China and the United States

“Biden describes the China challenge as a global, ideological struggle between democracies and autocracies…. Any event from the pandemic to the Olympics will occasion commentary, particularly in the United States, of who “won,” China or America, and what it means for the epic struggle for global supremacy.” “There is no unified front against China”

I am not sure what it is that we want to win. We don’t seem to mind selling planes and bombs to other autocracies (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, etc.). Anything to keep the defense industry’s profits flowing short of yet another war seems a (relatively) good deal. And why might “global supremacy” matter?

Winning things sounds to me like rooting for our own basketball team and cheering when it wins the championship. How do we go about striving to have the best basketball team? First, we recruit the best basketball players we can find and hire the best coach to train them. Everyone must play by the agreed rules, and we win by playing the best game. In short, our efforts go into being the best team possible, not into poisoning the drinking water of the other teams.

But sporting contests are zero sum. One side wins and the other losses. Global cooperation and trade is win–win. The goods we produce and sell (for example) to China, with which to pay for the goods we buy from China make us and China both richer. The citizens of both countries benefit from this exchange. Win–win. Sharing information on the source, nature, and potential cure of a virus (which knows no borders) benefits all of us. Win–win.

The world’s output is maximized when our productive assets (labor and capital) are allocated to their most productive uses globally. That requires that market prices reflect the true productivity and value of each activity. Thus, the world as a whole benefits from rules governing government interferences in market prices and allocations. The World Trade Organization is the forum for agreeing on these rules of fair trade and enforcing them. “Econ 101- Trade in very simple terms”

The airplanes built by Boeing and Airbus benefit from government support of one sort or another. For years they have fought one another over whether this support conformed to fair trade rules. A settlement has finally been reached. “Boeing – Airbus settlement”

Trade restriction in the name of national security, while potentially legitimate, can easily cross the line into wealth reducing protectionism. Does the use of Huawei 5G equipment really threaten U.S. national security or U.S. business interests (protectionism). Some of these cases are hard to call but we must look carefully at narrow business interests in protecting their markets to the detriment of the rest of us. “Huawei ban could crush US aid efforts”

Global supremacy suggests that we would set these rules. To be successful the rules of international trade must be very broadly followed. Thus, their formulation must be a collective undertaking. It is fine for the U.S. to exert influence in setting these rules, but unfortunately, we have a poor record of even following them. We have caused the demise of the WTO dispute resolution body. We have strangely and counterproductively withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which was then replaced by the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). These set high standards for more open trade that China will hopefully have to meet to join. The self-image of supremacy has corrupted U.S. behavior. Former President Trump’s protectionist tariffs on trade with China, EU, Canada, etc., which President Biden has so far failed to remove, have further reduced U.S. and world income. “Trade protection and corruption”

So, what should our policy be toward China? China has no intention or interest in attacking the United States. They care about their own economies and their own neighborhoods. We should keep our nose and military home to look after our own neighborhood. We should work with China (and Russia and others) to formulate win-win rules for international interactions and behavior. We should apply the mechanisms of the WTO and other international bodies, and diplomacy more generally, to hold China (and others) to the agreed rules. But we must abide by them as well. The rule of law is not just for others.

We should fix the problems in our own economy. We should work to make our domestic rules of commerce fair and efficient so that our economy will be the best in the world. We should work with other countries, including China, to maximize the productivity of their resources because we and everyone else will benefit (win-win).

The United States was founded on principles that have served us well providing a model that the rest of the world would do well to follow. The idea that we should (or can) impose our principles on others rather than provide an example like “a shining city on a hill,” is a violation of those very principles. We have repeatedly failed to uphold those principles, but we keep trying. We must continue trying and must try harder.

The Rule of Law: China and the U.S.

The rule of law has been an essential and critical foundation of successful free market economies. It provides the certainty of property rights and contracts needed for entrepreneurs to risk their capital in business undertakings. But as our business and other activities cross borders, whose laws apply?

“Among the earliest examples of legal codes concerning maritime affairs is the Byzantine Lex Rhodia, promulgated between 600 and 800 C.E. to govern trade and navigation in the Mediterranean.”  Leaping forward, international air travel, satellite communications, spectrum allocation for radio, TV, internet, and other telephonic transmission would be impossible without firm agreements among countries–the international rule of law.

