Posts tagged ‘free trade’

Trade and World Peace -- Economic Nationalism Leads to War

President Trump is a strong economic nationalist.  He believes that this country should source everything domestically - its products and its labor - and any labor or resources that are coming from other countries should either be stopped by a wall or heavily taxed.

Economists and I will spend a lot of time over the next four years trying to explain to our economically-ignorant administration why global trade and the global division of labor increase domestic incomes and production rather than decreasing them.  But I do not want to lose sight of another important benefit of open trade in the global economy - peace.

We often miss the fact because our news is dominated by stories of violence and terror, but we live in times of unprecedented peace around the world.  It is no coincidence that this is occurring at the same time that global trade is at a historic peak.  People and governments can obtain just about anything they want, inexpensively, through voluntary trade.  This has seldom been the case through history -- and when people could not get what they wanted through free trade, they tried to take it by force.

Think about the corollary of Trump's economic nationalism, particularly if everyone followed this same approach.  If one skews all the rules and taxes and prohibitions so everything must be sourced domestically, then if a country does not have some particular resource or skill domestically, it is out of luck.  No domestic rare earth metals?  Sorry.

But governments and powerful people seldom calmly accept that something they critically need is not available.  They will be tempted to go and take it.  The worst, most violent empire building of the last 100-150 years has occurred when countries have pursued economic nationalism.  Think of the colonialism of the late 19th century.  Today we happily trade with South Africa and other countries for valuable resources, but in that time of economic nationalism, if a country wanted access to these resources, it felt it had to control the land and the people.  Hitler in the 1930's wanted to make Germany self-sufficient in agricultural goods and certain other resources, and the only way to do that was to go and grab other people's land and resources.

The best example of all of this phenomenon is, I think, Japan in the 1930's.  Japan felt that it was resource poor and under Trump's theory of economic nationalism, it felt it had to control oil and other resources it did not have domestically.  So it plotted to go take it.  When the US instituted a trade embargo in these very goods to punish Japan's aggressiveness in China, it just accelerated Japan's thinking in this area, convincing it for good it had to control these resources, and it was soon invading the oil-rich islands of what is now Indonesia.  This example is all the more telling because Japan actually found true prosperity after the war when it traded peacefully for these resources.  Unfortunately, it adopted economic nationalism, via MITI, of another form and helped manage themselves into a 20-year recession, but that is another trade-related story for another day.

Postscript:  I have more to say on this when I get my thoughts better organized.  Right now I am hurrying to a plane, for Regina, Canada, where I am speaking on global warming tomorrow.  There is a related issue of what happens when strong protectionism on our part pushes China over into the crash they have been putting off for years -- suddenly a crash largely of their making becomes the fault of the US, with implications for a formation of a new cold war, but that again is another topic for another day.

UK: The Kids Are All Right Post-Brexit

There has been a lot written about "chaos" in UK government and financial markets since the Brexit vote, so much so there are supposedly folks who voted for Brexit who want a do-over.

A few thoughts:

  • Short term changes in financial asset prices, like bank stock prices or currency futures, are largely irrelevant in the long-term.  The recent supposed "big drop" in US equities markets, for example, took the market all the way back to where it was in... March, barely 3 months ago.  You will see buying in these assets in the coming days and the drop of the last few days will be largely forgotten soon.   Financial markets don't react well to being surprised, but they will get over it.
  • I don't see how the UK and the pound are necessarily weaker post-Brexit.  The US is fine.  The Swiss are fine.  Heck, the Swiss have to constantly fight to keep their currency lower.
  • Unlike other EU nations, the majority of UK trade is with non-UK nations.  While trade with the EU will likely be on worse terms in the future (though the Swiss and Norwegians have pretty good deals), UK will be unshackled from the EU bureaucracy in negotiating new deals with the rest of the world.  If the US President had any vision whatsoever, he would already have offered the UK a free trade deal, rather than being petty and saying the UK goes to the back of the line for exiting a transnational body the US would never join itself.
  • Much of the "chaos" in British government can be traced 100% to the anti-Brexit folks.  The Anti-Brexit folks very explicitly refused to craft any Brexit contingency plans, using threats of post-Brexit chaos to try to up the pressure against the Brexit vote.  President Obama did the exact same thing with Obamacare, refusing to create contingency plans if the SCOTUS overturned key parts of the ACA, hoping to ratchet up pressure against that outcome.  Had their been at least the outlines of a plan, they would be checking down it right now.  Things I would do as PM on the trade front:  1.  Demand the Swiss deal from the EU for Britain.  2.  Approach major trading partners with offers of free trade deals.  A British commonwealth free trade zone is a great idea.

Was Brexit About Racism or Tea Kettles?

Everyone on the Left is absolutely convinced that the Brexit vote was all about racism.  In part, this is because this is the only way the Progressives know how to argue, the only approach to logic they are taught in college for political argumentation.

Yes, as an immigration supporter, I am not thrilled with the immigration skepticism that dominates a lot of western politics.  I struggle to cry "racism" though, as I confess that even I would be given pause at immigration of millions of folks from Muslim countries who hold a lot of extremely anti-liberal beliefs.

Anyway, I would likely have voted for Brexit had I been in Britain.  I think the EU is a bad idea for Britain on numerous fronts completely unrelated to immigration.  The EU creates a near-dictatorship of unelected bureaucrats who seem to want to push the envelope on petty regulation.  And even if this regulation were just "harmonizing" between countries, Britain would still lose out because it tends to be freer and more open to markets and commerce than many other European countries.

By supporting Brexit, I suppose I would have been called a racist, but it would really have been about this:

The EU is poised to ban high-powered appliances such as kettles, toasters, hair-dryers within months of Britain’s referendum vote, despite senior officials admitting the plan has brought them “ridicule”.

The European Commission plans to unveil long-delayed ‘ecodesign’ restrictions on small household appliances in the autumn. They are expected to ban the most energy-inefficient devices from sale in order to cut carbon emissions.

The plans have been ready for many months, but were shelved for fear of undermining the referendum campaign if they were perceived as an assault on the British staples of tea and toast.

A sales ban on high-powered vacuum cleaners and inefficient electric ovens in 2014 sparked a public outcry in Britain.

EU officials have been instructed to immediately warn their senior managers of any issues in their portfolios that relate to the UK and could boost the Leave campaign were they to become public....

