As Compared to What?

On this Carpe Diem post by Mark Perry, commentator Citizen Buddy writes:

It is my firm belief that Mutual Free Trade is exponentially superior to Unilateral Free Trade.

While Citizen Buddy’s comment may be true, it is wholly irrelevant to the matter at hand.  Rarely is the choice between mutual free trade (he is using it here to state both countries’ governments do not obstruct their citizens’ trading patterns) and unilateral free trade.  The relevant trade-off is between unilateral free trade and scarcityism.  When faced with that trade-off, unilateral free trade will win every time.

Considering the relevant trade-offs prevents us from making a Nirvana Fallacy and keeps us disciplined in our thinking.  Preferences may be one thing, but budget constraints always exist.  We may prefer complete free trade, but in absence of that, unilateral free trade will do.

Whose Tariffs are Reducing Exports?

Business Insider reports that since Donald Trump started a trade war with China, the US trade deficit has increased.  In August, this has been primarily due to falling exports.  BI goes on to say:

The primary reason for the increase in the deficit [in August] was a collapse in exports, especially soybeans, which fell off by $1 billion, a 28% drop from the month prior. China, the largest buyer of US soybeans, imposed tariffs on the American crop and it appears the restrictions are taking a toll.

Placing the blame on Chinese tariffs for falling soybean exports is not entirely correct.

A tax on imports (ie, a tariff) is the same as a tax on exports.  Simply put, by reducing the number of imports into a country, it reduces the amount of currency foreigners can use to buy exports.  By imposing tariffs on Chinese goods, Trump indirectly imposed a tax on US exports to China, reducing the exports himself!

None of this is to say the Chinese tariffs on soybeans didn’t make an already bad situation worse.  But we cannot lay the blame for the decline in exports at the feet of the Chinese.

What is Unique About International Trade?

What is unique about international trade?  This is the question that I pose to my two trade classes (Econ 390: International Economics and Econ 385: International Economic Policy) every day this Fall.  This question is crucial toward understanding the content in the courses.

In Econ 390, the more technical of the two courses, we’re using Paul Krugman, Maurice Obstfeld, and Marc Melitz’s textbook International Economics (among others).  The opening chapters deal with the main models of trade theory: Ricardian, Specific-Factors, Hecksher-Ohlin, and the combined Standard Trade Model.

As with any good model, we start with the simple case of two people.  How does the model develop here?  What are the driving forces of change and outcomes?  What are the impacts of the assumptions?  We then expand the model into the world of international trade.

When we expand the model outward, we notice something interesting: nothing unique happens when the model is expanded to include international trade.  The factors adjusting income distribution stay the same.  The influences governing specialization stay the same.  The key for any of these models is that a change in relative prices changes the distribution of income and economic activity.  This result is no different than microeconomic outcomes.  Any change in relative prices, regardless of whether this occurs because of domestic or international conditions, will cause changes in the economy.  This is a point Krugman et al repeatedly stress in their textbook and a point I repeatedly stress as well.

Let’s take, for example, the Specific-Factors model, which argues that in any form of production, there are some factors of production specific to that production and some factors that are mobile and thus can switch from one form of production to the other.  If there is some relative price change, the model predicts the domestic owners of the specific factor of the now relatively-expensive good will benefit (increased income), the domestic owners of the specific factor of the now relatively-inexpensive good will not benefit (less income) and the domestic owners of the mobile factor will have an ambiguous impact.  Note that it doesn’t matter if this change in relative prices is caused by domestic issues (say, a tax on one good that changes its relative price) or by international trade (a change in world price).  The effect is the same.

So, what then is unique about international trade?  Is it that differing legal regimes between countries have a major impact and thus people should be upset about that?  This doesn’t hold, especially in the United States, as each of the 50 states has different legal rules and regulations.  California, for example, has very stringent rules about labeling and selling; New Hampshire, not so much.  New Hampshire thus has an advantage over California, but people in California aren’t protesting New Hampshire products.  So, the uniqueness of international trade cannot rest on differing legal regimes.

Dani Rodrik suggests its a perception of unfairness due to different “domestic norms” and “social understandings” that is unique.  While the perception may be unique, the actual reality of any unfairness due to these differences is not unique.  Again, domestic norms and social understandings are legion among the various regions of the United States.  Some states have stronger social safety nets than others.  Firms will move to take advantage of less costly regulations.  So, this difference in social understandings is not unique to international trade, either.

There are many other excuses people can give for the uniqueness of international trade and why tariffs are justified internationally but not nationally; I’ve just listed two.  But the same analysis should be performed for each of these excuses.  You’ll find they do not hold up.

In short, there is nothing economically or socially unique about international trade that renders it subject to special rules and regulations.

The Importance of Considering Transaction Costs

Over at Carpe Diem, Mark Perry points us to an article detailing a potential move by Wal-Mart:

Target and Walmart will now face a tough choice: They can absorb the higher costs from tariffs by taking a hit to their profit margins, or they can pass some of the price increases on to their customers.

“Either consumers will pay more, suppliers will receive less, retail margins will be lower, or consumers will buy fewer products or forego purchases altogether,” Walmart warned in its letter.

