Econ 101—Trade in very simple terms

Trade allows people and firms to specialize in what they produce. This enables them to be more productive. This raises the income (standard of living) of both the seller and the buyer (who must also sell something in order to buy something)—i.e. both the exporter and importer.

So what does Trump’s steel and aluminum tariff do?

The American economy is now fully employed (ok, maybe some of those who left the labor market in recent years, not all of whom are old, can be coaxed to return). Thus if high tariffs on steel and aluminum make previously non competitive and inefficient American steel and aluminum producers competitive again, where will the workers come from to do that work? They must be attracted away from what ever they are producing now—lets call it good A. So we will produce less of good A, which was competitive without taxpayer subsidies or regulatory favoritism, in order to produce more steel and aluminum, which was not competitive before given tariff protection. Add it up and our overall income goes down. The economy over all will be less efficient, less productive, and our overall incomes and standard of living will be reduced.

This reallocation of our resources from more productive to less productive products will make owners of steel and aluminum companies and property owners around closed foundries happy. Trump-may-prosper-from-tariffs-even-if-this-faded-port-town-doesnt/2018/03/02/. But what about those who buy steel and aluminum made more expensive by the tariffs? What about Boeing and other aircraft manufacturers who are the fourth largest American exporters, whose products will now be more expensive and less competitive with Airbus, etc.? When steel tariffs were imposed in the year 2002, 200,000 Americans in steel using industries lost their jobs. That is more than the total of around 150,000 workers in the steel industry! “If-the-US-steel-industry-employs-150000-people-then-how-can-imports-threaten-500,000-jobs?”

Subsidizing inefficient industries with tariffs hurts consumers, who will have to pay the higher prices of aluminum beer cans, etc., as well as exporters like Boeing. We will all (except steel and aluminum producers) pay the cost of this increased inefficiency. Commerce secretary Wilbur Ross thinks we should just get over these modest increases in the costs of our purchase of goods that include steel and aluminum for the greater good of American steel and aluminum producers and the 150,000 people who work for them. In case there are children listening I am withholding what I would like to say to Mr. Ross.

Only 2.2% of our steel and aluminum imports come from China while Canada (hardly a security threat to the U.S.) provides 16.1% of our imports of these products: The rest of the world will not roll over and play dead. The EU is already preparing counter measures to punish American exporters to Europe. “EU-vows-to-hit-back-against-trump-in-trade-war”

Following the end of WWII the world, lead by the U.S., has built up mechanisms for promoting fair trade (first the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs—GATT—now called the World Trade Organization—WTO). Where countries violate these rules, and China frequently does, they should be addressed via the WTO. American interests, and the world’s interests more generally, are served by strengthening the WTO not weakening it. Trump’s unilateral tariffs do not serve our interests. Not only has he persistently undermined free markets with his misplaced attack on bilateral trade deficits but he has systematically undermined the WTO and the international rule of law. Please, Mr. President, stop this nonsense before it gets even worse.

Trade wars are never good, and no one wins in the end. Instead we should be enforcing and improving the rules of trade via the WTO, which has helped left millions of people out of poverty and raised the standard of living of the average person.


Abuses of Government regulation

Government is essential for a vibrant, growing economy. It provides and enforces the property rights and rules of the game (e.g., contract enforcement) within which entrepreneurs operate. It is, or should be, the referee of the game rather than a player.

There is often pressure from established firms for government regulations to have a role beyond establishing a transparent and level playing field in order to favor or protect these firms from unwanted (by them) competition. Requiring the U.S. government to buy what it needs from American firms is such an example. If the products and services of American firms were better and cheaper than those of foreign firms, there would be no need for such a law. As it is, it often means that taxpayers must pay more for their government than would be the case if it procured on a purely competitive basis. The extra cost must either divert government spending from other things or divert household incomes via an increase in taxes.

Two examples of such abuse are currently in the news—the Jones Act and the Boeing dispute with Bombardier.