Internet routers, hand-dryers, mobile phones and patio jet-washers are also being examined by commission experts as candidates for new ecodesign rules.

As a free trade supporter, the downside would be the loss of a free trade zone with the rest of Europe, but I am not sure it can be called a "free trade zone" if they are banning toasters.  Britain will negotiate new tariff rates with the EU, just as Switzerland and Norway (much smaller and less important trading partners) have done.

The real crime from a US perspective is the actions of our President.  Mr. Obama has told the British that by voting for Brexit, they go to "the back of the line" for trade negotiations with the US.  This is, amongst a lot of stupid things politicians say, one of the stupidest I have ever heard.  My response as president would have been to move Britain to the front of the line, offering them a free trade treaty with the US the day after the Brexit vote.  Like most politicians, unfortunately, President Obama does not view trade as a vehicle for the enrichment of individuals but as a cudgel to enforce his whims in the foreign policy arena.  Why on Earth has President Obama threatened to undermine America's strong interest in trading with the UK merely to punish the UK for not staying in the EU, a transnational body this country would certainly never join?

Yawning Through the Outrage

There are a lot of things out there that generate tons of outrage that do about zero to work me up.  A good example is the recent kerfuffle over a school district assigning kids a debating assignment to argue both sides of the question "Was there actually a Holocaust?"

Certainly this was a fairly boneheaded topic to choose for such an assignment out of the universe of potential topics.   But I will say that this assignment is the type of thing that should be done a LOT more in schools, both in primary schools and in higher education.  Too often we let students make the case for a particular side of an argument without their even adequately understanding the arguments for the other side.  In some sense this brings us back to the topic of Caplan's intellectual Turing test.

I did cross-x debate all the way from 6th grade to 12th.  There is a lot to be said for the skill of defending one side of a proposition, and then an hour later defending the other (that is, if cross-x debate had not degenerated into a contest simply to see who can talk faster).

I remember a few months ago when a student-producer called me for a radio show that is produced at the Annenberg School at UCLA USC.   She was obviously smart and the nature of her job producing a political talk show demanded she be moderately well-informed.  She had called me as a climate skeptic for balance in a climate story (kudos there, by the way, since that seldom happens any more).  Talking to her, it was clear that she was pretty involved in the climate topic but had never heard the skeptic's argument from an actual skeptic.  Everything she knew about skeptics and their positions she knew from people on the other side of the debate.  The equivalent here are people who only understand the logic behind Democrat positions insofar as they have been explained by Rush Limbaugh -- which happens a lot.   We have created a whole political discourse based on straw men, where the majority of people, to the extent they understand an issue at all, only have heard one side talking about it.

I think the idea of kids debating both sides of key issues, with an emphasis on nudging them into trying to defend positions that oppose their own, is a great process.  It is what I do when I teach economics, giving cases to the class and randomly assigning roles (ie you are the guy with the broken window, he is the glazier, and she is the shoe salesman).  The problem, of course, is that we have a public discourse dominated by the outrage of the minority.  It would take just one religious student asked to defend abortion rights or one feminist asked to defend due process rights for accused rapists to freak out, and the school would probably fold and shut down the program.

Which is too bad.  Such discourse, along with Caplan's intellectual Turing test, would be centerpieces of any university I were to found.  When we debated back in the 1970's, there was never a sense that we were somehow being violated by being asked to defend positions with which we didn't believe.  It was just an excersise, a game.  In fact, it was incredibly healthy for me.  There is about no topic I can defend better than free trade because I spent half a year making protectionist arguments to win tournaments.    I got good at it, reading the judge and amping up populism and stories of the sad American steel workers in my discourse as appropriate.  Knowing the opposing arguments backwards and forwards, I am a better defender of free trade today.

Can One Be A Principled Moderate? And What the Hell Is A Moderate, Anyway?

Sorry, this is one of those posts where I am still struggling to figure an issue out, so bear with me if we wander around a bit and the ideas are a bit unfinished.

Kevin Drum and other progressives have been bending over backwards to argue that the now three year delay in implementing PPACA standards for private insurance policies is no big deal.

Really?  The PPACA is likely, for Progressives, to be the most important piece of legislation passed during this Administration.  Hell, based on the discussion when it was passed, for many it is likely the most important piece of legislation passed in the last three or four decades.  And when Republicans suggested delaying these same rules and mandates, e.g. during the government shutdown, they freaked, arguing that people should not have to go another day with their old crappy health care policies.

But now they just roll over and say, yeah, ho hum, this thing that everyone supposedly wanted is a political liability so its fine to delay it, no big deal.

If this were a signature piece of libertarian legislation (yeah, I know its hard to imagine such a thing) that was not being implemented by somebody I voted for and supported, I would be pissed.  I would be raking the President over the coals.

This difference in outlook may be why the Republican leadership hates the Tea Party.  The Tea Party gets pissed when folks they elect punt on the ideological goals they got elected to pursue.  They have no tribal loyalty, only loyalty to a set of policy goals.  The key marker in fact of many groups now disparagingly called "extremists" is that they do not blindly support "their guy" in office when "their guy" sells out on the things they want.

I have friends I like and respect -- smart and worldly people -- who are involved in a series of activities to promote political moderation.  What I have written in this post is the core of my fear about moderation -- that in real life calls for moderation are actually calls for loyalty to maintaining our current two major parties (and keeping current incumbents in office) over ideas and principles.

Which leads me to an honest question that many of you may take as insulting -- can one be a principled moderate?  I am honestly undecided on this.  But note that by moderate I do not mean "someone who is neither Republican or Democrat," because I fit that description and most would call me pretty extreme.  So "fiscally conservative and socially liberal" is not in my mind inherently "moderate".  That is a non-moderate ideological position that is sometimes called "moderate" because it is a mix of Republican and Democrat positions.  But I would argue that anyone striving to intellectual consistency cannot be a Republican or Democrat because neither have an internally consistent ideology, and in fact their ideology tends to flip back and forth on certain issues (look at how Republican and Democrat ideology on Presidential power, for example, or drone strikes changes depending on whose guy is in the Oval Office).