Laws facilitate commerce–buying and selling–by establishing rules for doing so (e.g. contract enforcement rules) that are stable and applicable to all. They lower the costs and reduce the risks of trading. The United States Constitution recognizes the importance of this in the commerce clause of Article I Section 8, which is used to prevent individual states from taxing or otherwise interfering with interstate commerce. Achieving the same law-based freedom to trade across national borders is more difficult, requiring the negotiation of agreements and treaties that establish common rules between sovereign nations.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) develops and enforces the rule of law in the area of cross border trade. The difficulty of achieving global agreement on the rules of various aspects of trade is reflected in the fact that no new agreements have been reached since the establishment of the WTO (taking over the General Agreement of Trade and Tariffs) on January 1, 1995. “The WTO agreements cover goods, services and intellectual property. They spell out the principles of liberalization, and the permitted exceptions. They include individual countries’ commitments to lower customs tariffs and other trade barriers, and to open and keep open services markets. They set procedures for settling disputes.” the WTO – what is it?

China was admitted to the WTO as a developing country on December 11, 2001. Chinese officials immediately expressed the desire to understand and conform to the international rules required by the WTO and requested technical assistant from the IMF for doing so. In July of 2002, the IMF sent me to Beijing to review their needs with them.  They were particularly keen to have an American banking supervisor to advise them. I had a perfect candidate who was just finishing a two-year posting to Hong Kong. Everyone I spoke to in Beijing, as well as my Chinese colleagues at the IMF, stated that virtually all Chinese officials agreed on where China wanted to go–full liberalization according to WTO rules. They only differed with regard to how fast they thought they should move to get there.

Our condition was that our resident banking supervision advisor had to have his office located with the other Chinese banking supervisors and that he would have an open door. This was enthusiastically accepted by the Deputy Governor who apparently had not informed the Governor of these details. Unfortunately, when the Governor was presented the contract of his signature, he killed the arrangement. I was, however, able to enjoy wonderful tours of the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and dine on the best Peking Duck I have ever had.  

An economically rising China is lifting millions of people out of poverty. We rightly welcome its newly productive economy contributing to increasing world output and living standards. The challenge is to square China’s authoritarian political regime with an international free market trading system. The vehicle has been the WTO and other international rule setting bodies that exist to harmonize diverse economies in the direction of freer and more open trade. The rules were being set by the dominant, largely free market economies that China wanted to join.

Beyond an American led WTO itself, the multilateral trade agreement that established the highest standards yet for tariff reduction and the incorporation of more modern trade issues such as non-trade barriers, services, protection of intellectual property, minimum labor standards, and dispute resolution (the rule of law cannot meaningfully exist without credible dispute resolution procedures) was the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiated between 2006 and 2015. The TPP agreement between Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam, and the United States was announced on October 5, 2015.

Three days later, on October 8, I spoke in New York City at a seminar hosted by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce of New York on the internationalization of China’s currency, the renminbi. All of the talk by the Chinese attending was about the TPP. Why was China excluded? Could they join? My reply was that China would be very welcomed to join when they were able to meet the treaty’s conditions. TPP was another powerful magnet pulling China into the liberal international trading order.  

A recent report from the Peterson Institute of International Economics (June 23, 2020) stated that: “The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was designed in 2016 to be almost China-proof, with stringent obligations requiring transparency and trade liberalization. As former US Trade Representative Michael Froman put it, Chinese participation would be welcomed only when China could meet TPP’s terms, which it was far from doing. The United States was not keeping China out; China was just not ready to come in.” “China and Trans Pacific Partnership-in or out”

Broadly speaking, the aim of the WTO is to increasingly move its member countries toward the freest trade possible with fair competition (a level playing field), thus promoting a more productive allocation of economic resources and lifting global incomes.  The organization is not without its problems. But rather than working to strengthen the WTO, President Trump turned to negotiating bilateral trade agreements and raising rather than lowering import tariffs. Clearly bilateral agreements are easier to conclude than are global or broad multilateral agreements. Trump focused on China and its large bilateral trade surplus with the U.S. out of the mistaken belief that its surplus (our deficit) was harmful to the U.S. and that reducing it would increase American jobs. “Who pays Uncle Sam’s deficits”