The Jones Act, adopted in 1920, requires that all goods shipped between American ports must “be carried on ships built, owned and operated by Americans…. A 2012 study from the New York Federal Reserve found that shipping a container from the US East Coast to Puerto Rico cost $3,063. But shipping the same container on a foreign ship to the Dominican Republic nearby cost only $1,504. More broadly, the island loses $537 million per year as a result of the Jones Act.” “Jones-Act-hurts Puerto-Rico”

The Jones Act, formally called the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, was adopted to protect our merchant marine industry—thousands of sailors, ship builders, and their owners and operators. They were not competitive with foreign shippers without such protection. So Puerto Rico and all of the rest of us buying the goods shipped pay higher prices than necessary. If American cargo ships were forced to compete with foreign operators, then some—but not necessarily all—of them would fail and take jobs producing things that were competitive. Those that survived such competition would be the better for it, as would we. Senator John McCain introduced a bill in 2015 to repeal the Jones Act permanently, which we should all support. Buy American is a loose, loose, requirement. “Buy-American-hire-American”

“Mr. Trump’s big mistake has been his handling of the Jones Act.… First he said he would not suspend it as he did for Texas after Harvey and Florida after Irma. ‘A lot of people that work in the shipping industry . . . don’t want [it] lifted,’ he said. Well, duh. A lot of people don’t like competition. But that’s hardly a good argument for blocking it.

“Under pressure, he finally said he would suspend the Jones Act for Puerto Rico—but only for 10 days, a meaningless gesture.” Mary A. O’Grady FEMA’s-foul-up-in-Puerto-Rico

Boeing’s claim that Bombardier’s C Series CS100 commercial jet, built in Canada and Ireland and being purchased by Delta in the U.S., is competing unfairly because of government subsidies is murkier than the Jones Act case and raises a different issue for the renegotiation of NAFTA, which is now underway. While it is undeniable that Bombardier receives financial assistance from the Canadian government in a variety of ways, so does Boeing (from the U.S. government). Boeing is the single largest beneficiary of the loan subsidies provided by the U.S. Import-Export Bank (nicknamed in Washington the “Bank of Boeing”) to help foreign airlines finance their purchases of Boeing aircraft. “Boeing-took-a-foreign-firm-to-task-over-subsidies-critics-say-boeing-gets-help-too”

In response to Boeing’s complaint, the Commerce Department has announced that it intends to impose a staggering 219% tariff on the Canadian plane. Strangely Boeing did not even compete for Delta’s business and has no aircraft that competes with the Bombardier plane. Sorting out the claims and counter claims will be complicated. Which plane builder has benefited more from their governments’ help? What would constitute a level playing field in the international competition to sell these airplanes?

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau threatened that “his government might cancel a previous proposal to buy Boeing F-18 Super Hornet fighter jets.” In addition, “Bombardier employs about 4,000 people in Belfast, many of whom work on the CS100.” Britain’s, Prime Minister Theresa May “tweeted that it was ‘bitterly disappointed’ by the proposed tariff….   British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon said that he would not cancel an existing deal to buy eight spy planes and 50 Apache helicopters from Boeing but that the slight would hurt Boeing in future competitions.”

These are the sorts of tit for tat trade wars can grow out of, to the detriment of everyone. Like most other trade agreements, the NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) has established a dispute resolution mechanism to evaluate and settle such disputes. Bombardier-vs-Boeing-skip-to-chapter-19. Such disputes are adjudicated by independent dispute resolution panels. “Chapter 19 [of NAFTA] offers exporters and domestic producers an effective and direct route to make their case and appeal the results of trade-remedy investigations before an independent and objective binational panel. This process is an alternative to judicial review of such decisions before domestic courts.”

The Trump administration is now renegotiating NAFTA with Canada and Mexico. “U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer has… suggested having the nation’s own courts hearing the disputes.” Canada-says-hard-no-on-Trump-change-to-nafta-dispute-resolution.