Moderates in my mind are folks willing to, or even believe it is superior to, take average positions, eg. "the PPACA just went too far and we should have had a less-far-reaching compromise" or "free trade agreements go too far we need a mix of free trade and protectionism".  They value compromise and legislative action (ie passing lots of laws in a fluid and timely manner) over holding firm on particular ideological goals.  I guess the most fair way to put it by this definition is they value consensus and projecting a sense of agreement and teamwork over any individual policy goal.

Postscript:  One other potential definition of "moderate":  One could argue that in actual use by politicians and pundits, "moderate" effectively means "one who agrees with me" and "extremist" means "people who disagree with me."  The real solution here may be to accept that "moderate" is an inherently broken word and stop using it.

Update:  There are areas where I suppose I am a moderate.  For example, I think that making definitive statements about what "science" has been "settled" in the realm of complex systems is insane.  This is particularly true in economics.  Many findings in economics, if one were honest, are equivocal or boil down to "it depends."  The Left is insanely disingenuous to claim that the science is settled that minimum wage increases don't affect employment.  But it is equally wrong to say that minimum wage increases always have a large effect on unemployment.  For one thing, almost no one (percentage wise) actually makes the minimum wage so we are talking about changes in the first place that affect only a couple of percent of the workforce, and may be mitigated (or exacerbated) by other simultaneous trends in the economy.  So of course their impact may not be large (in the same way that regulations on left-handed Eskimo Fortran programmers might not have much of an impact on the larger economy).

We have gotten into this bizarre situation that the science is suddenly always settled about everything, where it would be safer to argue that given the complexity of the systems involved the science can't be settled.  I liked this bit I read the other day in the Federalist

One of the more amusing threads that runs through the conversation among the online left is the viewpoint that the science is settled in every arena, and settled in their favor. The data backs the leftward view, and if it doesn’t, there must be a flaw in the data, or in the scientist, or secret Koch-backed dollars behind the research. This bit of hubris leads to saying obviously untrue things – like “every economist from the left and right” says the stimulus has created or saved at least two million jobs. Or that there’s “no solid evidence” that boosting the minimum wage harms jobs. Of course the media knows that these aren’t true, but they largely give these politicians a pass, because dealing in data and with academic research is their turf.

Folks on the Left who want to blame the Tea Party for the destruction of civil discourse need to look at themselves as well, declaring the science settled on everything and then painting their opponents as anti-science for disagreeing.  As I have pointed out before, this sort of epistemology is not science but religion, the appeal to authority backed by charges of heresy for those who disagree.

If I were going to make a political plea, it would not be for moderation but for better more respectful practices in the public discourse.

My Abusive Spouse Just Offered Me Flowers

I got a call today from the National Conference of Mayors.  They wanted to send somebody by to talk to me about just how committed these great folks were to small business success.

The call began poorly, as their representative tried to use a tactic I mostly only get from penny-stock boiler rooms - pretending that she and I had talked some time in the past and that I had committed to meeting with her.  I suppose this tactic might have worked with a frazzled exec, but it is one sure fire way to immediately get me pissed off in a phone call.  After telling her that she and I had no such call and that I did not appreciate the cheap telemarketing tactic, I said that I had absolutely no desire to help the mayors put some fake pro-business patina on their activities that are generally hostile to commerce and free markets.   I told them that I did not want a subsidy, handout, any special access, training programs, etc., I just wanted to be left alone.  I was not going to participate in some program where I get my picture taken shaking some politicians right hand while he is whacking me with a stick with his left.  The representative, to her credit before she hung up, admitted she gets this reaction a lot.

One only has to look at their "plan" (pdf)  to see what their vision entails for "helping" small business.  Here is a summary of the planks:

  1. More Federal spending on local infrastructure
  2. More Federal unemployment spending and lower Federal payroll taxes
  3. Create new Federal subsidy and loan programs and job training programs for businesses in favored, sexy-sounding industries (e.g. "manufacturing" or "high-tech").  I presume someone starting a restaurant or hair salon or without any political clout need not apply.  To their credit they also advocate free trade agreements and visa reform, though they then lose that credit by also advocating failed ideas like "trade adjustment assistance" and "metropolitan export plans"
  4. More Federal spending in urban areas (police, job training, affordable housing, community development).

As will not be surprising, absolutely nothing in the Mayor's plans dealt with actual issues under their control, such as business, occupational, and occupancy licencing reform.   Also not surprisingly, the mayors call for hundreds of billions of dollars in new Federal spending narrowly aimed at urban areas without once explaining why these can't or shouldn't be funded locally.  If Los Angeles wants more money for its police, or trains, or schools, and if that spending has real demonstrable value to the city, then why can't they sell the new taxes and spending to their own citizens?  Why do they need the money from the Feds (ie from the rest of us)?

But you can just see the corporate state a work.  A few companies will cynically climb on board, knowing this is all BS, but also knowing that they will get a nice subsidy or sweetheart project in exchange for letting the majors check their "pro-business" box  (pro-business used here as distinct from pro-market).


How Imports Raise Incomes

Opponents of free trade will often say publicly that they are all for free trade but it must be "fair," which they generally would define as balanced between imports and exports.  This is a dodge, because they know many of our trading partners are not going to open up trade to be entirely free so they can use that inevitability as an excuse not to remove American protectionist barriers.

But trade does not need to be balanced to create wealth, and in fact it is not just exports that provide a boost to real incomes.  Daniel Ikenson at Cato has these two charts comparing the CPI for items that face competition from imports and those that don't:

See his article for more discussion.

This is also related to something I read about a while back, that we may be underestimating income gains among the lower income quartiles in this country because we adjust to real wages based on an average inflation rate.  The argument was that the inflation rate for the poor has been lower  (the Wal-Mart effect) than the inflation rate for the rich (prices at the Four Seasons keep going up).  One estimate put the difference in inflation rates as high as 6 percentage points, in part because the poor proportionally consume a lot of goods that are imported while the rich consume proportionally a lot of services that are produced domestically with high cost labor.

I'm Pretty Sure We Are Not Going to Get Any Deficit Reduction

Via Reason, from the man Obama personally appointed to lead the Deficit Commision

"America needs a 21st century economic plan because we now know the market-worshipping, privatizing, de-regulating, dehumanizing American financial plan has failed and should never be revived, worshipping the market again," Stern said in remarks at the annual conference of the liberal activist group Campaign for America's Future in Washington on Monday."It has failed America and everyone that works here," Stern said.

