The Sources of Prosperity

I am an economist so I can’t help writing about the virtues of trade in the (futile?) hope that what is obvious to economists might be better understood and appreciated by the general public. https://wcoats.blog/2016/12/22/save-trade/https://wcoats.blog/2017/01/06/the-liberal-international-order/,   https://wcoats.blog/2018/03/03/econ-101-trade-in-very-simple-terms/, https://wcoats.blog/2017/01/06/the-liberal-international-order/, https://wcoats.blog/2019/02/09/tariff-abuse/

So please bear with me one more time. If you join with ten, or a hundred, or a thousand others to cooperatively produce things, you can jointly produce much more than ten times, or one hundred or one thousand times as much as you could all produce individually as one person factories. But that huge increase in productivity and output is not possible unless you can sell your joint output to others for the many other things you need and want to consume that they produce. In short, none of this is possible without trade. The wider the area over which we can trade the greater are the possible gains in productivity from the specialization of labor and capital that a larger market makes possible. The American constitution recognized this when it prohibited restraints on trade between the states (across state lines).  The ultimate limit in the size of the market is given by the world itself.

But markets—the “places” or the arrangements through which trade deals (purchase and sales agreements) occur—require trust that deals will be honored.  The rule of law, which protects private property and the enforcement of contracts, provides the certainty needed for a manufacturer or other service provider to invest in the productive capacity and facilities needed to generate the promised supply of products that is the foundation of our relative affluence. When trade extends beyond national boundaries the rule of law takes the form of international agreements to rules of the game.  Bilateral, multilateral and global trade agreements establish the rule of law within their domains.  The World Trade Organization (WTO) was created to oversee this process. The astonishing skyrocketing of the standard of living of the average (even the poorest) earthling rest on, i.e. would not have been possible without, trade.

The uneven but persistent history of trade has seen the protection of less efficient and uncompetitive firms and industries reduced over time via trade agreements that reciprocally reduced the taxation of imports (i.e. tariffs).  Starting with President Trump’s misguided withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade liberalization has been thrown into reverse. Trump vs Adam Smith  TPP modernized and further liberalized existing trade agreements between the U.S. and a number of Pacific countries.  The agreement was to be between 12 Asian Pacific countries until the U.S. withdrew.  It would have provided a strong magnet to further draw China into the global system of rules for increasingly free trade. It was ultimately signed by 11 countries without the U.S. and renamed the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). The US withdrawal from the agreement was a serious mistake.

The United States as well as much of the rest of the world is beginning to pay the costs of Trump’s trade wars. In January of this year Deutsche Bank estimated that Trump’s trade wars have cost the U.S. stock market $5 trillion in forgone returns so far. Costs of trade war  “Bloomberg economists Dan Hanson and Tom Orlik have… concluded: If tariffs expand to cover all U.S.-China trade, and markets slump in response, global GDP will take a $600 billion hit in 2021, the year of peak impact.” US China trade war-economic fallout  “The import tariffs proposed by President Trump could wipe out the income gains provided by the Republican tax cuts for low- and middle-income earners, Jim Tankersley of The New York Times reported Monday.”  ”Trump-Tariffs-Could-Wipe-Out-Tax-Cuts-Most-Americans”

Are Trump’s import taxes old fashioned protectionism (protecting relatively inefficient domestic industries from foreign competition), a legitimate response to national security concerns, or a reflection of Trump’s “famed” negotiating style?

Protectionism

For starters Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs of 25% and 10% respectively (following his earlier imposition of tariffs on solar panels of 30% and washing machines of 50%) are clearly protectionist and reflect an alarming over reach of executive authority. Using the “authority” given the President under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, U.S. Department of Commerce found that imports of steel and aluminum “threaten to impair the national security” of the United States.  Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the claim that reliance on Canadian steel could be considered a national security risk “absurd”.  Trump removed these tariffs on Canada and Mexico last month, but they remain in effect on our other friends (e.g., EU) and enemies. On several occasions Trump has threatened to raise tariffs on car’s imported from Europe on the same phony national security grounds.