The Trump administration is using tariffs to push companies to manufacture more goods in the United States. But the National Retail Federation says the administration’s thinking is flawed and carefully planned supply chain plans can’t be redrawn overnight. Retailers order their products six months to a year in advance, and they are left scrambling to find new options for 2019. “The [administration] continues to overestimate the ability of US companies to shift supply chains out of China,” the trade group said in its own letter to Lighthizer. “Global supply chains are extremely complex. It can take years to find the right partners who can meet the proper criteria and produce products at the scale and cost that is needed.”

Implicit in this conversation is the costs to retailers (and manufacturers and anyone else who uses imported goods) to search and find new suppliers.  These costs are very real and necessarily contribute to fewer economic gains in the country.

Trump’s tariff schemes, to use tariffs to force companies to relocate supply chains or operations to the US relies on something of a Nirvana fallacy: that these relocations/readjustments can be done costlessly.  As a former business executive, he should know better.  Firms cannot just adjust their operations costlessly.  Contracts are in place.  New ones would need to be written.  New relationships need to be formed.  Adjustments need to be made to product specifications.  Etc etc.  These are not costless processes.

Even if we were to assume, contrary to ex-ante evidence, that Wal-Mart suppliers relocating back to the US is 1) possible and 2) would be beneficial for the economy as a whole, when you figure in all the costs associated with such a move (that is, all the transaction costs), it is highly improbable that, on net, the move would be positive.

 

Should Economic Growth be Traded for National Defense?

One of the stronger arguments against free trade is the national defense argument: some industry may be so vital to national security to warrant its protection from foreign competition.  This justification may be easily abused, but let’s ignore that possibility for the moment.  Is it still worth restricting trade and reducing opulence for the sake of national security?

The trade-off between security and opulence doesn’t appear too clear cut to me.  Protected industries tend to become listless, stagnant, and non-dynamic.  Protected from the forces of competition, they can become complacent.  As AEI economist Mark Perry likes to say: competition breeds competence.  These protected industries may become so undynamic, so technologically backward or stagnant, that in the event of a national emergency, they are unable to handle the military needs.

Furthermore, protected industries (especially if they are subsequently subsidized) may discourage development of newer technologies that may be better suited for national defense.  Let’s say, for example, that the steel industry is vital for national defense.  Since steel is protected from competition, it can make it a more attractive investment for people given its security.  This would divert resources away from other developments that could rival the industry, say some sort of lighter metal or steel substitute.

If an industry is protected from competition and it becomes listless and non-dynamic, not only is it coming at a sacrifice for national wealth but may also be a hindrance to national defense as well if it cannot adapt to changing war needs.  This becomes deadly true if a climate of rent-seeking rather than innovation takes hold in the national economy.

In short, while theoretically, tariffs could be helpful for national defense, they could very well end up being detrimental.

People Trade, Not Countries

In a short post on EconLog, Pierre Lemieux points us to the flawed thinking of many scarcityists.  In the article, he quotes Trump:

“Their consumer habits,” [Trump] explained about Europeans, “are to buy their cars, not to buy our cars.”

What the scarcityists don’t understand, even with their fancy models, is that trade is ultimately and everywhere a microeconomic phenomenon.  It is people’s preferences that shape the pattern of trade, and merely imposing some tariff here to removing some tariff there may not be enough to create “balanced” trade.  In a world of free trade, people will be free to make their own choices.  In this case, the people have spoken: Europeans prefer European cars to American.  And to a tyrant like Trump, that is unacceptable.

 

Thinking about Collective Nouns

This semester at GMU, I am teaching two sections of international trade (Econ 385: International Economic Policy and Econ 390: International Economics).  In both classes, I began with a lecture (reiterated in subsequent lectures) that the focus of analysis is the individual: the government does nothing.  The decision-makers in government do something.  Ford Motor Company does nothing.  The CEO (or COO, or purchasing manager, etc) do something.

As such, these collective nouns (the government, the firm, the society, etc) can be useful shorthand so long as it is understood that the individual remains the focus of analysis.  But they can also be highly misleading.  In international trade, for example, nations do not trade.  It doesn’t make sense to talk about China trading with the US or the US specializes in X and Croatia specializes in Y (even as a shorthand).  Bobby in Boston buys a toothbrush from Li in Lanzhou.  End of story.  These transactions may be aggregated upward based on all the transactions that occur within some political boundary, but ultimately it is still individuals who trade.

When does it make sense to use a collective noun such as government or firm?  When the action taken calls for collective action.  In other words, when there is a margin being adjusted upon that the individual cannot adjust upon.

Perhaps an example will help.  Consider two men trying to load a heavy box into a truck.  The effort is not merely the summation of their two efforts.  If Joe lifts and then Richie lifts, the box ain’t going anywhere.  It is only through their combined efforts at the same time that the box is moved.  The two men working as a team adjusts along a margin (moving the box into the truck) that individually they could not do alone.

So, it makes sense to refer to a collective noun as a collective noun when there is some effort going on that only the collectivity can achieve.  Only Ford by its nature as a firm man design, manufacture, market, distribute and retail cars. It is the collective action taken by many individuals whose individual contributions are hard to separate from the collective goal; where anyone individually working alone would face costs too high to make the action occur.  The team of Joe and Richie does and Joe and Richie cannot alone do.  It makes sense to refer to them as a team.

The way international trade is discussed and taught is largely misleading if one is not careful about this subtlety.  International trade remains, ultimately, a microeconomic event.