Stern said the changes that Obama and Democrats in Congress have made are nothing short of a "revolution" that will move the American economy from national to international.

"This not our father's or our grandfather's economy," Stern said. "We're as far today from the New Deal as the New Deal was from the Civil War. And we cannot drive into the future looking in the rear view mirror."

He said the progressive movement must build on the past and look to the future as the economy is transformed "from a manufacturing base, to a service, finance, knowledge, green, Internet, and bio-science economy."

"This revolution's going to only take 30 years," Stern said. "No single generation of people have ever witnessed this much change in a single lifetime. [...] And as we've witnessed now in the absence of a simple and realistic way forward, people "“ even us "“ sometimes resist the future or try to turn back the clock to days that are now long gone."

I am not sure I have ever heard anyone sound more like a scabby beauracrat in Atlas Shrugged.  Can you believe this dweeb along with Barrack and the gang who can't shoot straight taking credit for the transformatoin of the economy?  As if these guys have anything to do with the rise of new industries and technologies, except to make their birth and growth more difficult through strangling regulation and taxes.

The last paragraph about progressives and change is an interesting one in the context of this old post of mine, where I discuss how progressives most hate free markets for their constant change and unpredictability. Here is an excerpt:

Beyond just the concept of individual decision-making, progressives are hugely uncomfortable with capitalism.  Ironically, though progressives want to posture as being "dynamic", the fact is that capitalism is in fact too dynamic for them.  Industries rise and fall, jobs are won and lost, recessions give way to booms.  Progressives want comfort and certainty.  They want to lock things down the way they are. They want to know that such and such job will be there tomorrow and next decade, and will always pay at least X amount. ...

Progressive elements in this country have always tried to freeze commerce, to lock this country's economy down in its then-current patterns.  Progressives in the late 19th century were terrified the American economy was shifting from agriculture to industry.  They wanted to stop this, to cement in place patterns where 80-90% of Americans worked on farms.  I, for one, am glad they failed, since for all of the soft glow we have in this country around our description of the family farmer, farming was and can still be a brutal, dawn to dusk endeavor that never really rewards the work people put into it.

This story of progressives trying to stop history has continued to repeat itself through the generations.  In the seventies and eighties, progressives tried to maintain the traditional dominance of heavy industry like steel and automotive, and to prevent the shift of these industries overseas in favor of more service-oriented industries.  Just like the passing of agriculture to industry a century ago inflamed progressives, so too does the current passing of heavy industry to services.

In fact, here is a sure fire test for a progressive.  If given a choice between two worlds:

  1. A capitalist society where the overall levels of wealth and technology continue to increase, though in a pattern that is dynamic, chaotic, generally unpredictable, and whose rewards are unevenly distributed, or"¦
  2. A "progressive" society where everyone is poorer, but income is generally more evenly distributed.  In this society, jobs and pay and industries change only very slowly, and people have good assurances that they will continue to have what they have today, with little downside but also with very little upside.

Progressives will choose #2.  Even if it means everyone is poorer.  Even if it cuts off any future improvements we might gain in technology or wealth or lifespan or whatever.  They want to take what we have today, divide it up more equally, and then live to eternity with just that.   Progressives want #2 today, and they wanted it just as much in 1900 (just think about if they had been successful "” as just one example, if you are over 44, you would have a 50/50 chance of being dead now).

Update: What does the line about shifting form a national to international economy mean?  It must be some kind of progressive code phrase that does not mean what it sounds like, since most progressives and this administration tend to be opposed to free trade and have a strong tendency towards protectionism.  After all, these are the same guys that sympathize with the anti-globalization rioters at various G8 conferences.

Repeating Mistakes Over, and Over, and Over...

I have come to the conclusion that politicians believe Americans all have Alzheimers.  And, given the lamentable state of the media, they may be right.

Example 1

We can argue about stimulus and the Depression all we want, but I had, until the last few days, thought the absolute one thing we all 100% agreed on is that the Smoot-Hawley tariffs and the trade war they sparked were one of the leading causes of the worldwide economic death spiral in the late 20's and 30's.  Or not:

The stimulus bill passed by the House Wednesday contains a controversial provision that would mostly bar foreign steel and iron from the infrastructure projects laid out by the $819 billion economic package. A Senate version, yet to be acted upon, goes further, requiring, with few exceptions, that all stimulus-funded projects use only American-made equipment and goods.

Here is a nice story of another "Buy American" steel fiasco.

Example 2

Last year -- I am talking about just 3 months ago -- I thought it was fairly clear that the immediate cause for the financial meltdown for which the TARP bailout was being crafted was the systematic relaxation of underwriting standards that led to large numbers of loans (and their lenders, securitizers, etc) going belly-up.  Folks could argue whether this was because of deregulation or greed or government distortions and interventions, but I thought there was not doubt that poor credit judgment and excessively free credit were at the heart of the problem.  Or not:

House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank said President Barack Obama will require banks receiving government aid to lend more to businesses and consumers, saying the Bush administration "made a mistake" by not setting stricter rules for institutions getting funds from the $700 billion financial-rescue package.

"I think you're going to see the Obama administration, having learned from that, push for much more lending," Frank said today on ABC's This Week. "There are going to be some real rules in there."

So Frank and Obama are upset that the bailout of banks that were overgenerous on credit did not include provisions to force them to be more generous with credit?

Final thought: At the end of the day, businesses and individuals have a felt need to deleverage.  That is going to cause a recession, end of story.  The Congress's and Obama Administration's obsession with short-circuiting this sensible desire to reduce debt is not only counter-productive, it is offensive.  Banks are sensibly trying to strengthen their balance sheets, but the government wants to stop them.  Individuals are trying to cut back on spending, reduce debt, and save more.  Again, the government wants to stop them, by going to debt and spending for them if consumers won't do it on their own.

Small Business Credit

Reader Tim Allen writes:

I wanted you to consider that in a recent previous post you had
mentioned that people are filling up their gas tanks before they
previously would, and they are filling up all their other cars, and
spare gas tanks because of the fear of not having enough necessary gas.
This is a market reality and is completely rational considering the way
the game's rules are set up (no gouging, as per the govt).