The patters of trade that minimize costs of production and maximize labor productivity can be complex. While protecting a few inefficient American steel producers and their related jobs might be good for those few firms, it is bad for American consumers and the economy at large. Workers in less productive protected industries are thus not available to work in more productive activities. Moreover, more jobs were lost than saved as the result of high prices and lost sales by steel importing manufactures.  One study estimated that these tariffs could result in the loss of 146,000 jobs.[1]

Peterson Institute for International Economics study estimated that American businesses and consumers paid more than $900,000 a year for each job that was created or saved as a result of the Trump administration’s tariffs on steel and aluminum. The cost for each job saved as a result of the administration’s tariffs on washing machines was $815,000.[2]

National Security

The distinction between legitimate security concerns and protectionism is not always obvious. Trump’s approach is often more protectionist and bargaining chips than concerns for security.  An early indication of this was the U.S.’s treatment of ZTE Corp, China’s second largest telecoms gear maker.  In April 2018 the U.S. band U.S. companies from selling their products to ZTE in connection with its violation on U.S. restrictions on trade with Iran, Sudan, North Korea, Syria and Cuba.  “That means no Qualcomm chips or Android software for its phones, and no American chips or other components for its cellular gear.” NYT The company was effectively shut down and heading for bankruptcy when in early June of 2018 Trump ordered these restrictions lifted to save Chinese jobs!!  According to the NYT: “The Trump administration is pressuring China to make trade concessions. It may also need Beijing’s help to strike a deal with North Korea as Washington and Pyongyang plan a high-profile meeting on June 12 in Singapore.  Mr. Trump appears to be using ZTE’s punishment as a bargaining chip in negotiations with China, rather than a matter of law enforcement.” What is ZTE–A Chinese Geopolitical Pawn

Trump’s more recent banishment of Huawei, a Chinese tech company leading the world in 5G development, from the American market and efforts to convinces our once British and EU friends to do the same provides another example. In some applications security concerns when dealing with a Chinese company may be justified, but these areas are limited and Huawei has gone to great lengths to allay those concerns. “Google has been arguing that by stopping it from dealing with Huawei, the US risks creating two kinds of Android operating system: the genuine version and a hybrid one. The hybrid one is likely to have more bugs in it than the Google one, and so could put Huawei phones more at risk of being hacked, not least by China.”  “Google warns of US national security risk of Huawei ban” FT June 6, 2019

The Trump administration has expressed its anger with the refusal of many other countries to follow its lead thus incurring a diplomatic cost as well as the economic one of restricting access to the best and/or most cost-effective products. The dangers and potential damage of using trade threats for other objections are clearly express by seven former US Ambassadors to Mexico in a joint letter published June 5: Ex US Mexico Ambassadors-Tariffs would destroy partnership we built

Moreover, the US’s exploitation of the importance of the dollar as a reserve and payment currency in forcing its political agenda on the rest of the world has incentivized the EU, Russian, China and others to look for alternatives. As another example of the growing risks of relying on American markets, Alibaba, China’s national champion internet giant whose share are currently only listed on the New York Stock Exchange, will raise its next round of capital on the Hong Kong exchange.

Bargaining

But some of Trump’s threats of tariffs no doubt reflect his approach to a trade negotiation. While it is not the usual approach to a trade negotiation, in which the parties should be looking for win-win reductions in tariffs and other impediments to freer trade, it could occasionally work to achieve greater concessions from the other side than otherwise. There is really little evidence that it has, however. The renegotiated NAFTA, given the new name United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement or USMCA, is no better than a normal review and updating of the existing NAFTA would have been expected to produce. It incorporates most of the updated provisions of the TPP, as was expected. But Trump started the NAFT review and update, by tearing up the old agreement and threatening to revert to the bad old days. Trump’s threated 5% tariff on imports from Mexico if it doesn’t do more to reduce or deal with the flow of refugees across the US Mexican border seems to be a counter example of a threat that worked.

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Donald J. Trump‏Verified account @realDonaldTrump

FollowFollow @realDonaldTrump

On June 10th, the United States will impose a 5% Tariff on all goods coming into our Country from Mexico, until such time as illegal migrants coming through Mexico, and into our Country, STOP. The Tariff will gradually increase until the Illegal Immigration problem is remedied,..

