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.

Destroy the City to Save the City

Commenting on this blog post, a “Daniel DiMicco” says:

Your commentary couldn’t be more misleading and dead wrong. Rather than the picture you paint, the Steel Industry is the “canary in the coal mine”. It is the case study for the Massive trade Mercantilism and cheating that China is perpetrating on the USA’s entire Manufacturing sector. Your propaganda doesn’t pass the smell test!

Below is my response:

Daniel Dimicco:

You say that the steel industry is the “case study for the Massive [sic] trade Mercantilism [sic] and cheating that China is perpetrating on the USA’s entire Manufacturing sector.”

Presumably, this means China’s low steel prices are harmful to the American manufacturing sector.

However…what would happen to the US manufacturing sectors that are dependent on steel? Like auto-making, construction materials, and the like? They’d face higher price pressures from any resulting tariffs you demand. Assuming they can’t adjust prices, this would mean they’d need to cut adjust costs elsewhere…perhaps lay off workers, perhaps cut hours, all kinds of things. They’d be negatively impacted by your steel tariffs.

Even if they could adjust their prices, now you’re looking at the effects on the consumers of these steel products. They’d start looking for more cheap substitutes or simply cut back on the amount they purchase. This would weigh on the manufacturing sector as well (as well as the consumers).

In short, your effort to save one canary will kill off several others.

On a related note, I found a picture of protectionists celebrating a tariff hike:


Today’s Quote of the Day…

…is from page 35 of Economic Sophisms by Frederic Bastiat (1964 Foundation for Economic Education edition):

Moreover, free trade also equalizes the conditions of enjoyment, of satisfaction-in short, of consumption.  People seem never to take this aspect of the matter into consideration; yet it is the crux of the whole discussion, since, after all, consumption is the ultimate goal of all our productive efforts.  Under a system of free trade, we should enjoy the benefits of the Portuguese sun just as Portugal itself does; and the inhabitants of Le Harve would have just as much access to the advantages that Nature has conferred upon Newcastle in the form of mineral resources, and under the same conditions, as the people of London do.

JMM: Free trade is the ultimate sharing of the wealth.  Despite living in Virginia, I can enjoy the same goods as people all over the country and the world.  I needn’t live in Florida to get oranges, or India to get curry, or England to get tea.  I can enjoy these things just as equally as if I lived in Miami, or Bombay, or London (and likewise they can enjoy tobacco, dairy, and soybeans just as they lived in Richmond).

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.”

An Economist’s Dream

It’s not often one gets so many economic fallacies contained in one area, but this article in Bloomberg is one of those rare instances where we do.  Rather than quote relevant areas, I’ll just let you read through it; it’s short but contains many mistakes.

There are several econ 101 problems the author makes this article:

1) the first two charts are meaningless. Looking at total unemployment and total wages and not minimum wage unemployment and wages, obscures the truth. For example, if a minimum wage worker was laid off but two new CEOs were hired, then the unemployment rate would fall and real wages would rise. The cost of the minimum wage would be hidden by the hiring of the CEOs.

2) The final graph is the clincher: the minimum wage, at $11 is well below what the workers were already making! According to the graph, they’ve earned well above that for at least a decade! Since the minimum wage was set below the market rate, then it wasn’t “binding”, which means it wouldn’t have had an effect because workers were already earning more!

3) Assuming away my first two points, there is still nothing conclusive. Laying workers off is just one of the margins employers can adjust to a minimum wage hike, and it’s one done more in the long term than the short term (see work by David Neumark). In the short run, which this change represents, employers are more likely to adjust by cutting hours, benefits, or supplementing with capital equipment (to the extent they can). There are many margins they can adjust along. To look only at unemployment (and especially so in such a flawed manner such as this) is mistaken.

