Supply Chains

When politicians and pundit refer to trade or supply chains, they invariable mean cross border trade or supply chains.  This is a mistake. President Trump recently provided a particularly nonsensical example:

“In Washington, President Trump lambasted corporate America for “these stupid supply chains” and said the pandemic had proven him right on the need to bring factories home.

“We have a supply chain where they’re made in all different parts of the world. And one little piece of the world goes bad and the whole thing is messed up,” he told Fox Business in May. “I said we shouldn’t have supply chains. We should have them all in the United States.” “Coronavirus-globalization-manufacturing”

Trade occurs whenever you sell your labor or whatever you produce and buy what you need from others. Trade starts at your doorstep and without it you would starve to death. Supply chains exist whenever you purchase inputs to whatever you (or the firm you work for) are making from someone else rather than making every component yourself. If you are a carpenter, you buy your tools from someone else.

You might think that you should confine trade and/or associated supply chains to your family or your village for some reason, but you would give up the efficiencies of greater specialization when trading more widely (maybe even across national borders). And such restrictions would lower–potentially significantly lower–your income and standard of living as well as the incomes of your trading partners.

This does not mean that there are no risks in relying on others to produce some of what you want. If there is only one source of what you buy, you risk going without if that source stops producing. But that is rarely the case. I briefly thought it might be for toilet paper in March when the supermarket t-paper shelves were empty for a few weeks. But I bought some on line from China and it was delivered to my door.

Manufacturers whose supply chains have only one source are taking a risk for whatever efficiency they enjoy. Having multiple suppliers or supply options is a form of insurance and is generally wise.  But it makes little sense for a Southern California manufacturer who buys some of its inputs from across the border in Mexico to be forced to shift its supply chain to Pennsylvania in order to have it “in the United States.” Transportation costs would be higher and with greater risk of weather or other transportation disruption. On the other hand, relying on the much closer source across a national border has the risk of an unpredictable President imposing a tax (tariff) on imports from Mexico. Our wise constitution prevents him from doing so on interstate commerce.  

The uncertainty of today’s world is causing firms to reevaluate the risks of long supply chains. That is prudent, but insisting that everything be produced and purchased within the United States is nonsensical and harmful for everyone involved.

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.,,,

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?


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.


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.


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


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.

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:

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.

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.

Trump’s Foreign Policy and Mexico

“From this day forward, it’s going to be only America First. America first!” Video of Trump’s inaugural address. Or was it “Trump First?”

If President Trump’s plea for others, such as Mexico, to treat the U.S. fairly were merely an embarrassing gesture, we might overlook it having grown used to Trump’s need for approval. But this is the status and fate of my country at stake. In a hysterical satire made by Dutch television, they ask whether if America is First, they might be second: Dutch youtube satire

There is little disagreement that American foreign policy should serve America’s interests. Even the neocons see the promotion of democracy as ultimately good for America, if we can survive the wars they want us to fight to impose it on the rest of the world. We have and should continue to see our interests in long-run terms—enlightened self interest. As he has shortsightedly done with trade, “Trump outlined a world in which foreign relations are collapsed into a zero-sum game. They gain, we lose.” Charles Krauthammer on Trump’s foreign policy revolution /2017/01/26/.

The real issue is which policies actually serve our interests. These policies should keep us safe and prosperous.

Military: Obviously we need a military capability sufficient to protect our shores from attack, but we need to avoid devoting more of our resources to our military than necessary for that purpose (with a reasonable margin for error) because every dollar spent on the military is a dollar taken away from building our economic strength, which is equally important for our defense and well being.

Diplomacy: We also need to invest in building good relations with other countries, especially our immediate neighbors, in part to minimize the prospect of ever needing to use our military. Thus we must devote the resources, including training, needed by our State Department to build our effective soft power. In an article in Time magazine January 26, 2017, Mikhail Gorbachev, the last president of the Soviet Union said:   “No problem is more urgent today than the militarization of politics and the new arms race. Stopping and reversing this ruinous race must be our top priority.” Gorbachev on Putin – Trump

Treaties: But here is the part least appreciated by the American public and least understood by Trump (I don’t know about the rest of his team yet and eagerly await his appointment to the Undersecretary of State position). Just as the rule of law has been critical to development and vitality of our economy and the protection of our liberties at home, it remains as important when we cross the border. This extends far beyond the critically important agreements on trade, the international monetary system, and the rules of war, to the more mundane aspects of every day life as well.