4:30 PM – 30 May 2019

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What if Trump doesn’t back down as China matches each of Trump’s escalations with new tariff increases of their own? Such a true trade war was not a necessary approach to the negotiations and could be terribly detrimental to both economies as well as those of our trading partners. Some of China’s behavior should be challenged. Its theft of intellectual property, state aid to some of its companies, and restrictions on foreign companies operating in China violate the spirit of the competitive deployment of resources to their most productive uses. But these criticisms are shared by most other countries (UK, EU, Japan, Korea, India, etc.). The US should negotiate with China together with these allies. It should use and strengthen the mechanisms of the World Trade Organization rather than ignoring and weakening it.

Even if Trump does backdown, as he generally has in the past, considerable damage has already been done that could take years to undo. The development of the cost saving, productivity enhancing global supply chains took time and were built with confidence in the rules that would apply—the rule of law. These very much included the maximum taxes (tariffs) and other regulations that would apply. The trust in that framework of rules has now been badly damaged.

Supply chains are already being restructured to reduce the risks of US policy shifts. While new arrangements may avoid or reduce these risks, they do so at the cost of efficiency.  Refusing to buy Russian booster rockets or Chinese semiconductors because of concerns that the Chinese or Russian government might exploit their companies’ products militarily or to steal our trade secrets, forces us into more expensive and/or inferior products and thus keeps us and the world poorer than otherwise. We had better be sure that the costs are necessary.

[1]  Timmons, Heather (March 5, 2018). “Five US jobs will be lost for every new one created by Trump’s steel tariffs”Quartz (publication).

[2] Long, Heather (2019). “Trump’s steel tariffs cost U.S. consumers $900,000 for every job created, experts say”The Washington Post.

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”

Have we been taken advantage of?

For as long as I can remember I have purchased food and household items from Safeway, Giant, and Whole Foods without any of them buying anything from me. Was I taken advantage of? Of course not. I voluntarily gave up part of my hard earned income in exchange for something I wanted more. I gained and was made better off by being able to make these trades just as they profited from providing them. In fact, I don’t know and I don’t care what those stores did with the money I paid them. Much of it, of course, was used to buy the goods they put on their shelves for me to buy.

These trades (my income for their goods) would only become a problem if I spent more at Safeway, Giant, and Whole Foods than I earned selling my labor. To do so I would need to borrow money from someone and go into debt. That might be OK temporarily, but obviously not on a permanent basis. In the long run, my purchases (imports) can’t exceed my income (export of my labor).

If you change my name to the United States and the names of Safeway, Giant, and Whole Foods to China, Japan and Germany (not necessarily in that order) nothing in this story changes fundamentally. Americans benefit from our purchases of Chinese goods and it doesn’t matter what they do with the money we paid to them (net of what they purchased from us—i.e., their trade surplus and our trade deficit). As I have explained in the following article, what they (all of them collectively) are largely doing with our money (our net global trade deficit) is finance our profligate government. https://nationalinterest.org/feature/who-pays-uncle-sams-deficits-26417

For some reason President Trump has trouble understanding these simple facts. He is upset by our trade deficit with China and Germany and others that his profligate, indebted government has caused. If the federal government balanced its budget (actually being at the top of the current business cycle it should be running a surplus in order to balance over the cycle), what would China and Germany do with their surplus of dollars? Rather than buying U.S. treasury securities, they might invest in the U.S. economy contributing to faster economic growth in the U.S. They might also choose to buy more goods and services from the U.S. thus reducing their dollar surpluses. In all likelihood they would do some of each. Given the resulting adjustments in their demand for dollars, the exchange rates of the dollar for Euros and RMB would adjust to produce the desired reduction in their surpluses.

