A Tale of Two Roads

Commenting on this blog post at Carpe Diem, commentator (and friend of the blog) Walt Greenway says:

If people trade and not countries, should we condone theft from the Chinese people [in the form of subsidies on exported goods] just because we get a good deal in the U.S.?

Here is my response:

There are two issues here:

1) The question before us is whether or not trade with China (who subsidizes their stuff) harms us, Americans. That is an emphatic “no.”

2) As an economist, I advocate free trade for all. Were the Chinese government (or were I a Chinese citizen) to ask me what the best course to take would be, I’d argue for liberalizing trade. But I am not a consultant for the Chinese government nor a Chinese citizen. I am an American. I can only affect US barriers, not Chinese barriers. Therefore, I will content myself with reducing half of the trade barriers if I cannot reduce them all.

Allow me to elaborate in the manner of Frederic Bastiat:

There are two countries: Libertas and Protectistan.  The two build a road between one another; a road which overcomes barriers like mountains and deserts, allowing the two to trade with each other more cheaply.  For many years, both countries prosper from the trade.  One year, in a fit of madness, both erect artificial barriers (checkpoints, potholes, erroneous signs, anything to slow the flow and raise the price) along their halves of the road to keep the other from “flooding” their market.  As time moves along, the citizens of Libertas get frustrated they’re no longer once prospering the way they once did.  They hold a meeting.

One man gets up and says: “Our issues began when we erected barriers on the road to Protectistan.  First we paid for the road and then we paid for the obstructions!  That is absurd.  If we remove our barriers, we can improve our lot by making cheaper the goods we can get from Protectistan.  Let us do this post haste!”

Another man (this one from the government) stands up and says: “Do not listen to that crazy person.  We can only reduce our barriers if Protectistan lowers theirs! We have sent diplomats to Protectistan to negotiate the removal of barriers and they refused.”

The first man gets up again: “Sir, we have no control over what Protectistan does, but we do have control over what Libertas does.  Let us uphold our end and remove our barriers.  Perhaps, one day, they will see the folly of their ways, but why should we be punished just because they don’t want to remove barriers?”

The government man replies: “Do not listen to this dreamer, this theorist.  We can only prosper if our barriers are kept in balance.  Why, if we removed our barriers, all would be lost!  It would be more difficult to go than come, to export than import.  Our ruin would follow just as quickly as it has followed the cities at the mouths of the Mississippi, the Thames, the Amazon, the Yellow River, for it is easier to go downstream than upstream.”

A lady in the back responds: “The cities at the mouths are wealthier than the cities on the tributaries.”

The government man cries: “That is impossible!”

The same voice: “But it is a fact.”

The government man: “Then they have prospered against the rules!

The government man finished his oration by appealing to all manner of things: nationalism, patriotism, etc.  He spoke of murderous competition, of loss of pride.  The assembly, so moved, voted to keep the barriers in place, agreeing that it is only by paying and not receiving can profit be achieved.

Theory vs Practice

I always find it interesting that protectionists call us free-traders the fantacists, the theorists, the academic scribblers (etc), and cast themselves as the realists. They claim they are the ones who represent what people want, that we are just too deep in our cloistered academic world to understand that.

That may be true, but it’s strange. If they were really correct, that the supposed costs of mercantilism are really benefits, the supposed benefits are really costs, that people understand this and we do not…

If all that were true, why the need for tariffs? Why the need for government at all? Wouldn’t people just naturally buy domestic and never foreign?

In practice, no one is a mercantilist.  If we take their position to its logical conclusion, we can see this: no one, even the most hard-core mercantilist, abstains from trade.  Indeed, they personally act as though they agree with the free-market principle that it is better to buy what is more expensive for one to produce.  No mercantilist grows his own food, sews his own clothes, brews his own beer, etc.  He gladly trades for those items.  And yet, paradoxically, he argues that, in theory (but not in practice!) these actions harm people.

It seems to me that we are the realists and the mercantilists are the theorists given they need to force reality to coincide with their theory.