According to The Washington Post: “Trump proposes internal high-level committees to examine multilateral treaties, with a view toward leaving them….

“John B. Bellinger III, who served as legal counsel to both the National Security Council and the State Department in the George W. Bush administration, said the treaty examination was based on a ‘false premise . . . that the United States has become party to numerous multi­lateral treaties that are not in the United States’ interest.’

“’There are “many hundreds of multi­lateral treaties that help Americans every day in concrete ways,’ he said. Without them, ‘Americans could not have our letters delivered in foreign countries; could not fly over foreign countries or drive on foreign roads using our state driver’s licenses; could not have access to a foreign consular official if we are arrested abroad; could not have our children returned if abducted by a parent; and could not prevent foreign ships from polluting our waters.’” Trump-lays-groundwork-to-change-US-role-in-the-world/2017/01/26/

The Bretton Woods institutions created after World War II (the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and World Trade Organization) established the institutional arrangements for cooperation in developing the rules of international trade and finance. American leadership in creating the international institutions through which we interact with others abroad, i.e., through which the rule of law is established and enforced internationally, has ensured that the international order has remained true to the liberal values on which America was founded. We would be wise to keep China as strong and active a member of these institutions and the rules they oversee as possible. US global leadership and the AIIB. It would be tragically misguided to undermine these institutions and our leadership of them. But this is the direction President Trump seems to be headed.

Mexico: Close to home, Mexico provides a tragic example of Trump’s failing approach to foreign policy. Our relationship with Mexico is one of our most important in the world. We share a 2,000 mile border with Mexico and it is our second largest export market earning $235 billion in 2016 while importing $296 billion worth of goods and services. The difference of $61 billion, the so-called trade deficit, reflects net Mexican investments in the U.S. Though Mexicans have been leaving the U.S. on net for the last few years, illegal immigration across our shared border has been a big campaign issue for Trump, and the Mexican border is the gateway for many non-Mexican Central American illegal immigrants. The flow of drugs across that border is also an issue.

Close cooperation with Mexico in dealing with these issues has been a critical aspect of managing them. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has been an enormous benefit. Former Mexican President Carlos Salinas told G.H.W. Bush that “goods bought by American consumers will be produced by Mexican workers, it is only a question of where those Mexican workers live!” He also indicated that in addition to jobs that keep Mexicans in Mexico, NAFTA also helped bring the rule of law to Mexico. Jerry Jordon

Illegal immigration reflects and responds to the incentives faced by potential immigrants. These include the quality of life, including jobs, in their home country, the demand for workers in the U.S., and the option of legal immigration. The problem of illegal immigration to the U.S. would be helped by a better legal immigration law, such as proposed by George W Bush in 2007 or later as contained in the Senate law drafted by the Gang of Eight in 2013. Better enforcement of work permit requirements with American employers could help a great deal.

President Trump’s approach has been grossly adversarial rather than cooperative. He has threatened to tear up (or at least renegotiate) NAFTA and build a wall on the U.S. –Mexican border that he would force Mexico to pay for. His approach is disastrously wrong. “President Trump’s Homeland Security secretary, John F. Kelly, has been clear about his views on a border wall with Mexico: It won’t work.” Homeland Security John Kelly on border wall – NYT. Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim stated that: “The best wall is investment, which generates employment in Mexico…. Mexico is the best partner the U.S. has.” Mexico digs in and Trump lashes back as border wall standoff deepens /2017/01/27/

The Mayor of Berlin Michael Mueller urged US President Donald Trump “not to go down the road of isolation.” He warned that such division causes “slavery and pain” and would “destroy the lives of millions.” BBC 1/27/2017. This doesn’t seem fully applicable to the Mexican wall, but still the Berliners know a lot about walls. John Oliver provides a hilarious but informative commentary on The Wall on Last Week Tonight. John Oliver video on The Wall

President Trump’s continued insistence on building the wall and his insulting claim that Mexico will pay for it has damaged the cooperative relationship that we badly need to maintain with Mexico. Trump’s tweet that Mexico should pay for the wall or Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto should cancel his planned visit to Washington and stay home is an insult beneath the dignity of an American President as well as stupid. That President Trump is surely ignorant of these and other seriously damaging knock on effects of his mishandling of our relations with Mexico is no excuse for his insane behavior. Trump’s ruinous stance on Mexico-deportation-border-wall-tariff-trade.

