Is Government Part of the Economy?

The question posed in the title of this post is key to understanding the relationship of governmental policies to individuals and the economy.

Traditionally, governments are considered as agents outside the system (in technical terms, exogenous).  For example, the following comes from Jack Hirshleifer’s 1970 textbook Investment, Interest, and Capital (page 11):

Following the standard tradition of economic analysis…government will be treated as an agency outside the social-exchange relationship, purportedly acting in the interests of society as a whole rather than the interests of the particular social grouping who happen to constitute the government.

A lot of welfare economics, from Pigou to modern, tend to treat government the way Hirshleifer describes. It’s an impartial spectator that can, with proper knowledge, set things right. Government can just come in and, with some perfectly crafted policies, fix any “market failure.”

But one of the things Public Choice teaches us (and this goes back to Bastiat) is that government is not separate from the system, but indeed part of it (in technical terms, government is endogenous). It is populated by the same people as those who make economic decisions. Governments are populated by people, and those people have hopes, dreams, desires, senses of right and wrong, just like the rest of us. They’re self-interested (which is not the same as selfish or self-centered), just like the rest of us. They respond to incentives, just like the rest of us.  Once we incorporate this simple fact, then the expectation of government “serving the public interest” becomes problematic.  Even if we assume away the knowledge problem, to expect government to be “molded from finer clay”, so to speak, and to be able to adjust the system from afar without any impact on the government itself is the height of foolishness.

So yes, in theory, with extremely strong assumptions, one can construct a tariff or tariff system “free” from cronyism. But if we weaken those assumptions, if we take government as endogenous (internal) rather than exogenous (external), then simple welfare economics like Pigou goes right out the window.

Let the Market Process Work!

In response to this Carpe Diem blog post on steel tariffs, aiken_bob writes:

I think everyone needs to take a chill pill. I believe what Trump is doing on so many fronts is just testing the old rules to find out what really works today.
In the era of big government, both here and in the EU, there have been countless lobbyist working for the NGOs or corporate masters that have written the rules that benefit them. I have to believe that the vast majority are now outdated or just wrong.
It is pretty obvious that you can’t get congress to change every little law so enter Trump to shake things up. I really believe there is a method to his maddness.

You’ll get no argument from me that there are many, many, many rules and regulations written by lobbyists to benefit themselves.  However, if that is a problem (as both aiken_bob and I consider it to be), then Trump’s actions are just more of the same: more rule writing and more regulations written by lobbyists to benefit themselves at the expense of others.  Steel tariffs are just another line item in this ledger from Hell.

If the problem is the rules were written by lobbyists then the solution is simple: tear them up.  Unilateral free trade.  You will see very quickly what works and what doesn’t when subjected to the forces of competition.  Those that work will remain.  Those that do not will be chased out.  People will be allowed to choose what they will, act how they want, without lobbyists influencing/mandating their decisions.  As Mark Perry likes to say: competition breeds competence.  In short, let the market process work!

Trade Wars are Fought Within, Not Among, Nations

President Trump likes to talk of trade wars: with China, with Canada and Mexico, with Europe.  It doesn’t matter.  Trade wars are easy to win.  But, Mr. Trump and his enabler advisor Peter Navarro mistake who the enemy is in a trade war; it is not the foreign nation or their producers; they are, at best, collateral damage.  Rather, the enemy, the one who bears the brunt of a trade war, are the domestic consumers.

The Economist reports on a number of industry associations that oppose Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminum.  Many of these industries are ones that were clamoring against foreign production and demanding tariffs of their own just a few months ago (eg Boeing, Ford).  If the steel and aluminum tariffs stick around, then these same companies will be put at a disadvantage.

But does the action stop there?  Absolutely not.  These same companies, seeing the bounties bestowed upon Nucor and Alcoa will, in turn, demand their own tariffs and their own subsidies (as they already have, in the case of Boeing).  Other producers will seek protection as well, further raising tariffs or subsidies.  There is no logical or natural stopping point for the trade war; indeed, all this becomes even worse if foreign nations raise their own trade barriers.  Internally, more and more calls for protection* arise and the government fights a trade war with its own people.  Every protectionist action will have a negative consequence on some other domestic actor who will have the incentive to seek his/her own protection.  What’s more, even producers not directly involved may seek some of the rents the government hands out.