On Bananas, Fish, and Trade

Commenting on this blog post, Warren Platts writes:

If imports were stopped by a stroke of a pen, there would still be a trillion dollars of pent up demand per year from American consumers. If the demand for goods couldn’t be satisfied with imports, domestic manufacturers would take up the slack, creating jobs. Things would be more expensive, sure, but the GDP would grow a lot faster, more people would have good jobs.

Warren’s argument, while common, is incorrect.  Imports, which do satisfy demand, generate more demand for other products by virtue of the fact they are of lower economic cost.  As Warren says, if these imports were stopped, “things would be more expensive.”  This inherently means that there are not “trillions of dollars in pent up demand per year,”that American manufacturers can simply “take up the slack.”  Rather, those trillions of dollars are released by the imports and would become constrained by the forbidding of such.

By way of example, let’s say we have two countries: Bananaland and Fisherland. In autarky (that is, no trade), Bananaland can produce 50 fish or 50 bananas.  Fisherland can produce 100 bananas or 200 fish.  If each country divides their time evenly between each activity, Bananaland can produce and consume 25 bananas and 25 fish.  Fisherland can produce and consume 50 bananas and 100 fish.  In this autarky, the price of bananas in terms of fish is 1 in Bananaland and .5 in Fisherland (in other words, Bananaland needs to give up 1 fish to produce 1 banana.  Fisherland need only give up half a banana to produce 1 fish). The two countries open trade with one other and, given that both countries want to consume the same number of bananas after trade as before (an assumption made for simplicity; doesn’t change the story if we relax this), then the citizens of Bananaland agree to send 25 bananas for 37 fish (a price of .68).  To satisfy this, Bananaland stops producing fish and produces only bananas (they produce 50 bananas).  Fisherland cuts back on banana production to 25 but ramps up fish production to 150.  The day comes and the two trade.  Now, Bananaland consumes 25 bananas and 37 fish.  Fisherland consumes 50 bananas and 113 fish.  Their total economic well-being (crudely called “GDP”) is Bananaland: 62 (25+37) and Fisherland: 163 (50+113).

Bananaland, convinced their getting a bad deal following the lack of fishing in their country (remember, what was once a thriving industry) and the low prices they now pay, elect a protectionist on the grounds that he (and he alone) will “Make Bananaland Great Again!”  He promptly forbids all imports of fish from Fisherland.  They go back to their autarky ways.  Since Bananalanders now pay higher prices for their fish and more resources are devoted there than elsewhere, they can only consume 25 fish and 25 bananas.  Their GDP falls to 50!*  There was “pent up demand,” but the higher costs the various citizens now have to pay to even just consume the same amount they did before eats up that “pent up demand.”  The domestic manufacturing simply cannot supply it.

Adam Smith first explored this concept way back in 1776, and David Ricardo formalized it with the theory of Comparative Advantage.  Trade occurs for the simple reason that it provides people with better outcomes than other alternatives.  Other alternatives simply cannot provide the desired outcomes.

Update: I realized, as reading though this, I made a small math error.  It has been corrected.

*It’s worth nothing a similar decline happens to Fisherland, a nation where they can produce much higher levels than Bananaland.  Their GDP falls to 150.  Even their manufacturing cannot satisfy the “pent up demand.”

On Protectionism and Competitiveness

A common argument heard for protectionism is that it increases/enhances competitiveness of the domestic firms, that it “levels the playing field” (this argument used to be made primarily when talking about “infant” industries in a country, but more recently is used to justify actions taken against China and other “trade manipulators”).  The problem with this argument is that it is simply impossible.

Just as minimum wage cannot create new jobs, it just outlaws current jobs, so it is with protectionism.  Protectionist tariffs do not create more efficiencies and competition, they just outlaw/restrict certain efficiencies and competition.  This doesn’t make the protected firms more competitive.  In fact, it reduces the competitiveness of the protected industries!

Allow me to explain via metaphor:

In the 2016-2017 NFL season, the Cleveland Browns were the worst professional football team (as measured by the win-loss record).  “This is hardly fair,” say the Browns ownership.  “The other teams are so much better than we; we only got a single win!  This is costing us revenues from ticket sales, jersey sales, etc.  Other teams can woo big-name free agents better than we can and we need to mortgage our future by trading draft picks to get anyone good via a trade.  How can we expect to compete?”  NFL commissioner Roger Goodell agrees: “In order to increase league competitiveness, I hereby issue the following decree,” he says.  “Whenever a team is playing someone worse then them, they must bench their top players at each position.  This will allow teams like Cleveland to be more competitive!”