“For 70 years, we sustained an international system of open commerce and democratic alliances that has enabled America and the West to grow and thrive. Global leadership is what made America great. We abandon it at our peril.” [Krauthammer]

Trust and False News

January 26, 2017

The quality and extent of interactions among people (neighbors, companies, governments) profoundly affect our quality of life. Trust is a critically important element of such interactions and of “The Wealth of Nations,” to quote Adam Smith. No society, beyond (perhaps) the family and relatives, enjoys total trust. The willingness to and low cost of dealing with others in such a society would surely make it the richest one on earth. The more distant our relationship with someone, however, e.g., hiring a contractor to add a room to the house, the more formal our understandings need to be. But the deeper and more reliable is trust within a society, the simpler such contracts and their enforcement can be. This goes well beyond the obvious costs (effectively taxes) of doing business of security guards and surveillance cameras at department stores. More Trust frees up resources to produce the goods and services that we really want.

As part of its attack on Europe and the United States, Russia for some time has systematically worked to undermine trust in the West. For example, it generates and distributes “false news” in a variety of ways. It has become more difficult to judge when news is true or deliberately made up. As a result, the public’s trust in public institutions and performance is eroded to some, hopefully still limited, extent. As I argued above, a decline in the level of trust in Western societies reduces their economic efficiency and output.

False news must be distinguished from biased reporting and from disputed facts, unfortunately labeled “alternative facts”, by Trump senior advisor Kelly Anne Conway. Bias, or priors as we economists put it, reflects our inner beliefs and tentative understandings about what is true and can influence what a reporter chooses to report or emphasize. It does not reflect a willingness to report or repeat knowingly false information. The strange case of the size of the viewing audience for Trump’s inauguration ceremony illustrates bias and a few other things on all sides.

Trump was angry that the press reported mediocre attendance to his inauguration. The highly respected conservative economist Tyler Cowen provided an interesting analysis of why he thinks Trump forced his poor press secretary Sean Spicer to launch an attack on the Press for its “misreporting” of this matter: Why trump’s staff is lying. During his first official press conference on January 23, Spicer stated very clearly several times that his assessment that Donald Trump had the largest audience for his inauguration in history referred to total viewers “both in person and around the globe”. After apologizing for having reported the previous Saturday incorrect numbers for subway ridership he proceeded to present his estimate of TV and Internet viewers along with mall attendants and asked the press to correct them if wrong. USA Today reported that “On that point, Spicer may be correct…. But there is no comprehensive measurement available that would prove or disprove this claim.” The attending press persisted in referring to the size of the crowd on the mall. That reflects bias by the Press to the point of blindness. That Trump felt compelled to speak out about the size of his audience is sad evidence that he has not yet properly transitioned from candidate to President (that the thin skinned, megalomaniac we watched during the campaign has not yet grown up).

Alternative facts abound and refer to a lack of consensus on what the facts are. These are the bread and butter of scientific investigation and debate. Whether global temperatures last year were higher or lower than the year before depends on the measurement instruments used (surface instruments of one type or another, satellite systems, etc.), their location (country side, urban areas, ocean, etc.), frequency of measurements (daily, hourly, etc.), etc. Meteorologists debate this “fact”.

Candidate Trump lied so frequently and so freely during his campaign that I can only assume that he did so deliberately as a part of a general disinformation campaign. His claim, for example, that President Obama was not native born was so irrefutably disproved that Trump eventually (but very late in the game) withdrew it. President Trump sadly continues the practice by following up his ludicrous claim that he won by a landslide, with the claim for which there is no factual support at all of wide spread voter fraud. Trumps-disregard-for-the-truth-threatens-his-ability-to-govern.