Take a deep breath and step back. We want Canada’s challenge to our proposed 219% tariff on Canadian airplanes adjudicated in our own courts? How can we imagine that this would be acceptable? Would we agree to our challenge to a Mexican tariff on American cars sold in Mexico being settled in a Mexican court? Have we become such big bullies that we can even suggest such an outrageous approach? Trade should be as fair as possible within the terms of any trade agreement and disputes should be resolved as impartially as possible. We and the rest of the world benefit from the increase in trade that results.

Competitive capitalism vs. the other kinds

Free market capitalism requires the rule of laws that apply equally to everyone. This is an important foundation for the enormous efficiency and productivity of free market capitalist economies as well as for their fundamental fairness. What PEOTUS Trump did with Carrier and promises/threatens to do with any other company that behaves in ways he does not like does not meet this test.

As the powers of feudal lords were restrained by laws, they and their friends used laws to protect their special interests when ever possible. Judged by modern standards such uses of the law have undermined both the efficiency and fairness of economies dominated by them. The United States has prospered more than most other economies in part because it has generally been freer of such misuses of the law. The idea that publicly spirited technocrats can make better decisions about the allocation of our productive resources, even if they could somehow avoid the inevitable rent seeking pressures of market players, has been firmly repudiated by history. “Trumps carrier deal is the opposite of conservatism”

Professions, and other service providers often, if not always, attempt to use laws and regulations to protect themselves from open competition. Labor unions are an obvious example, but professional licensing requirements for doctors, lawyers, electricians, plumbers, etc. often go beyond certifying basic competence in order to restrict competition that might force them to lower the cost of their services to the public. Disruptive new ways of packaging and offering services, such as we have seen recently with Uber and AirBNB, that challenge, as well as complement, established cab and hotel business models are often resisted by the incumbents. These challenges have little to do with public safety and product quality and everything to do with preserving quasi-monopoly rents to the incumbent firms. Free Markets Uber Alles

The recent case of auto dealers vs Tesla provides a good example of this behavior. A recent Washington Post article on this dispute began with: “Don Hall, president of the Virginia Automobile Dealers Association, was making the hard sell. Staring directly into the camera, using the language of war, he urged car dealers to unite against a force that he said threatened their livelihoods: electric-car-maker Tesla…. The reason that Hall was sounding the alarm: Tesla, which sells its cars directly to consumers rather than through franchise dealers, is trying to open a second store in Virginia.” Auto dealers sound alarm as Tesla pushes for second Virginia store

Mr. Hall defends “the franchise system that they say protects consumers as well as their own business interests.” Perhaps he is right, but if franchise dealers served consumers better than direct sales by the manufacturer they would be preferred by customers and would not need special protection from laws that prohibit alternative arrangements for selling cars. The simple issue is whether we are better off allowing the market to determine which products and retailing and servicing arrangements are best or giving that power to bureaucrats, who have rarely been able to resist the “pressures” of the entrenched firms. “Over the past decade, VADA [Virginia Automobile Dealers Association] has given Virginia politicians $4 million in campaign contributions” (Washington Post). What Mr. Hall is really concerned about is the “business interests” of the franchise dealers.

President elect Trump’s Carrier deal is a more blatant retreat from the free market. When combined with Trump statements and appointments that seem to give more power to markets, it is very difficult to see where Trump is going. It is shocking to hear Republicans say: “’The free market has been sorting it out and America’s been losing,’ Mr. Pence added, as Mr. Trump interjected, ‘Every time, every time.’” “Trump carrier pence jobs”

In negotiating deals with individual companies to keep specific operations in the U.S. or to continue operations a company planned to reduce or end, Trump is engaging in a form of industrial central planning that is contrary to our tradition of free markets. It should be strongly opposed and I was pleased (and rather surprised) to see Sarah Palin speak out against it. While we do not yet know the details of the Carrier deal (aside from the $7 million in tax subsidies from the state of Indiana that Carrier had earlier rejected) the knock on effects are difficult to track. For example, we don’t know what the effect on Carrier jobs will be of its loss of competitiveness from more expensive output produced in Indiana?