I do not think anyone would argue that Mr. Goodell is right in his proclamation, that hobbling better teams makes the League more competitive.  It reduces the competitiveness of the League.  It reduces the quality of the product of the League.  The Cleveland Browns are helped by this rule change, make no mistake, but only at the expense of the rest of the League and the consumers of its product (football fans).

Like much of protectionism, the argument for tariffs on the grounds of enhancing competitiveness relies on a half-truth, an economic sophism (to borrow Bastiat’s term).  It relies on the seen effect of the benefit to the protected firm(s), but does not see the unseen costs to everyone else.

Economic Growth is Not A Given

A large amount of macroeconomic thought is given toward the question: “what causes recessions?”  Monetarists, Keynesians, Austrians, New Insitutionalists, Neo-classical all often approach macroeconomic thought in this manner (note well: I am not saying this question is central to the above-mentioned schools-of-thought, just that their practitioners will study this question).  In my opinion, this is the wrong question to ask.  The right question is not “what causes recessions” but “what causes growth?”

This may seem like a semantic game; aren’t I just stating the inverse of the first question? Yes and no.  If we know what causes growth, we can (generally) inverse that and learn what causes recessions.  But the second question remembers what I think is crucial to economic understanding: growth is not the state of nature; stagnation is.  Humanity, by sitting on its collective ass didn’t generate the Industrial Revolution or invent medicine.  Despite terms like “natural unemployment” or “natural rate of growth”, none of those are natural.  The true natural unemployment rate is 100%.  The true natural rate of economic growth is 0%.  Growth requires effort to occur; it requires trading and production.  It requires human action.

This lesson is important because it prevents us from making mistakes that can be detrimental to economic well-being.  For example, some trade-protectionists worry about trade deficits because it means foreigners are buying more and more US assets.  This, supposedly, is a bad thing.  Here’s why, according to a commentator, Ed Rector, at Cafe Hayek [emphasis added]:

However if the Chinese use their trade-surplus US dollars to buy already existing US assets (USG debt, office buildings, hotels, etc.) there is no significant increase in employment in the USA [compared to building new factories]. So to that degree the existing wealth of the USA IS transferred to foreign ownership, where it will presumably generate investment returns to the foreign owners.

Here, Mr. Rector makes the mistake I mention at the beginning: he assumes growth is given.  The counterfactual here is not whether an American or a foreigner owns an asset, but whether that asset is owned at all.  The fact the asset is up for sale tells us it is likely no longer productive to its current owner; if it is not sold, the asset would likely become idle and produce nothing.  When it is bought, the asset remains productive (indeed, this is how it generates returns for its owners).  By remembering that the default is not growth but stagnation, we are counseled to not fret about who owns an asset, just that it is owned and productive.  We cannot take the productivity as given.

Throwing Out the Baby With the Bath Water

At Cafe Hayek, Don Boudreaux highlights a new paper by Jonathan Rothwell challenging the findings of David Autor et al that trade with China is harming American workers.  The abstract of the paper sounds interesting, but I want to focus on one point in particular (Emphasis mine):

At the community level, Autor, Dorn and Hanson (2013) find that local areas have experienced slower job and wage growth and higher unemployment because of import competition with China. Upon analyzing their data, I conclude that their results are biased by the weaker macroeconomic performance of 2000-2007 relative to the 1990s. When I analyze inter-local area economic changes — rather analyzing changes within and across areas — I fail to reject the null hypotheses that import competition has no effect on wage or employment growth, except within the manufacturing sector during the most recent period, or that it has no effect on many other outcomes, including labor force participation, intergenerational mobility, and mortality.

There’s an interesting lesson to be learned here, beyond just what Rothwell finds:

Findings can depend on how one slices the data. To wit, Autor et al find significant negative effects when the data is within or across areas and Rothwell finds significant positive effects when the data is inter-local area. We see the same in minimum wage (time series vs panel data, etc).

