure that if the Autor, Dorn and Hanson study (on which Noah Smith relies) was to be redone with attempts to control for right to work laws, the effect would be concentrated in non-RTW states. Thus, if the problem is labor laws, don’t blame free trade for the poor adjustments!
  2. Nobody said that free trade was “costless” to adapt to. I do economic history. I see cases of industries being protected for decades. Protectionism not only raise prices, but it changes relative prices between different inputs. It incites the adoption of an artificially profitable production method. It is profitable to do so, but it is by no means the most efficient approach. It was made profitable only by the artifice of regulation and duties. Once you eliminate that artifice by removing the barriers, you still have “time to build” problem and a need to change production methods. That takes time. However, governments are very good at making sure this takes more time than needed (see point 1)
  3. Trade agreements with China are not free trade agreements: this is the point I keep repeating (and the point that actually make Paul Krugman interesting), free trade agreements should normally fit on a napkin. If it takes 10,000 pages, it is free trade with 10,000 exceptions. Noah Smith should realize that he may be looking at a case of such “managed trade”.

That’s all folks!

Trade: Is Obama Right This Time?

I was hoping to sit this one out. I mean the multiple discords about the new Pacific trade treaty proposed by President Obama. I feel I need to lend a hand because there are good reasons to be confused. Plus, I taught international business for twenty-five years. My voice just might be useful this time. Here is my brief but adequate road map to the problem. I am deliberately staying away from nouns and initials because they do more harm than good.

Pres. Obama has an early draft of an international trade agreement with a large number of Pacific countries. Such agreements eliminate or lower trade barriers. So, first, they make it easier for economic actors from one country to buy a and sell things to economic actors from another country. That’s because all trade barriers are hidden taxes on consumers. They all raise prices above where they should be. Get rid of them, have more real income.

Second, the lowering or the elimination of trade barriers ultimately result in something almost magical: Economic actors stop doing what they are doing badly and start focusing on what they do well. Most items become less expensive and of better quality. Everyone benefits from this. I mean everyone in the world.*

International trade agreements do cause some to lose their jobs. They create many more jobs than they cause to disappear, however. But the loss is certain: After all, as soon as central American bananas are allowed into Canada, Canadian banana growers must lose their jobs, by and large. Incidentally, there have not been Canadian banana growers, as far as I know but you see what I mean: Canadians ought to concentrate on producing lumber, or refrigerators, or iron ore, almost anything but bananas.

The current trade project presented by Obama contains a $500 million clause to retrain at public expense those Americans who might lose their job as a result of the new agreement. This is nothing new. Previous trade agreements contained similar arrangements.

President Obama wants what is known as “fast track authority.” That’s the privilege to have the Senate vote a simple “Yes” or “No” on the final draft of the agreement with those many other countries. This is pretty necessary because if each government of each signing country has to go home and gather amendments and often, amendments to amendments, in the end, no agreement sees the light of day. It’s a practical thing, not a sinister ploy.

On the one hand, practically all previous presidents who signed international trade agreements had fast track authority. On the other hand there is a sturdy reason to deny Mr Obama fast track authority: He is a proven, extremely bad negotiator. On the third hand, the negotiations of such agreements are almost completely done by technical personnel who know their business. And, how likely is Mr Obama actually to get involved?

As I write, elected Democrats are all against everything involved because the unions think that every international trade agreement makes them lose ground. I think their perception is correct. Republicans are torn between their understanding of the world (which is more or less like mine) and their wish to give the president a black eye.

This is a small digest of a complex and interesting issue. I deal with it at leisure and extensively in nine installments on this blog. Each had the words “protectionism” or “protectionist” in the title. Again, those are installments; you may want to look at them in order. No test!

* Paradoxically, one of the best, clearest scholarly explanations of this magic – called comparative advantage – is by Paul Krugman. It’s from the days when he was not yet crazy. Bret Stephens in the WSJ 6/16/15 jogged my memory on this strange fact. It’s worth looking up Krugman, for once.