In one of his most short-sighted actions from a sadly long list, President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the TPP on January 23, 2017. In addition to tweaking a few existing trade agreements, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) by incorporated many of the newer provisions of the TPP and the United States-Japan Trade Agreement and the United States-Japan Digital Trade Agreement, and imposing protective tariffs on solar panels, washing machines, steel and aluminum imports in the name of national security and “America First,” the Trump administration has focused its trade war bilaterally on China (with occasional pot shots at our friends in Europe and elsewhere).  “Trade Office fact-sheets and-annual-report”   A Brookings Institution study assessed the result of all of this for the American economy and workers as follows: “American firms and consumers paid the vast majority of the cost of Trump’s tariffs. While tariffs benefited some workers in import-competing industries, they hurt workers in sectors that rely on imported inputs and those in exporting industries facing retaliation from trade partners. Trump’s tariffs did not help the U.S. negotiate better trade agreements or significantly improve national security.”  “Did-Trump’s-tariffs-benefit-American-workers-and-national-security”

The remaining eleven countries that had signed the TPP agreed in January 2018 on a revised treaty they renamed the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership” (CPTPP).  CPTPP is substantially the same as TPP, but omits 20 provisions that had been of particular interest to the U.S. These provisions can be relatively easily restored should the U.S. choose to rejoin. “Trade and Globalization”

With the increasing power of Xi Jinping, China’s President and the General Secretary/Chairman of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (now for life), China has played an increasingly active role in the IMF, WB, WTO and other international bodies. In addition, it has launched several regional organizations that it leads (the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the New Development Bank–BRICS, and the Belt and Road Initiative) “The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the SDR”  Xi Jinping claimed that the AIIB would adhere to the highest international standards. But as President Trump and others have noted, there are a number of important areas in which China does not abide by the WTO rules. The policy question is what should be done about it.

The Cato Institution began a recent review of China’s trade practices as follows: “There is a growing bipartisan sentiment in Washington that Chinese trade practices are a problem, since these practices are unfair to American companies in a number of ways. But there is disagreement about the appropriate response. Can multilateral institutions be of use here? Or is unilateralism the only way?” Their conclusion is that the WTO and other multilateral institutions would be the most effective way of continuing to pull China into compliance with the international rule-based system. “Disciplining China’s trade practices at the WTO-how -WTO complaints can help”

President Trump has unilaterally gone the other way. He has blocked Huawei, the world’s leading seller of 5G technology and smartphones, from U.S. 5G mobile phone systems and urged our European allies to do the same because of Huawei’s links with the Chinese government. He is attempting to block the sales of U.S. and other non-Chinese manufacturers of the semiconductor chips used in Huawei and other Chinese products to China.  “A-brewing-US-China-tech-cold-war-rattles-the-semiconductor-industry”  He is trying to ban TikTok, WeChat and other popular Chinese products from U.S. markets and raising tariffs on an increasing number of Chinese products imported into the U.S. Some of these measures might be justified on national security grounds but some seem more protectionist of U.S. companies that are not otherwise competitive.

We are basically forcing China to build its own alternative rules and approach to trade. It is even offering its own global tracking system in place of the GPS system the U.S. has given the world and they seem well along in dividing the World Wide Web and other Internet protocols into two worlds.

A November 20, 2020 article by William Pesek highlights what Trump’s misguided trade war with China is producing: “On his presidential watch, Donald Trump did manage to make one thing great: economic cooperation within North Asia.

So chaotic and pernicious was the outgoing US president’s pivot away from Asia that China, Japan and South Korea are dropping the hatchet and joining hands. The unlikely union was formalized on November 15 with the signing of the 15-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP, free trade agreement.”  “US sidelined as China Korea and Japan unite”  The RCEP is a lighter more limited trade agreement than was the TPP (now the CPTPP) but it is led by China rather than the U.S.  Rather than converging to WTO standards it creates an alternative. 