Any statistician can tell you that regression models can change depending on how you cut and categorize the data: different “n” can give different outcomes, different controls and dummies can give different signs, etc. We try for robustness, but it is still at the end of the day a model.

Of course, none of this is to disparage the work of Autor et al or Rothwell, or even econometrics in general (an important field, if used correctly). But we need to fully understand its limitations and our own assumptions, and be very careful before tossing out theory.

Gordon Tullock, in his 1967 paper in the Western Economic Journal, demonstrates exactly this.  Tullock begins with a conversation regarding welfare costs from monopolies and tariffs, citing recent research that finds these welfare losses are pretty minimal.  In fact, they’re so small that Tullock finds:

Judging from conversations with graduate students, a number of younger economists are in fact drawing the conclusion that tariffs and monopolies are not of much importance.  This view is now beginning to appear in the literature.

Does this mean our theory about trade and tariffs are wrong?  Does this mean tariffs can be helpful, or at least not substantially harmful?  Does this mean microeconomists spend too much time focusing on tariffs at the expense of other topics?  Or is it a measurement issue and the theory is fine?  Tullock explores this issue and finds it is a measurement issue, not a theoretical issue.  In other words, our tools not theory were incomplete.  Tullock explains in the article the need to factor in lobbying costs which do not show up in the standard welfare analysis but are nonetheless substantial (read the article for yourself to see his argument.  It’s short, 9 pages, and not technical at all).

Had Tullock not looked beyond the initial challenge to trade theory, had he (and other economists) just thrown off the theory based upon the small welfare losses, the world would be a far worse place.  As it is, his (and Jim Buchanan’s) explorations eventually lead to the field of Public Choice and provided us with a cleaner understanding on the theory of trade, tariffs, monopolies, politics, and the costs associated therefrom.

The story of Gordon Tullock in the 1960’s is why anyone should be weary of claims that theory of any kind is “mistaken” or “proven wrong” by this or that study.  We see this all the time with minimum wage.  The good economist (or scientist) will ask the question, as Tullock (and Mundell) did back in the 60’s: Is the theory invalid, or our tools?  It may be the theory is (such as with the case of geo-centrism) or our measurement tools are lacking.  In fact, we see this with regards to minimum wage: measurable job losses may be minimal, but there are many other margins firms adjust along, not all of whom are measured.  It would be mistaken to toss out the theory.

Economics is still a young science.  I suspect, as has already happened, some of our theories will be tossed out as we gain more insight and knowledge.  But we musn’t be too hasty in doing so (especially when there is political pressure to do so), lest we sacrifice knowledge for convenience and insight for what my professor Thomas Startmann calls “naive analysis.”

Ruminations on Rationality

A key assumption in economics is the assumption of rationality on the part of economic actors.  This assumptions tends to be controversial, especially among non-economists.  However, I want to argue that the nature of the assumption has implications beyond just the economic model implications.  Implications that are applicable to all sciences, not just economics.

Let’s first begin by defining what we mean by rationality.  All rationality means is that actors move forward toward a goal based on the information they have.  Since that information is not perfect, their actions may not be perfect in achieving that goal, but generally speaking people, once they make a decision, will move purposely.  For example, a hungry person would rationally move toward trying to eat: buying food, stealing food, forging, etc.  All of these are rational actions.

What can this assumption mean beyond economic models?  I think, from a scientific point of view (or, at least, a social scientific point of view), the rationality assumption forces humility on the part of the analyst.  If we assume the actor is rational, then we look at any action he takes as purposeful, even if we ourselves wouldn’t take such an action.  In short, it forces us to ask the question “why does this outcome occur?”  It forces us to avoid, or at least question, to urge to direct another through policy or “nudges.”  If Jones takes an action, it is likely because Jones views that action as the best of the available alternatives to his best knowledge.

In the social sciences (and in this, I am including political science), i think the rationality assumption provides both awesome insight and forces humility on the part of the analyst, a valuable trait to remaining unbiased and avoiding what Hayek called “the pretense of knowledge.”