I would like you to consider that I, as a small business man,
maxed out all my lines of credit and deposited the money in my bank
accounts. If fear is driving this market, and if it causes banks to dry
up credit, I want to be the first to be tanked up on money,
so-to-speak. The negotiated rate of interest is not high enough for me
to be disinclined to borrow, at least until this credit storm blows
over. I know I am not the first person to have this idea and I won't be
the last, and we (together) will create the situation that you think
can't happen. The tighter credit gets, the more people will borrow, if
just to have the cash on hand, to not need to borrow in the future.

I have done the same thing.  I am maxed on my line of credit, because the interest rate is low and I would rather have the money in hand and pay the interest rather than find out later my line is somehow revoked or frozen.  The money is not needed for near term expenses, but I want to have resources in hand if the recession creates a business opportunity that requires funding.  Does this worsen the near term crunch, the same way panic buying of gas worsens local gas shortages?  Probably.  And again, price is the key.  Like with gas, I would rather rationing by price rather than shortage.  In other words, I would rather my line of credit go up to a 15% interest rate, if that what it takes to put things in balance, than to be revoked entirely so a few businesses can still have 6% money.

I have never said that letting banks fail was without cost.  I just think the cost is going to be there, one way or another, and the cheapest and quickest solution is to let the whole mess sort itself out.

By the way, the notion that small business lives on short term credit is a hoot.  ExxonMobil may have access to the commercial paper market on short notice, but borrowing for our company, even in good times, generally takes a panzer division and a long war of attrition.  Even layup deals have taken me 6 months or more to finance.  Stephen Fairfax, via Mises, makes this point:

None of the small business owners I know depend upon easy credit to
make their payroll. When things get to the point where you need to
borrow to pay your employees, the end is near. Most small businesses
fail in the first few years, in large part because business is not
easy, it is hard. Not everyone is good at it. But it is an essential
part of free trade and the market economy that businesses fail, so that
new, better ones can arise in their place.

Few small businesses depend upon easy credit. Banks are generally
reluctant to lend to small businesses, with good reason. Most small
businesses are funded by owner's savings. Sometimes start-up money
comes from loans by parents or friends. While I can understand that
small businesses involved in building houses might profit from easy
credit, the market is sending unmistakable signals that there are too
many houses that are too expensive. Flooding the system with still more
easy credit can't be the cure, it is the problem.


Sometimes I snap at someone for their criticism of a particular politician.  Typically, they assume I am doing so because I support that politician.  But in reality, I am using just sick of the implication that somehow other politicians would have been much better.  I absolutely agree with Don Boudreaux's comment:

Fareed Zakaria (author of a truly fine book and columnist for the
Washington Post) rightly argues that Sarah Palin is unqualified to be
president of the United States (and, hence, by extension, unqualified
to be V-P). Mr. Zakaria is correct that Gov. Palin's recent answer to a
question about the economy "is nonsense - a vapid emptying out of every
catchphrase about economics that came into her head." He's correct also
that she's unfit to be entrusted with the power of the modern

But Mr. Zakaria is incorrect to suppose that these traits separate
Gov. Palin from other candidates for high political office. Calls by
Senators McCain and Obama for cracking down on "speculators" are full
of classic and wrongheaded catchphrases, as is Sen. Obama's vocal
skepticism about free trade. Gov. Palin is merely less skilled in
passing off inanities and claptrap as profundities.

Canada to Join EU Free Trade Zone?

If so, great for them.  The more free trade in the world, the better:

Canadian and European officials say they plan to begin
negotiating a massive agreement to integrate Canada's economy with the
27 nations of the European Union, with preliminary talks to be launched
at an Oct. 17 summit in Montreal three days after the federal election.

Trade Minister Michael Fortier and his staff have been engaged for
the past two months with EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson and the
representatives of European governments in an effort to begin what a
senior EU official involved in the talks described in an interview
yesterday as "deep economic integration negotiations."

If successful, Canada would be the first developed nation to have
open trade relations with the EU, which has completely open borders
between its members but imposes steep trade and investment barriers on

A pact with the United States would be politically impossible in Europe, senior European Commission officials said.

I would have said that changing the last statement would be a great goal for an Obama administration that wants to make Europe love us again (did they ever?)  But he has made clear that trade does not count in his definition of good relations, and in fact has already committed to initiating trade wars against our neighbors Mexico and Canada.

What's Wrong with Economists

Justin Wolfers asks:

You probably recall Hillary Clinton turning anti-economist in the dying days of her campaign:

"Well I'll tell you what, I'm not going to put my lot in with economists."

And more recently John McCain has jumped aboard:

"I trust the people and not the so-called economists to give the American people a little relief."

Honestly, I don't get it.

There is a very simple answer here.  Economists are people who say that you can't have your cake and eat it too.  As this is the core of the politician's populist message, they don't want anyone calling their bluff.

More on not wanting to hear the science here.

Update: One other thought, vis a vis climate and economics.  Obama, I suppose, would be one to argue that the science of catastrophic global warming is "settled."  But does he really think it is more settled than, say, the science that free trade leads to general increases in prosperity?  The left is all for the sanctity of science, except in economics.

Cargo Cult Economics

The Democratic party, which so often accuses others of adopting superstition over science, are themselves pursuing Medieval economics:

The Democratic Party's protectionist make-over was completed yesterday,
when Nancy Pelosi decided to kill the Colombia free trade agreement.
Her objections had nothing to do with the evidence and everything to do
with politics, but this was an act of particular bad faith. It will
damage the economic and security interests of the U.S. while trashing
our best ally in Latin America.

The Colombia trade pact was signed in 2006 and renegotiated last year
to accommodate Democratic demands for tougher labor and environmental
standards. Even after more than 250 consultations with Democrats, and
further concessions, including promises to spend more on domestic
unemployment insurance, the deal remained stalled in Congress.
Apparently the problem was that Democrats kept getting their way.

I am sure the Columbians, who for years have been told by the US to export something other than cocaine, are scratching their heads at this rebuff when they actually try to do so.  My sense is that the Democrats are reacting to this ugly picture of US manufacturing output post NAFTA:


We can see that since the passage of NAFTA in the mid-1990s that US manufacturing output has, uh, has.... can that be right?

If I Were A Shill For Industry...

Bravo, Don Boudreaux (responding to the typical anti-libertarian attack that we are just "shills" for large corporations:

If I were a shill for industry...I would oppose free markets. Free markets, after all, are markets open
to competition that invariably keeps the profits of existing firms from
remaining excessive and, often, even bankrupts firms once thought to be
invincible industry leaders. Existing firms almost all deplore
competition in their industries. They seek government regulations that
hamstring rivals and potential rivals. And, of course, firms are
forever pleading for "protection" from foreign competition.