Poor Sean Spicer was forced to announce Trump’s voter fraud lie to the press. When asked for evidence he cited “A 2012 Pew study [that] found that about 1.8 million deceased people were still on the rolls and that 2.75 million people were registered in two states. The study called for states to clean up their voter rolls but did not draw conclusions about voter fraud.” Trumps-voter-fraud-claims-undermine-the-voting-system-and-his-presidency/2017/01/24/. In fact, Trump’s Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon is registered in both New York and Florida, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is registered in New York and California, and Trump’s daughter Tiffany is registered in both Philadelphia and New York though neither voted twice. Bannon-was-registered-to-vote-in-two-states. Recidivism-watch-Spicer-uses-repeatedly-debunked-citations-for-trumps-voter-fraud-claims.

Trump’s lies, whether he believes them himself or not, along with false news perpetrated by Russia and others, are increasingly undermining public trust in the information so freely available on the Internet and elsewhere. This is bad for our democracy. It is not obvious what motivates him.

“Is Trumpism a scam? And if so, whom is Donald Trump scamming?

“Or is the country confronting something even more troubling: a president unhinged from any realities that get in the way of his impulses, unmoored from any driving philosophy and willing to make everything up as he goes along, including “alternative facts”?

“Of course, there’s another possibility: that there’s a method in all of this.” E. J. Dionne, Jr. What’s-the-method-in-trumps-madness/2017/01/25/

It is one thing to disagree with the President’s policy proposals—we can discuss and debate the reasons for our differences—and quite another when we cannot trust the integrity of the President or his administration. When the President proclaims over and over that he will insure that we “Buy American and hire American” (so much for shifting power from Washington to the people), rather than explaining why this is such a bad policy—save-trade—we turn immediately to the President’s hypocrisy rather than the substance of his policy. In Trump’s own business dealings he buys his materials where they are cheapest—steel and aluminum from China (Newsweek), furnishings for his new Hotel in Washington DC from China (The-new-Trump-hotel-in-D-C-hotel-is-filled-top-to-bottom-with-goods-made-in-China), the clothing for his signature Donald J. Trump Collection from Mexico (Trumps-hypocrisy-on-trade-he-outsources-and-invests-globally-but-doesnt-want-Ford-to-do-the-same/), and the long list goes on (Trump products).

Trump’s business career is full of shady dealings (The-myth-and-the-reality-of-Donald Trumps-business-empire). Why would we have expected him to be different as POTUS? Trump the terrible. Lying has worked for Donald Trump—so why should he stop now? Why Trump lies.

Trump is very quickly running out of time to save his administration. His tweet this morning stated: “The U.S. has a 60 billion dollar trade deficit with Mexico. It has been a one-sided deal from the beginning of NAFTA with massive numbers… of jobs and companies lost. If Mexico is unwilling to pay for the badly needed wall, then it would be better to cancel the upcoming meeting.” As a result, the Mexican President cancelled his planned visit. Our current account deficit with Germany in 2015, by the way, was $285.2 billion, about the same as with China. Putting his economic ignorance (or blatant lying) aside, his conduct of foreign policy, trade or otherwise, is simply dangerous. We must stand up and yell STOP. STOP!!!

A glimmer of hope is offered by the fact (a real one) that orders for George Orwell’s classic novel of tyranny “1984” have soared in recent weeks.

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!”

The War on Drugs

Like most of our elected wars, the war on drugs is producing more costs than benefits. In the United States, those drugs that were around for the last one to two hundred years have been legal at times and illegal at other times. There was no significant difference in the recorded use of these drugs when they were legal and when they were not (the data has to be rather sketchy, however). So there has been no measurable benefit.

The costs of outlawing drugs, however, have been enormous. The large expenditures on police, armies, courts, jails are nothing compared with the costs to society (on both sides of our Southern border) of creating the large criminal industry that grows, refines, transports, and markets these drugs and the lawlessness that accompanies it. Over the last thirty years 50,000 deaths have been attributed to drug related violence in Mexico alone. The Presidents of Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico are all now calling for a reconsideration of this war as an effective approach to dealing with the harm of some of these drugs.

As George Will puts it:

Another good article in the Washington Post:

Marijuana should be regulated like tobacco and cocaine and opium should be regulated like alcohol. We seem to be moving in the right direction on this issue but too slowly.