Trade wars are devastating, but they are inaccurately described as being between two nations.  In reality, however, trade wars are civil wars.

*A point I should make explicit: tariffs are not the only form of protection firms might lobby for.  They may aim for tax breaks, subsidies, grants, etc.  This internal trade war can be fought even if tariffs never rise.

Unfair Trade and General Rules

Unfair trade has dominated the political conversation lately. Allegations that China, South Korea, Mexico, Canada, and many others are being unfair, whether they pay too low or they subsidize some industry, or their tariffs are too high, whatever, abound. These allegations justify the use of tariffs to punish the offending nation(s). Free trade, they say, cannot exist in the face of such injustice and, while it is a fine general case, exceptions must be made for these injustices to be corrected.

But do injustices that occur from a general rule justify exceptions therefrom or to even overturn the rule?

Consider the following general rule: All people in the United States, when accused of a crime, will be tried in an open court before a jury of their peers.  The ruling of that jury, barring legal issues, is final.

With that rule in mind, consider the following:

A man is accused of rape.  The evidence seems straightforward.  After a long trial, the jury retires to deliberate.  After a few days of deliberation, the jury returns a verdict of “not guilty.”  There is an uproar within the local community.  “He was clearly guilty!” they cry.  “The decision should be overturned!  The jury system failed to deliver justice!”

The natural inclination of any spectator of this situation would be to decry the jury rule.  It had clearly failed to deliver its promise.   But would overturning such a rule be in the best interests?  I think prudence and wisdom suggest “no.”  Or, at least, extreme caution.

A general rule, like trial by jury, serves a particular purpose.  By nature of its generality, it will not be perfect in all cases.  But because it is so general, it can work in most cases.  In the case of the jury process, the particular purpose of this rule is to prevent unfair prosecutions and to have evidence judged on its merits; by presenting to a lay audience, it is a test to see if it is plainly obvious that a crime has been committed.  Wisdom and prudence suggest that, since this rule has persisted so long, caution should be exercised before overturning it.  it may lead to undesired consequences (perhaps tyranny, in the case of juries).

To extend this to trade, the general rule is that people may trade with whomever they want so long as it is voluntary.  There are relatively few ways in which the state can object to trade (obviously prohibited items like drugs, prostitution, etc).  But this general rule has led to some undesirable outcomes: people have lost jobs to import competition and automation.  Some of these job losses, it is observed by some, occurred because this competition is “unfair” due to state subsidies, tax preferences, etc.  They, therefore, want to overturn the general rule (or create exceptions to it).  Tariffs, restrictions, or outright bans are often banded around as solutions.

But, again, prudence and wisdom urge caution before overturning such a rule.  Could it lead to a “slippery slope?”  Are the protections granted by the general rule worthwhile?  Would the exceptions to the general rule that are granted lead to other forms of rent-seeking, and unfair actions taken by domestic groups (eg, everyone starts clamoring for protections)?  The benefits of the general rule are obvious; the costs and consequences, not so much.

Even if we grant that the actions taken by some governments to “support” their trade position are indeed unfair, like the jury example above, creating exceptions to the general rule may achieve more mischief than good.

A final point in conclusion: none of this is to claim status or say the status quo is always and everywhere preferable.  General rules can, and should, be examined and overturned when necessary.  Rather, what this post is to do is to urge caution when it comes to overturning general rules; a willy-nilly attitude can destroy any and all respect for law and legislation.

Predatory Pricing, Tariffs, and the Second Law of Demand

Predatory pricing is a common justification for government intervention in a marker (predatory pricing is when a firm or government tries to gain monopoly power in a market by selling below cost, undercutting competitors and forcing them out, and then raising prices to a monopoly level.  For a great treatment of predatory pricing, see here).