It would be highly objectionable if Trump used “the threat of pulling federal contracts from Carrier’s parent, United Technologies…. Mr. Trump,… said he did not directly raise the $5 billion to $6 billion in federal contracts United Technologies receives, much of it from the Pentagon.” (NYT) It would not be objectionable if Carrier’s decision reflected Trump’s pledge to lower corporate income tax rates and reduce costly regulations, as these would apply to all similar firms.

Evaluating the specific economic effects of the Carrier deal is also made difficult by Trump’s loose relationship with the truth. According to Chuck Jones, the union leader representing the Carrier workers whose jobs Trump claims to have saved, Carrier announced in February that it would “would move 1,300 jobs to a plant in Mexico.” After Trump got involved he “said he’d saved 1,100 jobs, he hadn’t. Carrier told us that 550 people would get laid off.” “Im-the-union-leader-donald-trump-attacked-im-tired-of-being-lied-to-about-our-jobs”

If you wondered why out of the blue Trump tweeted that: “Chuck Jones, who is President of United Steelworkers 1999, has done a terrible job representing workers. No wonder companies flee country!”, the answer seems to be that Trump was angry that his job numbers were being challenged by Mr. Jones. If this explanation is correct, it reflects shockingly immature behavior by the President elect.

On the other hand, Trump’s attack on the projected cost of a new Air Force One being planed for 2020 is of a totally different nature. Putting aside the inaccuracies of Trump’s tweet—at this point Boeing only has a $170 million contract to design the plane—it is totally appropriate for his administration to be concerned with the cost of the planes they are ordering and to negotiate the best possible deal. It may be that Trump’s dramatic tweets are part of his bargaining strategy. At this point, who knows? I am not competent to evaluate such a strategy, but Trump as President-elect has taken us where we have never been before. His behavior is wholly inappropriate for an American President. Hopefully he will realize this before too much serious damage is done.

” Donald J Trump@realDonaldTrump

Boeing is building a brand new 747 Air Force One for future Presidents, but costs are out of control, more than $4 billion. Cancel order!”

What do Trump supporters want?

Dear Jeff (Giesea),

Thank you for reaching out to non-Trump supporters in the search for dialog and better understanding. I fully agree with you that we need civil discussion, which requires assuming the good intentions of those across the table.

As a Trump opponent, I voted for Gary Johnson, the starting point for me is to understand what you and other Trump supporter hope the Trump administration will do. Why did you and so many others support him? I don’t buy the liberal press’ (sorry for using short hand and thus inaccurate, but convenient labels) contention that most of his supporters are racists, bigots, etc. who actually liked and supported Trump’s rudeness, potty mouth, etc. Most of his supporters probably overlooked these character flaws (just as Hillary supporters overlooked rather than embraced her decades of dishonesty). But what did you and the others support? Trump’s protectionist, anti-immigrant, anti- Muslim rhetoric seems to reject long standing Republican Party and conservative positions. His threat to challenge the freedom of the press to criticize him hardly squares with conservative respect for the constitution.

You kindly responded to my question of why you supported Trump with six points only one of which referred to Trump (that you thought he would provide “big, bold thinking and executive-style leadership.” The other five referred to problems with current leadership and directions. In short you want change. Now we need to discuss what those changes should be.

It is now time to turn to a discussion of policy issues, something almost totally lacking in the most ugly, ad hominem campaign I have ever seen. In fact, as President elect Trump begins to spell out his positions he is already walking back many of his earlier more extreme positions, or at least what we thought were his positions. The way forward with the dialog you are helping to promote is to seriously undertake an examination of specific policy issues to see what we can agree on and where we disagree and why.

I think everyone agrees that our immigration policy is broken and needs to be fixed. So let’s explore what we each think needs to be fixed and the best way to do. Our rapidly aging population (more and more retired people relying on a shrinking working age population to grow our food etc) will require more immigration to survive. The important issues are who those immigrates should be, how to most effectively control the process, and what to do about existing illegals. Let’s have that discussion.

If we have learned anything about Obama Care it is that slipping through legislation that enacts significant changes on the basis of a narrow majority is a serious mistake. Significant changes should require broad support and that will certainly be true in the Trump administration as well.

