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. China looks like the big winner in new trade negotiations Scott Sumner, MoneyIllusion
  2. Where does the Asian obsession with white skin come from? Ana Salvá, the Diplomat
  3. On Steven Pinker and The Blank Slate Arnold Kling, askblog
  4. In American higher education, hierarchy begets hierarchy Ethan Ris, JHIBlog

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.

Bad News Bears: Ukraine, Russia and the West

No, I’m not talking about the Bruins choking in Pasadena earlier tonight. I’m talking about the Ukrainian government’s decision to balk at the latest Western offer for integration.

Well, at least I think it’s bad. The New York Times has all the relevant information on what happened between Kiev and the West. According to the Grey Lady, Kiev either balked at an IMF offer or had its arm twisted by Moscow. Both scenarios seem plausible, but I’d like to dig a bit deeper.

Ukrainians have been hit hard by this global recession, and last year they elected a government that is much more pro-Russia than it is pro-West. Unfortunately, I think the economy is only a small fragment of what ails the people in the post-colonial, post-socialist state of Ukraine (some people have started labeling “post-” states as “developmentalist” states; I like it but I’m not sure readers would). First of all, here are some relevant maps:

Ethno-linguistic map of Ukraine

2012 presidential election results in Ukraine

Map of per capita income in Ukraine

Notice a pattern? Yeah, me too. Basically, Ukraine is split along ethnic lines between Russians and Ukrainians and instead of recognizing this fact and focusing on property rights reforms first and foremost, the Ukrainians have decided to try their hand at democracy (on the inability of democracy to solve political problems in multi-ethnic states, see Ludwig von Mises’s Nation, State and Economy 72-84).

The conflation of democracy with property rights as freedom has been the single biggest mistake of all societies in the post-war world. From Ghana to Indonesia to Iraq to India to Ukraine, elites have focused their efforts on implementing democracy rather than property rights, and the inevitable, unfortunate results (“dictatorship and poverty”) continue to frustrate me. I’m sure the people who actually have to live under these conditions don’t like it much either.

Wouldn’t it be better if the current Ukrainian state  split into (at least) two independent states? I ask because it seems to me that having (at least) two different states will cut the number of losers in half (losers of elections in “post-” societies truly are losers; it’s nothing like having to “live under” Obama or Bush) and make the new, smaller governments more accountable and more accessible to the people.

The other aspect of Kiev’s rejection of Western integration that troubles my mind is that of the attitudes towards liberalization of Ukrainian society that many people obviously harbor.

For example:

  • Ukrainian-speaking Ukrainians overwhelmingly support more integration with the West. There are demonstrations (and I use this term loosely; riots may soon start) against the government’s decision to balk at the West going on right now.
  • And Russian-speaking Ukrainians (being Ukrainian can be either an ethnic thing or political thing [“citizenship”], which just goes to show you how stupid anything other than individualism is, but I digress) overwhelmingly support Moscow.

Yet it seems to me that both sides take the “pro-” and “anti-” stances that they do more out of spite for the other side than out of an understanding of what liberalization actually entails (I base this hunch on my watching of the recent elections here in the US). It’s also not clear to me that a pro-Western tilt would actually lead to more liberalization.

It may be easy for the Ukrainian-speaking Ukrainians to integrate and work with the West, but I think the Russian-speaking Ukrainians have good cause to look upon pro-Western deals with suspicion. After all, the Russian speakers are the richest faction in Ukraine, and freer trade with the West  would seriously undermine their political power (why do you think Russian-speaking Ukrainians have all the good jobs?).

Perhaps Evgeniy can enlighten us on the Russian perspective.

If Evgeniy doesn’t have the time you could just read Daniel Larison’s thoughts on the matter (Dr Larison is a historian with a PhD from the University of Chicago who specializes in the Slavic world).