I just wrote a book ("Globalization") in which I make a strong and
principled case for completely free trade - not free trade sometimes,
for some firms, under some circumstances, with some qualifications, but
free trade always, for all firms, under all circumstances, and with no

Whether my book's case for unalloyed free trade is correct or not,
it is surely not the sort of book that causes the heads of many
corporate CEOs to nod in eager agreement. The typical reaction of
business people whenever they hear or read me make my case for
genuinely free trade is to say something like, "Professor Boudreaux,
you don't understand the peculiarities of my industry." And then each executive launches into a laundry list of excuses for why Congress should protect his industry from foreign rivals.

The Irrational Voter

Much has been made of late of the irrational voter, a voter who demands of politicians government economic measures that actually are not in his/her long-term best interest.   For example, a large number of voters want the government to shut down NAFTA, thinking this is in their economic best interest when in fact the evidence is pretty strong that for most of them, it is not.   

What is a gung-ho but thoughtful politician to do?  Do you listen to your experts, who council free trade, or do you pander to the masses?  Do you stick by our trading allies, or do you begin your kindler-gentler foreign policy by unilaterally abrogating treaties with our neighbors. 

Well, if you are the modern presidential candidate, you tell the masses what they want to hear, and then tell our allies you are just kidding.

Update: Cato brings us a great example from North Dakota

What Goes Around, Comes Around

For years, protectionists in this country have tried to argue that "oh, I am really for free trade, but to be fair we must impose environmental and labor standards on our trading partners."  Well, now Europe is proposing doing exactly the same to us:

The European Commission is considering proposing a
carbon dioxide tariff on imports from states failing to tackle
greenhouse gas emissions, while also considering a toughening-up of the
EU's own emission trading system....

The plan reflects pressure by French president Nicolas Sarkozy who
argued in October that Europe should "examine the option of taxing
products imported from countries that do not respect the Kyoto
Protocol," referring to the 1997 international agreement on fighting
climate change.

Mr Sarkozy urged Brussels to discuss the implications of "unfair
competition" by firms outside the EU, which do not have to abide by
strict European standards on CO2 emissions.

This letter from Don Boudreaux seems relevant:

Hillary Clinton needs a
language lesson.  She favors only trade that is found by government to
"benefit[] our workers and our economy" and that promotes "rising
standards of living across the world" ("Full Transcript: Hillary Clinton Interview," December 3; my emphasis).  She then asserts that "There is nothing
protectionist about this."

Oh please.

exists whenever, wherever, and whyever government artificially raises
its citizens' costs of buying imports.  Protectionism has forever
rested on the false notion that government officials know best how
consumers should spend their money.  And it attempts today to hide its
ugly face behind the smiling mask of allegedly noble intentions, such
as those mouthed by Sen. Clinton.

The title of his post is "The Moment Somone Must Explain that He or She Isn't a Protectionist, You Can Bank on that Person Being a Protectionist."


I Blame Mattel

From the WSJ:

By a nearly two-to-one margin, Republican voters believe free trade is
bad for the U.S. economy, a shift in opinion that mirrors Democratic
views and suggests trade deals could face high hurdles under a new

Mattel screwed up the design, specification, and their quality control responsibilities which resulted in a series of toy recalls.  Eager to save face and push the blame onto others, management eagerly spun the story as a general failing of Chinese production, rather than their own personal screw-up.

Wherein I Answer Lou Dobbs and Suspect He Is A Chinese Agent

It is always dangerous to argue with the insane, but I am actually willing to answer Lou Dobbs question:

And what I can't quite figure out amongst these geniuses who are
so-called free traders is, why do they think that about a 35 percent to
40 percent undervaluation of the Chinese yuan to the dollar is free
trade? Why do they think 25 percent duties in tariffs on American
products entering China is free trade?

I will leave aside the question of how he or anybody else knows the yuan is undervalued by this much.  I will accept his premise on the basis that we know the Chinese government spends money to keep the yuan lower than it might be otherwise.  Here is my answer:

Yes, it is not perfectly free trade.  But we let it continue because the freaking Chinese government, its consumers, and its taxpayers are subsidizing Americans.  The Chinese government is making all of its consumers pay higher prices and higher taxes just so American consumers can have lower prices.  Napoleon advised that one never should interrupt an enemy when he is making a mistake -- after all, this same strategy managed to earn Japan a decade and a half long recession.  Our correct response is not tariffs, it is to say, "gee, thanks."  This is for the Chinese people to stop, not our government. 

Why is China doing this?  Because it government is using monetary policy to help out a few favored exporters who have political influence at the expense of all of their consumers and exporters.  And Lou Dobbs wants the US to respond exactly the same way, to punish our consumers to favor some of our favored politically-connected exporters so the Chinese consumers can have lower prices.  Great plan.  Is Lou Dobbs an Chinese agent?

Interesting Data on Immigration

Via Kevin Drum, the results from a couple of studies in California:

A study released Tuesday by the Public Policy Institute
of California found that immigrants who arrived in the state between
1990 and 2004 increased wages for native workers by an average 4%.

UC Davis economist Giovanni Peri, who conducted the study, said the
benefits were shared by all native-born workers, from high school
dropouts to college graduates....

Another study released Monday by the Washington-based Immigration
Policy Center showed that immigrant men ages 18 to 39 had an
incarceration rate five times lower than native-born citizens in every
ethnic group examined. Among men of Mexican descent, for instance, 0.7%
of those foreign-born were incarcerated compared to 5.9% of
native-born, according to the study, co-written by UC Irvine
sociologist Ruben G. Rumbaut.

This is great stuff, I hope we see more of it, because it takes on two of the more common arguments against immigration.  In particular, its good to see someone taking on the crime angle, an issue I have suspected all along of being more about racial prejudices than true statistics.  This is a particularly telling table:


I previously took on the the meme that immigration causes crime here.  My case for open immigration is here and here.  My proposed plan is here.  Note that I really try to stay away from arguing immigration within the "who is going to pick the lettuce" framework.  I think free movement across borders of people, goods, and services is a basic human right, irrespective of the effect it has on wages or lettuce.