Attacking China with tariffs and demanding a reduction in their trade surplus with the U.S. is counterproductive and wrong headed. But it does not follow that China is playing by the rules (WTO rules that we should be trying to strengthen rather than weaken). The EU, Japan, Canada, Mexico and others share this assessment and Trump would be much smarter to seek their cooperation in pressuring China to behave better rather than attacking them with tariffs and tariff threats as well. With the recent agreement with Jean-Claude Juncker, head of the European Commission, to deescalate the trade war with the EU and resume the negotiations over further trade liberalization started a few years ago (TTIP), perhaps Trump is changing tactics in a more promising direction. This should include concluding the updating of NAFTA and rejoining the TPP now the CPATPP.  We should all hope so.

Richard Rahn makes similar arguments in his Washington Times article today: https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2018/jul/30/the-united-states-is-doing-better-than-it-did-duri/

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. https://wcoats.blog/2017/09/15/a-basic-human-right/  https://wcoats.blog/2016/12/22/save-trade/

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: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/canada-top-exporter-of-steel-and-aluminum-to-us-flabbergasted-by-trumps-tariff-proposals/2018/03/02/7c906c2a-1e22-11e8-98f5-ceecfa8741b6_story.html?undefined=&utm_term=.294884487749&wpisrc=nl_headlines&wpmm=1. 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 https://wcoats.blog/2017/07/23/the-balance-of-trade/ 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.” http://www.naftanow.org/dispute/default_en.asp

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.

The Balance of Trade

President Trump has regularly called for bilateral trade balances with our trading partners. Though he prudently gave up his campaign promise to declare China a currency manipulator on his first day in office because of China’s large trade surpluses with the U.S., he more recently criticized Germany’s even larger surplus. The Trump administration’s objectives in renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) published July 17th also call for reducing U.S. bilateral trade deficits with Mexico and Canada. Economists recognize these objectives as nonsensical, but it might be worthwhile to spell out to the broader public (if not to Trump’s protectionist White House wing) why that is so.

Let’s start with the U.S. trade balance with the rest of the world. As we pay for what we import with what we export, we would generally expect a balance between imports and exports over time, just as we expect a rough balance between our income and expenditures over time. But uniquely in the case of the U.S., we need to have a deficit (imports exceeding exports) paid for with U.S. dollars, because the rest of the world holds and uses our dollars to finance many international transactions. The dollar is the world’s primary international reserve currency and our trade deficit is the primary means by which we supply them to the rest of the world.

This is an over simplification, however, because dollars are also supplied to the rest of the world via our capital account, i.e. Americans investing abroad. At the end of 2016 Americans had invested about $24 trillion USD equivalent. However, the rest of the world had invested over $32 trillion USD in the U.S. Roughly $5 trillion of this net investment in the U.S. of $8 trillion represented official foreign exchange reserves held by foreign governments in U.S. dollars out of total foreign exchange reserves of about $8 trillion.

Something also needs to be said about the relationship between foreign holdings of dollars and changes in those holdings. Any increase in the demand for foreign exchange reserves by foreign governments, something that tends to happen naturally as economies grow, must be met by the balance of payments deficits of the countries supplying those reserves. Thus the U.S. trade deficit last year (2016) of about $500 billion USD more or less reflects the addition to the dollar reserves of foreign governments.

So the use of the U.S. dollar in foreign exchange reserves implies that the U.S. will have, and need to have, a balance of trade deficit of a similar amount. But let’s simplify and assume that U.S. trade with the rest of the world is balanced (zero trade balance as well as zero current and capital account balances), perhaps because the U.S. dollar is replaced in international reserves by the SDR as I have long recommended. See my: Real SDR Currency Board What about the trade balance with Mexico and Canada? Should we want and expect each bilateral trade relationship to be balanced?