On a recent Cafe Hayek post, Craig Walenta (friend of the blog) objected to a lack of concern vis-a-vis Chinese dumping thusly:

 Of course that which is seen, but that which is unseen are the incidental effects because this absolutely must be incorporated into your business judgment, or you’d just be a complete idiot, and you’re not going to have any sense of what the unseen is unless you actually own a business and talk to other business owners who will tell you that the general rule is that ‘if it can be done in China, EVEN IF IT CAN BE DONE HERE CHEAPER, don’t do it’ — indeed foreign and domestic favoritism clearly impacts businesses that have absolutely no relation to the favored industries in question.
Mr. Walenta’s concern is legitimate.  Why would business owners compete in a market if someone is going to undercut them?  There may be people who do not enter some industry for fear of competition.
But does that mean China can, once they receive monopoly power, can raise and keep prices high with the mere threat of undercutting prices again?  Not likely, because of the Second Law of Demand.
The Second Law of Demand is, to quote Armen Alchian and William Allen (Page 28):
[T]he longer the time allowed to adjust amount demand in response to a price change, the greater is the change in amount demanded, that is, the greater the elasticity…For example, if the price of water were doubled, consumption would immediately decrease some–but would decrease by a great deal more within a few months, after people had more economically made adjustment to their water-using equipment[.]
In other words, people initially make little adjustments to a rise in prices but the longer prices stay high, the bigger their adjustments become.  To stick with the water example, if the price of water spikes quickly, people may water their lawn less or wash their car less, but that’s about it.  If the price of water stays high, people may rip out their lawns and go for rock gardens (eg, Arizona), may shower together to save water, may move to disposable plates rather than washable dishware, etc.
To bring this back to China, if China were to gain a monopoly power and raise prices, even if they were to maintain their monopoly power with the mere threat of lower prices, it is unlikely they would succeed.  At first, they may be able to command monopoly prices, but the high price of steel will eventually force people into different areas: maybe more plastic is used for automobiles than steel.  Maybe wood and brick replace architectural steel.  Maybe some new metal alloy is created to replace steel, or there are shifts to titanium or something like that.  Maybe someone develops a super-lightweight but super-strong material that renders steel obsolete (like Kevlar for buildings).  It’s impossible to know what path things would take.  What we do know is the Law of Demand says that people will adjust, and thus it is highly improbable anyone who gains monopoly power through predatory pricing will be able to maintain monopoly profits.

An Open Letter to President Trump

2 March 2018

Mr. Donald Trump
1600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
Washington, DC  20500

Mr. Trump:

Late last year, your administration proposed a massive tariff on airplanes manufactured outside of the US.  Your administration said these tariffs were necessary to level the playing field for Boeing.

However, you’ve now proposed a tariff on aluminum, a major component in airplane manufacturing, and our allies are threatening a trade war with us, which would increase the costs of other components necessary for airplane manufacturing.  The tariff and the trade war, which you’ve said is “good” have necessarily put Boeing at a disadvantage compared to foreign airplane manufacturers.

I wonder how you reconcile your administration’s actions in October and the actions now given they work at contradictory ends?

Regards,

Jon Murphy
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA

Can Protectionism/Scarcityism Encourage Industry?

Short answer: not likely

Long answer: Protectionists Scarcityists like to argue that protectionism is needed (or can otherwise) to encourage industry.  Foreign competitors use “unfair” practices to undermine the domestic industry and protectionism scarcityism is there to protect the industry from these shenanigans.  This, in turn, will foster more domestic investment and encourage industry.  But how likely is this to be?  Let’s take a look at the logic.

From a protected industry perspective, it is possible that scarcityist policies encourage some investment in that protected industry.  Domestic production increases (although this is merely a substitute for some of the imports and overall output decreases).  This increased production may encourage more investment, but it is hardly guaranteed to.  These protected industries are protected from competition, so there isn’t much incentive to invest and improve; they are output restrictors.

Enlarging our view to the economy as a whole, scarcityism is far more likely to reduce investment and industry.  As I pointed out above, scarcityism works because it reduces output, forcing prices to rise.  This necessarily means consumers have to spend more to achieve the same standard of living.  In turn, this means fewer savings and since savings are funds used for investment, this means less investment.*  Additionally, since imports are reduced, foreigners now have fewer dollars with which to buy exports or invest in the US economy.  Reduced savings, and thus reduced investment, comes from this area as well.

There are secondary effects of scarcityism as well.  Not only does it reduce overall output in an industry, it encourages the use of wasteful use of current resources.  The protected firms are using less efficient methods of production, which is eating up resources that could otherwise have been released for more valuable purposes.  This, in turn, means fewer resources for industry to use and grow.

In order for scarcityism to foster growth, it’d require an awful lot of luck and some highly specific conditions which are improbable in the real world.

*Note that this same logic holds even if consumers switch to a cheaper substitute for the now-more-expensive goods.