4) My final point is one must remember to look for the “unseen” job losses. These are hard to measure but still very real. Let’s say, for example, a business owner was going to expand her store, and to do so needed 4 extra workers. The hike goes into effect. It is now cheaper for her to hire 3 workers and have one machine to augment them (prior to the hike, the relative cost of the machine was too high). The official employment statistics would count this as 3 jobs added, but not count the one job lost. That job was very real, but now it’s gone.


On (Im)Perfect Subsitution

Another Econ 101 mistake people make, especially with regard to immigration and international trade, is some form of “foreigners (immigrants) can do all the work we do but for much lower prices!  Without subsidies/tariffs/minimum wage, they’re just going to take all our jobs!”  Other versions of this include “if a bunch of immigrants enter the nation, they’ll drive down wages!  Law of Supply and Demand!”

Both the above arguments make the same mistake, namely they assume foreign labor is a perfect substitute for domestic labor.  They treat all labor (or all low-skilled labor) as a homogeneous blob, one part easily replaceable with another.  But, alas, that is not the case, as price theory can show us.

Looking simply at the wages of laborers, we should ask the question “why do immigrants/foreigners command lower prices than domestic workers?” The fact that there hasn’t been wholesale replacement of domestic labor with foreign means we can rule out any cultural/biological/cost-of-living reasons such as “lower cost of living in 3rd world” or “they have a lower standard of life and thus demand lower pay” etc.  If this were indeed the case, domestic companies could just pack everything up and ship it overseas (that is, stuff that can’t be staffed by immigrants) and make tons of profits (while I have no doubt some people believe that is what is happening, the data say otherwise).

What’s more likely is that foreign workers and immigrants are simply less productive than domestic workers.  Immigrants coming into the country, legal or otherwise, face major barriers, not the least of which is the language barrier.  The manager at McDonalds cannot simply fire an American order-taker making minimum wage and hire a foreign worker for half the cost. The foreigner, simply by virtue of not knowing the language, will be less productive, thus his lower salary.  A similar argument for offshoring can be made: foreign workers, by virtue of less capital augmentation, will be less productive and thus command lower salaries.

In short, foreign workers/immigrants are not perfect substitutions for domestic labor!

It may make sense for some firms to replace/augment domestic labor with foreign labor, but the mere fact it is cheaper is not the reason why.  David Ricardo’s powerful idea shows there are times it is prudent to replace more productive resources with less productive resources, but to do so on a large scale with disregard to opportunity cost is a recipe for disaster, and why firms and individuals do not do it.

The Myth of Perfect Allocation

Most economics principles textbooks have some version of the supply and demand chart below:


Just your simple equilibrium analysis.  Unfortunately, misunderstanding this chart can lead to comments like this one from Mark Perry’s blog Carpe Diem:

Matthew D:

If the minimum wage causes unemployment because wages are set by supply and demand, and the minimum wage exists above the market clearing wage, this implies that market would clear without a price floor.
In other words, without a minimum wage we would have full employment.  So, the US before the passing for the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 had full employment, eh? Full employment was the norm?

What’s incorrect about Mr Matthew D’s comment his his implication: “that markets[s] would clear without a price floor.”  Price theory teaches us no such thing.  No price theorist claims that, absent price controls, markets will always clear (that is, quantity supplied equals quantity demanded).  Rather, that price theory, what the above chart (and subsequent price control analysis), does teach us is that, absent price controls, markets move toward a market-clearing equilibrium and price controls prevent such movement.  In other words, absent price controls, markets work toward the most efficient allocation of resources.  Price controls prevent such movements.

Price theory teaches us as compared to price controls, market allocation will be more efficient than price-control allocation.

Markets are not perfect.  That’s why we need markets.  Markets incentivize people, in ways central planners do not, to find and eliminate these imperfections.Not enough water delivered to area X?  Price of water rises, incentivizing people to bring water to that market, thus fixing the imbalance, for example.  To paraphrase one of my all-time favorite economists and writers, Steve Horwitz, markets exist because we were kicked out of Eden, not because we’re in Eden.