Will Democrats Be Neanderthals on Trade?

I was wondering this morning if I could turn public opinion against penicillin.   After all, hundreds of people die every year from taking penicillin.  If I ran a newspaper, every day I could feature another heart-rending story about a small child or a single mother with four kids dieing from a penicillin allergy.  Sure, some heartless fools who don't understand these poor people's suffering will say that penicillin is a net benefit.  But that will be easy to counter - I'd ask them to show me who was saved.  Sure, lots of people take it, but how can you prove they would have been worse off without it?  How can you prove how many people would have died without it?  I would have an easy time, because the victims of penicillin are specific and very visible, and the beneficiaries are dispersed.

I thought of this analogy while I was reading Jon Talton's column on the front page of the Arizona Republic business section celebrating the Democratic victory in Congress because we may finally be able to get rid of this awful free trade stuff.  As an aside, Talton has always been an interesting choice as the primary business columnist int he Republic, given that he doesn't really feel bound by the teachings of economics and he really does not like business.   His socialist-progressive formulations may be appropriate somewhere in the paper, but seem an odd choice for lead business columnist, sort of like finding a fundamentalist evolution denier, who still accepts Archbishop Usher's age of the earth, as lead science columnist.

I would fisk Talton's column in depth, but he doesn't really say anything except throwing together a hodge-podge of progressive rants against globalization (CEO pay, China, decimation of manufacturing -- he's got everything in there).   Like most progressives, he extrapolates flatness (not even declines, but flatness!) from 2001-2004 and declares that the world economy has changed and he has seen a major macro-economic trend (no mention of how the business cycle and recession we had in the same period might have affected things).

I will just take on one piece, where he says:

Americans were assured that new trade accords and China's membership in
the World Trade Organization would mean better living standards for
American workers. That's because China and other countries supposedly
would buy American exports.

Economists, what grade does Mr. Talton get?  F!  Because he demonstrates that he does not understand the economic argument for trade.  Because the argument does not actually require that foreign countries buy our exports for us to be better off with trade.   Comparative advantage says that even imports alone help our economy, allowing us to purchase inputs more inexpensively and refocus our domestic labor on tasks which we do comparatively better. 

The second fallacy with his statement is that export numbers grossly understate the amount of goods and services that foreigners buy from us.  Exports are only the goods they buy from us and take back to their country.  But foreigners buy many goods from us and use them in the US (say to build a factory or as an investment or financial instrument) and these foreign purchases of American goods don't show up as exports.  As long as the US is the safest and most stable country in the world, we will probably always run a trade deficit, as foreigners will continue to want to keep the goods and financial instruments they buy from us in the US where these assets are safer.  I wrote a lot more about this topic, and the recycling of dollars from China, here.

Finally, implicit in this anti-globalization view of trade is an assumption that the economy is zero-sum -- ie, there is sort of a global fixed pool of jobs, and if China gains steel market share and employment, the US net loses employment.  I have taken on this zero-sum mentality before, but it is particularly wrong-headed in this case.  Historically, the argument makes no sense.  For example, the automation of the farm sector wiped out 80 or 90% of the farm jobs in the US over the last century.  By the zero-summers logic, we should be impoverished.  Instead, these people were redeployed to manufacturing and service jobs that create far more wealth than the old 19th century farm employment.  But while people can sort of accept this historically, they can never accept this in real-time.  But the fact is that when we lose, say, a textile job to foreign competition, we not only gain because everyone pays less for textiles and thus has more money to spend on other things, but that worker gets redeployed over time to higher-value functions.  Look at the old textile belt in North Carolina - what's there now?  Electronics and Bio-tech.

The problem with trade is very like the one in the penicillin analogy -- it is all-to-easy to identify the few short term losers, who lost their job in American industries that can't compete with foreigners, but all-too-hard to find the huge dispersed benefits from lower prices and the continuing creative destruction that comes with strong competition.  This doesn't mean that individuals lives aren't disrupted, but it does mean that it's short-sighted to the point of being a Neanderthal to use these disruptions as an excuse to throttle free trade, just as it would be short-sided to ban penicillin because some people have allergic reactions.

It will be interesting to see if the Lou Dobbs populists rule the day on this issue.  If so, they it will be ironic that it is the Democrats, not the Republicans, who take the first major steps to dismantling the work of Bill Clinton  (because it sure as heck hasn't been GWB supporting free trade).

My prior posts on why you should stop worrying and learn to love the trade deficit are here and here and here and here.  I also looked at trade with China from the other side, and found it is China that should be mad about their government's trade policies and currency manipulation, not us:

It is important to note that each and every one of these
government interventions subsidizes US citizens and consumers at the
expense of Chinese citizens and consumers.  A low yuan makes Chinese
products cheap for Americans but makes imports relatively dear for
Chinese.  So-called "dumping" represents an even clearer direct subsidy
of American consumers over their Chinese counterparts.  And limiting
foreign exchange re-investments to low-yield government bonds has acted
as a direct subsidy of American taxpayers and the American government,
saddling China with extraordinarily low yields on our nearly $1
trillion in foreign exchange.   Every single step China takes to
promote exports is in effect a subsidy of American consumers by Chinese
citizens.

This policy of raping the domestic market in pursuit of exports
and trade surpluses was one that Japan followed in the seventies and
eighties.  It sacrificed its own consumers, protecting local producers
in the domestic market while subsidizing exports.  Japanese consumers
had to live with some of the highest prices in the world, so that
Americans could get some of the lowest prices on those same goods.
Japanese customers endured limited product choices and a horrendously
outdated retail sector that were all protected by government
regulation, all in the name of creating trade surpluses.  And surpluses
they did create.  Japan achieved massive trade surpluses with the US,
and built the largest accumulation of foreign exchange (mostly dollars)
in the world.  And what did this get them?  Fifteen years of recession,
from which the country is only now emerging, while the US economy
happily continued to grow and create wealth in astonishing proportions,
seemingly unaware that is was supposed to have been "defeated" by Japan.

  • Anonymous

    Excellent post.

  • Phil

    What is the URL to the Panda blog? I would like to read the article summarized in the post "Disturbing Trade News from China", but I cannot find the blog website.

  • http://porkopolis.blogspot.com Porkopolis

    Nice way of laying blows to the body before delivery the 'head shot'.

  • Bummer

    How could someone be smart enough to write such an excellent article and yet not know how to work a spell checker, "dieing" indeed.