Trade protection and corruption

Starting with the repeal of the Corn Laws in England (tariffs on grain imports) in 1846, cross border trade and incomes blossomed. “Global life expectancy in the past 175 years has risen from a little under 30 years to over 70. The share of people living below the threshold of extreme poverty has fallen from about 80% to 8% . . . . Literacy rates are up more than fivefold, to over 80%. Civil rights and the rule of law are incomparably more robust than . . . only a few decades ago.” From The Economist’s 175 anniversary issue September 13, 2018: “A-manifesto-for-renewing-liberalism”

Post World War II trade agreements reflected a process of progressive reductions in tariffs and other impediments to trade. Unfortunately and misguidedly, President Trump has reversed this trend by introducing new tariffs and raising old ones. Import tariffs are taxes on American consumers. Why is Trump doing this? He says that he wants to bring manufacturing jobs that have moved off shore back to the U.S. by making their output cheaper than taxed imports.

As the U.S. economy is fully employed (there are currently more job openings than people looking for work), increasing employment in one area can only occur by reducing it in one or more other areas. Starting with Trump’s 25% and 10% tariffs on steel and aluminum, the shift from imported steel and aluminum to domestically produced steel and aluminum as a result of tariff protection is only possible by shifting workers from other more productive activities lowering the value of over all output. Given that these products are inputs into some American exports, which are thereby made more expensive, it is estimated that more jobs will be lost than created. “Econ-101-trade-in-very-simple-terms”

The U.S. has already imposed steep tariffs on China’s steel and aluminum to offset Chinese government subsidies to its steel and aluminum industries and thus we import almost no steel and aluminum from China. Trump has justified his new steel and aluminum tariffs on national security grounds thus bypassing usual World Trade Organization (WTO) rules for justifying tariffs. It stretches credibility, to say the least, to claim that depending on Canada and Mexico for steel is a security risk, not to mention that existing domestic production by itself exceeds our military needs. “Trump-says-steel-imports-are-a-threat-to-national-security-the-defense-industry-disagrees”

Some claim that Trump’s tariffs and threatened tariffs are just part of his negotiating strategy to achieve fairer trade agreements by a free traders at heart. This is belied by the fact that steel and aluminum tariffs remain on Mexico even after tentative agreement on a NAFTA replacement/update with Mexico. The question is why would someone benefit one small sector of the economy while imposing much larger harm on the economy more generally? The short answer is corruption.

Corruption in this context refers to bestowing benefits on a few at the expense of others in exchange for something else. In government, corruption generally takes the form of vote buying, though sometimes it is for personal financial gain. My bottom line here is that in addition to reducing an economy’s output and thus its resident’s incomes by protecting inefficient or less competitive industries, tariffs and other forms of economic protection reflect, or at the least open the door for and encourage, corruption.

When the government has or takes the authority to tax or exempt from tax individual industries or firms, it invites, if not begs for, corruption. Read the story of the Dixon Ticonderoga pencil company and weep. “How-dixon-ticonderoga-has-blurred-lines-of-where-its-pencils-are-made”

About wcoats

I specialize in advising central banks on monetary policy and the development of the capacity to formulate and implement monetary policy.  I joined the International Monetary Fund in 2003 from which I retired in 2003 as Assistant Director of the Monetary and Financial Systems Department. While at the IMF I led or participated in missions to the central banks of over twenty countries (including Afghanistan, Bosnia, Croatia, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kosovo, Kyrgystan, Moldova, Serbia, Turkey, West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Zimbabwe) and was seconded as a visiting economist to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (1979-80), and to the World Bank's World Development Report team in 1989.  After retirement from the IMF I was a member of the Board of the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority from 2003-10 and of the editorial board of the Cayman Financial Review from 2010-2017.  Prior to joining the IMF I was Assistant Prof of Economics at UVa from 1970-75.  I am currently a fellow of Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise.  In March 2019 Central Banking Journal awarded me for my “Outstanding Contribution for Capacity Building.”  My most recent book is One Currency for Bosnia: Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina. I have a BA in Economics from the UC Berkeley and a PhD in Economics from the University of Chicago. My dissertation committee was chaired by Milton Friedman and included Robert J. Gordon.
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3 Responses to Trade protection and corruption

  1. Philippe Fontana says:

    Dear Warren,

    Well done! Again a very enlightening contribution. I fully agree with it. I wish somebody in the White House would read your text. But honestly I am not very optimistic that the present Administration will be ready to reconsider its isolationist/protectionist policy stance after what President Trump said about mutilateralism and globalization in front of the U.N. General Assembly last week. How sad that we are back to the errances of the dark days in the twenties and thirties of U.S. Isolationism that only Hitler’s invasion of most of Europe and Pearl Harbor were able to reverse. I just hope that it will not require a new global military conflict for this Administration to come back to its senses. How sad is all this for the United States and for the World.

    Philippe

  2. James Roumasset says:

    Warren,
    “National security” is the last refuge of scoundrels. You may recall that Peter Diamond had us read Congressional testimony that actually used national security as a justification for subsidizing oil extraction.
    Jim

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