The error of such thinking can be easily illustrated with a simple, hypothetical example. Assume that within NAFTA the U.S.’s comparative advantage is in manufacturing all the pieces that make up an automobile and growing wheat, Mexico’s comparative advantage is using its “cheap” labor to assemble those pieces into cars, and Canada’s is growing and milling lumber. Assume that that is all they do that crosses their borders. The U.S. sells its car parts to Mexico, which puts them together and sells the cars to the U.S. and Canada. The value of the parts sold to Mexico is less than the value of the cars (which incorporates the parts from the U.S.) Mexico sells to the U.S. so that on net the U.S. has a trade deficit with Mexico. The U.S. sells wheat to Canadians buying a lesser value of lumber in return and Canada sells its lumber to the U.S. and to Mexico buying a few cars but of less value. Looking at bilateral trade balances, Mexico has a surplus vs. the U.S. and a deficit vs. Canada. Canada has a surplus vs. Mexico just sufficient to cover its deficit vs. the U.S. These bilateral deficits and surpluses are not a problem because the U.S. has a trade balance vs. Mexico and Canada combined and indeed with all of the rest of the world. The same is true for Mexico and Canada. What really matters is whether the value of a country’s exports to the rest of the world match and thus pay for the value of its imports from the rest of the world. As someone noted, no one worries that you have a large trade deficit with the grocery store as long as your total spending everywhere is covered by your income (the sale of your labor to your employer).

Being the eternal optimist, I trust that there are enough people in the Trump administration that understand that seeking bilateral trade balances with each and every country would be a terrible mistake to keep him from trying to do so.

Keystone Pipeline, Jobs, and Confusion

Perhaps “haste makes waste” explains the jumble of contradictory statements coming from President Trump with regard to the Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipeline projects. Or maybe not?? Trump gives green light to Dakota Access Keystone XL oil pipelines. Trump’s trade and jobs rhetoric continues to alarm free market conservatives as well as our trading partners abroad (see the comments coming from a bewildered Germany wondering how to best protect their interests as Trump pursues what he—mistakenly—considered America’s interests).

The pipelines will save jobs (yes save jobs), improve safety, and reduce environmental risks compared with the existing alternatives of rail and trucking. Obama’s State Department reviews, which cleared the Keystone XL project multiple times, concluded in its final review that the Canadian oil in question was coming out of the ground with or without the Keystone XL pipeline and thus there would be no significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions from the pipeline. https://keystonepipeline-xl.state.gov/documents/organization/221135.pdf

The same is true for the Dakota Access pipeline, the final 1,100 feet of which (of the 1,171 mile project) have been stopped because of objections by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe that it would “disturb sacred burial and archaeological sites.” WaPo.

On Tuesday, Trump said: “From now on, we’re going to be making pipeline in the United States. We build the pipelines, we want to build the pipe. We’re going to put a lot of workers, a lot of skilled workers, back to work. We will build our own pipeline, we will build our own pipes, like we used to in the old days.” WaPo

I am increasingly inclined to think that Trump’s blatant misrepresentations of the impact of his “Buy American, hire American” mantra is sinister demagoguery. TransCanada, the Canadian project owner had already planned to buy 65% of the steel pipe from U.S. manufacturers as a purely business decision. Replacing the remaining 35% with American made pipes would increase the cost of the project. It would also redeploy American workers from their current, presumable more productive, employment to make these pipes. It is hard to see what Trump doesn’t get about efficiency and productivity as a source of our wealth. If he insists on doing it “like we used to in the old days,” he will make us poorer as “in the old days.”

“Opponents of the pipeline dismissed the job numbers and economic impacts, arguing that pipelines will create only “a handful” of permanent jobs.

“But the fact that pipelines only have a handful of permanent workers simply conveys how remarkably efficient pipelines are. The high output of labor generates value and wealth and frees up Americans to be more productive elsewhere in the economy.” http://dailysignal.com/2017/01/24/trumps-pipeline-approvals-are-a-win-for-the-economy-and-environment/?utm_source=TDS_Email&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=MorningBell&mkt_tok=eyJpIjoiT0RJeFlqaGpNamt3TkdOayIsInQiOiJTSnpZZExnVUdLOThQdW5ESnNPNDlIUHByWXFXNSs3bEFDa0VFOHVCbnhTOUtnbTBMWnd6MEkxTkdhRHpCVjU5a0JhQ2EraVZWTVVOcXlJVzVpMkVQVm9OWkJcL29VOEpkdG93RllJeldNNVBpem9KbHlPTWlOOFRJSkVEM3FyR1QifQ%3D%3D