Oddly enough, Drum didn't focus much on the positive results on wages, as he has way too much invested in the whole "erosion of the middle class" thing to acknowledge that immigration might not hurt wages (since if immigration does not hurt wages, neither does free trade or outsourcing).  Mr. Drum says he wants to think about the study.  My prediction is that he will decide the crime study is a good one but the wage study was flawed.

I Do Not Think That Word Means What You Think It Means

The EU has an odd definition of the term "free trade."  Apparently, low taxes, in the EU's world, are irreconcilable with free trade.

In a move that is both remarkable and disturbing, the European
Commission plans to file a complaint - and threaten protectionist trade
barriers - because attractive Swiss tax policies are supposedly a
violation of a free-trade accord. The bureaucrats in Brussels are not
arguing that Switzerland is imposing barriers against EU products.
Instead, the Commission actually is taking the position that low taxes
are attracting businesses that might otherwise operate in high-tax
nations. The implications of this radical assertion are
breathtaking. It certainly is true that a nation with more
laissez-faire policy will attract economic activity from neighbors with
more burdensome levels of government. But if this migration of jobs and
investment is a "distortion" or trade, then the only "solution" is
complete and total harmonization of all taxes (and regulations,
spending, etc). If the Euro-crats succeed with this argument at the
European level, it will be just a matter of time before similar cases
are filed at the World Trade Organization.

Forget Globalization -- Fear Neighborhoodization

Meyerson repeats the canard that "globalization entails [a] downward
leveling" of economic well-being ("Tipping Point for Trade," November

This belief is crushed by mountains of evidence.  It's
crushed also by its own illogic: if ordinary people are served by being
"protected" from globalization, then they can be made even better off
by being protected from countryization - and better off still by being
protected from townization and neighborhoodization.  Protectionist
quackery implies that we achieve maximum prosperity when no one
consumes anything produced by anyone else.

Bravo.  I wrote about my fears of a Democratic Congress rolling back Bill Clinton's free trade legacy here.

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

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.

More Zero Sum Economics (Sigh)

I have tried many times to combat the absurdity of zero-sum economic thinking.  Unfortunately, Democrats seem to be testing income-inequality messages as their lead horse to ride in the upcoming elections, so we are going to hear a lot more of it.  It bothers me even more when smart liberals like Kevin Drum buy into the zero sum thinking.  To his credit, he doesn't totally buy into this mess from Paul Krugman:

The concern [is] that, through mechanisms we're not entirely sure of, the very richest are siphoning off the economic growth before it flows through the middle and lower classes. The worry is about the distribution of growth, but the suspicion is that the distribution is being warped by the sheer level of inequality.

But then he goes onto say nearly the same thing:

I'm not sure this gets the mechanism quite right, though.  There are two basic ways that unequal growth can happen:

  1. The rich suck up vast amounts of income growth, and this leaves very little money for the middle class. Thus, wages for the middle class are stagnant or, at best, rising slowly.

  2. Middle class wages are kept stagnant, and this frees up vast amounts of money from economic growth. The money has to go somewhere, and it goes to the rich.

Now, obviously, it doesn't have to be one or the other. It could be both. But I suspect there's a lot more analytic power in #2 than in #1.

And finally, this stupendously ridiculous statement:

After all, the income from economic growth has to go somewhere, and if it's not going to the middle class it's going to end up going to the rich. Where else can it go?

What's bizarre about all of these statements is it treats wealth, and in this case specifically income growth, like a phenomena that is independent of individuals and their actions.  They treat income growth like it is a natural spring bubbling up from the ground, and a few piggy people have staked out places by the well and take all the water before the rest of us can get any.

Wealth and income growth comes from individual action.  Most rich people are getting more rich because they are intelligently investing and taking risks with their capital, applying the output of their mind to create new wealth.  There is no (none, zero, 0) economic correlation that says that if the rich get really rich, then there is less left over for the poor. 

Here is his solution:

Now, there's certainly no reason to reduce marginal tax rates on the hyper rich in an effort to make inequality even worse than it otherwise would be. But as unjustified as this is, tax cuts aren't the main issue. Median wages are. Focus government policy like a laser on improving the wages of the middle class, and reductions in income inequality will follow.

And how the hell does he suggest the government do that?  Seriously.  Can anyone tell me one single thing the government can do to improve middle class wages that does not involve tax policy?  Well, we can back into his solution from this paragraph where he lists things the government can do that are bad for the middle class:

Appoint members to the Federal Reserve who are obsessed with inflation and act to cool down the economy at the least sign that average hourly wages are rising. Make it harder to form unions in new industries, thus reducing the bargaining power of the working class. Support free trade agreements that put downward wage pressure on low-income workers. Support tax and deregulation policies that make middle class jobs less secure.

So presumably, his solution to increasing middle class wages is: 1) allow inflation to run at a higher rate 2) encourage unionization  3) adopt protectionist measures for uncompetitive industries and stifle free trade  4) increase regulation on businesses and reverse deregulation in industries (presumably like airlines and telecoms).

I'm no Julian Simon, but if we could structure a bet as to whether these policies would help real middle class wages, I would sure take the opposite side from Mr. Drum.

Here is my theory for what is going on, if you even accept that middle class income stagnation is real and not a symptom of our difficulty measuring the benefit of improving products and technologies.  I think much like technological advances from time to time in the past have caused restructurings in the labor market for blue collar workers, we are going through the same thing, really for the first time, with white collar middle class workers.  Technology and globalization offer all sorts of opportunities for companies, and the result is a real restructuring of how many types of white collar workers are used.  Until this restructuring is complete, wages may stagnate, since any wage pressure will just lead to companies implementing changes from their backlog of streamlining opportunities.

At some point we will work through this, and wages will rise again.  If anything, I think the government does damage by slowing this process down.  Note that nearly every one of Drum's suggestions would slow or stop this restructuring.  This is one of the ironies of progressives -- despite their name, what they don't like about capitalism is the change.   They want safety and predictability from the inherently unpredictable.  So protectionism slows global outsourcing, and also reduces the pressure for cost improvement.  Regulation tends to lock in current practices and make changes harder.  Ditto strong unions.