What is behind Trump’s protectionist rhetoric? He is not likely to actually violate very beneficial international trade law and slap large tariffs on China for currency manipulation (something they are demonstrably not doing any more). When in the campaign he said that he would demand that Boeing stop sourcing its aircraft parts abroad in order to bring those jobs home, he seems not to have considered that the resulting higher cost of Boeing’s planes would reduce global demand for them thus costing American jobs (not to mention his general attack on free market efficiency). I expect to see such demands vanish, but what are the improvements in our trade agreements that Trump (and you) thinks are desirable? Lets have that discussion.

The separation of church and state and the freedom of religion enshrined in our constitution are fundamental to our values as a nation. There is no blood test to determine if you are a Muslim or a catholic or a Jew. Religion isn’t and can’t be a test of who is allowed to visit America. But striking a proper balance between our freedom and our security is a serious challenge. The Patriot Act, passed in the wake of 9/11, was a serious intrusion on our freedom in the false name of security in my view, but lets discuss with the new Trump administration how best to balance the powers of government to protect us, against the risks of big brother overly controlling us.

Many of us have rebelled against the excesses of “political correctness” on university campuses and else where (I have written several blogs on the subject). The traditional goal of the university is the unrestrained pursuit of truth. But in its place good manners (civility as you rightly put it.) are essential if we are to live peaceably together and flourish. I would love to see Trump and Hillary together call upon their supporters to respect, though not necessarily agree with, the views (and property) of their opponents—of everyone.

Thank you again for promoting this dialog.

Crony capitalism and the Export Import Bank

An important and fundamental principle of the rule of law is that laws should have wide or universal applicability to everyone. This principle is generally violated when governments subsidize specific activities. These subsidize might take the form of tax breaks, loans at preferential interest rates or even grants to favored enterprises or activities. The Export Import Bank is a government program for granting such favors in the name of promoting exports.

If the EX-IM Bank only provided information to American firms that helped them satisfy foreign requirements for selling their products abroad or to connect with services available for marketing such produces—following the model of the Small Business Administration or the Agricultural Extension Services provided by many states—their continued existence might be defensible. However, like so many government intrusions into the private sector, it provides huge subsidize to a limited number of customers (about 30% of the total to Boeing to subsidize the sale of its planes to foreign carriers) at the expense of others. American carriers like Delta complain that EX-IM Bank subsidies to Boeing benefit their foreign competitors, who are able to buy Boeing planes more cheaply than they are. “The Airline Pilots Association of America estimates that the bank’s subsidizing of Boeing airline purchases abroad has forced our domestic airlines to cut about 7,500 jobs – decreasing the airline workforce by almost 2 percent.” (The Blaze, May 29, 2015)

While the cost of the EX-IM Bank to U.S. taxpayers is trivial, it is one more drop in the growing pond of crony capitalist connections to the government. Boeing moved its headquarters from Seattle, where most of its production was traditionally located, to Chicago and has diversified its production and suppliers around the country precisely to have more representatives in congress with an interest in its well being. Like many other large companies seeking government favors, it has hired key people from government such as Kevin Varney, former chief of staff at the Ex-Im during Obama’s first term. The stakes for Boeing are large so you can be sure it is spending a lot of money one way or another to protect its interests. This is the nature of crony capitalism, which gradually diminishes real market competition and chokes productivity.

Creating programs that grant favors also creates strong incentives for less subtle and more overt, traditional style corruption. “For example, Johnny Gutierrez, an Ex-Im Loan Specialist, pled guilty on April 22, 2015 of accepting up to $78,000 in bribes in return for recommending the approval of unqualified loan applications to the bank, among other misconduct. During this period, Ex-Im gave Gutierrez nearly a 20 percent pay hike and paid-out thousands in performance bonuses. “ (Adam Andrzejewski, Forbes, )

The Ex-Im Bank and dozens of programs like it are economically unsound and wasteful and politically corrupting. It and others like it should be killed when ever possible. Here is a rare case where congress can do good by doing nothing (i.e. by not renewing the Bank at the end of this month).