One of the reasons I like some of what Bill Clinton did was that in the early 90's, he faced tremendous pressure to take many of these same steps, trying to halt the economic restructuring that was occurring due to competition from Asia.  He didn't have the government step in, though, and he supported free trade, and the country thrived.  His fellow Democrats (including his wife) should learn from that.

update:  A real economist (unlike me and probably Paul Krugman) discusses inequality and unionization

update #2:  More real economists, this time the awsome guys at Cafe Hayek, pile on.

Rising Economic Nationalism

A pair of news stories has me spooked tonight.  This first is via Instapundit, and is a story of human pettiness that would be funny if the stakes were not so high:

President Chirac and three of his ministers walked out of the room
when Ernest-Antoine Seillière, the leader of the European business
lobby UNICE, punctured Gallic pride by insisting on speaking the
language of Shakespeare rather than that of Molière.

When M Seillière, who is an English-educated steel baron,
started a presentation to all 25 EU leaders, President Chirac
interrupted to ask why he was speaking in English. M Seillière
explained: "I'm going to speak in English because that is the language
of business."

Without saying another word, President Chirac, who lived in
the US as a student and speaks fluent English, walked out, followed by
his Foreign, Finance and Europe ministers, leaving the 24 other
European leaders stunned. They returned only after M Seilière had
finished speaking.

That's the silly part, but the underlying issue that was being discussed is not so silly:

In the absence of his President, M Seillière gave warning about the
dangers of the "economic nationalism" being pursued by the French
Government. The summit, aimed at restoring confidence in the future of
the EU, has been overshadowed by a row over the tide of protectionism
sweeping the continent, with Tony Blair and Angela Merkel, the German
Chancellor, cautioning about the danger of raising barriers to foreign

What has me really worried is that the US, the only vaguely consistent defender of free trade in the world for the last 60 years, is having the same discussion, initiated not so much by the economic problems in Europe but by security issues.  As I warned earlier, Congress seems ready to use the events of the Dubai ports mess and the fear of 9/11 to clamp down on foreign investment (sorry, $ required I think):

Building on their win in the Dubai ports deal, U.S.
lawmakers are moving to gain leverage over a swath of foreign
investments in the U.S., an effort that business leaders and President
Bush's aides warn could harm the U.S. economy.

In the first serious legislative move, Senate Banking
Chairman Richard Shelby (R., Ala.) released the summary of a bill
Friday that would greatly expand the array of foreign acquisitions
subject to automatic scrutiny and would require the administration to
notify lawmakers as soon as it begins to review any foreign
transaction. The bill also would require the administration to rank all
countries according to their relations with the U.S. and their support
for weapons-control deals. Approvals would then depend in part on the
ranking of a company's home country.

The administration would have to report to Congress on
why it approved or rejected any transaction, but the bill wouldn't give
lawmakers the power to veto a deal, as many critics feared.

Business groups and Bush administration officials
expressed immediate alarm over several provisions in the bill, which
Shelby aides claim has the support of other members of the Banking
Committee. In a letter to Sen. Shelby this week, seven groups
representing the nation's top banks and finance companies warned that
legislative proposals making the rounds of Congress "would threaten
job-creation prospects for the U.S. economy" and "reduce U.S. economic

Building on their win in the Dubai ports deal, U.S.
lawmakers are moving to gain leverage over a swath of foreign
investments in the U.S., an effort that business leaders and President
Bush's aides warn could harm the U.S. economy.

In the first serious legislative move, Senate Banking
Chairman Richard Shelby (R., Ala.) released the summary of a bill
Friday that would greatly expand the array of foreign acquisitions
subject to automatic scrutiny and would require the administration to
notify lawmakers as soon as it begins to review any foreign
transaction. The bill also would require the administration to rank all
countries according to their relations with the U.S. and their support
for weapons-control deals. Approvals would then depend in part on the
ranking of a company's home country....

The administration would have to report to Congress on
why it approved or rejected any transaction, but the bill wouldn't give
lawmakers the power to veto a deal, as many critics feared.

Business groups and Bush administration officials
expressed immediate alarm over several provisions in the bill, which
Shelby aides claim has the support of other members of the Banking
Committee. In a letter to Sen. Shelby this week, seven groups
representing the nation's top banks and finance companies warned that
legislative proposals making the rounds of Congress "would threaten
job-creation prospects for the U.S. economy" and "reduce U.S. economic

This sucks, particularly in the light of a president who has at best been only a luke-warm defender of free trade and who seems to have entirely misplaced his veto pen.  It is an interesting statement on how far this president has wandered from his party's traditional roots that I would greatly prefer to have his predecessor Bill Clinton in office for this fight.  Clinton was certainly a mixed blessing for us anarcho-capitalists, but he was always a strong and articulate defender of free trade, even to the extent of opposing the strong protectionist wing of his party.

In addition to the security issues involved, I have also tackled the overblown fears about trade deficits here, among other places.  For those of you in Arizona concerned about free trade, I know that Congressman Jeff Flake, one of the few remaining folks in Congress who understands free markets and small governments, shares some of these same concerns about rising protectionism.  I hope those of you in his district will continue to send him to Washington to serve us, and I would like to see where our other AZ Congresspersons stand on free trade.  I don't want to pre-judge, but this is one of those issues where I have no trust that McCain (for example) will land on the correct side of the issue.  I fear that conservatives are going to feel the need to flog the security horse right through the November elections, no matter what other principles get trampled in the process.

As a final note, I could add the current backlash against immigrants as
the third leg of this story on rising economic nationalism.  One of the
things that has surprised me the most in getting comments to this blog
is how many people who accept global free trade as right and beneficial
in turn support strong restrictions on immigration (Cafe Hayek comments on economist Robert Samuelson as one such person).
I see free trade and free immigration as having exactly the same
philosophic roots, based in the fact that our rights to trade,
associate, etc. stem from our humanity, not our citizenship.  I won't repeat my argument but you can read it here;
if you are pro-free-trade but anti-immigration, I ask that you give me
five minutes to make the case that no one else seems to want to make
today.  And even if you don't accept the philosophic similarities,
economicly open immigration and free trade are nearly identical issues,
each involving the free flow of labor, capital, and goods across
borders.  If you still can't see the similarity, here is a quick
example:  If I decide that my best sourcing decision is to subcontract
my tech support to Claude in France, I can do this equally well by
either straight outsourcing to Claude where he lives today (global
trade) or by encouraging Claude to move to the US to do the work for me
here (immigration).