“President Xi Jinping’s Friday [Nov 20, 2020] announcement of China’s intent to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a high-standard mega regional trade pact, has been seen as a bold move to reassure the world of the country’s continuing commitment to reform and opening-up.” “News analysis: an uphill task for China to negotiate CPTPP accession agreement”  While Xi Jinping’s strategy for China’s ascension is to take over the leadership in forging the rules for the international order more to the liking of his regime, China’s younger and upcoming managerial and entrepreneurial class, many of whom studied in the U.S. and Europe, have seen and liked the freer and more open capitalist societies. Their patriotism and commitment to a rising China is informed by the knowledge that freer and more open economies thrive more than centrally controlled ones.  We should not overlook their potential for returning China to a path of liberalization and integration with the liberal international order enjoyed by the rest of us.

Xi Jinping and his government’s goal is to retain power by delivering rapid economic growth, which allows and requires a vibrant private sector, while overseeing tight political control. One example is provided by its Social Credit System.  “China’s social credit system-mark of progress or threat to privacy?”  This requires a different set of rules for cross border trade than set out by the WTO. But many of China’s world traveling citizens see China’s successful rise in more closely embracing free market capitalism. We should incentivize the later view.

President Trump’s trade policies have damaged the world’s rule-based trading system and hurt the American economy while turning China in a different direction. President elect Biden has indicated his interest in rejoining the TPP. He should give it and the rebuilding of the WTO and other multilateral bodies high priority.

The Basis of American World Leadership

Since the end of World War II, the United States has played a disproportionately large role in guiding world affairs. It has unquestionably been the most powerful nation on earth. Its dominance reflects a number of factors including economic and military strength. But in addition to these, most countries have been happy, or at least willing, to accept American leadership because it was largely seen as guided by broad principles of fair play and the rule of law.  American leadership was the least of evils. The United States has benefited a great deal from this good will.

But as the old saying goes: power tends to corrupt, etc.  Being able often to bend other countries to our will (as long as others still saw us as driven by widely shared principles of fair play), the U.S. increasingly exploited this influence to encompass policies or actions others were not so happy to comply with.  To take a fairly recent example, the wisdom of President Trump’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA or the Iran Deal) to stop Iran’s development of its nuclear capabilities for at least ten years was not shared by the other parties to the agreement (the P5+1–the permanent members of the UN Security Council: the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, France, and China, plus Germany–and the European Union).  All signers of the agreement except the United States continued to abide by it. But the U.S. dollar is the primary currency used for international payments and the U.S. threatened to punish (cut off from the use of the dollar and trade with the U.S.) any country that did not observe its unilateral trade sanctions on Iran. The non-U.S. signers attempted to set up alternative ways for paying for trade with Iran that did not use the dollar but found the reach of American threats hard to avoid. On January 5, 2020 Iran announced that it would stop complying with the agreement and resume its nuclear development program. It is not clear why Trump considers this better for American security than the (at least) ten-year suspension in the Iran Deal he tore up.  See: Economic-Sanction

President Trump has also used up a lot of “good will capital” with his Trade wars. He began by withdrawing the U.S. from the 12-member Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP (Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam, and the United States). The TPP further reduced tariff and non-tariff restrictions on trade, while expanding and modernizing coverage for the digital world. As, or perhaps more, importantly, the TPP provided a model and positive encouragement to China to adopt Western trading rules as a condition of joining the TPP in the future.  The remaining signatories went forward with a Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, which went into effect a year ago with the U.S.

But Trump’s counterproductive trade strategies didn’t stop there by a long shot. In addition to economically harmful tariff protection of inefficient American industries (e.g. steel, washing machines, etc.), Trump has angered many of our friends in Europe, Japan and elsewhere by threatening tariffs in situations that do not seem to be justified by the World Trade Organization’s rules. In the process he is ignoring and weakening the WTO, which has played such an important role in the gradual trade liberalization that has dramatically lifted living standards around the world following WWII. He even tore up the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and replaced with a new agreement that is not unambiguously better.  See: The-shriveling-of-US-influence

But once bullies taste their power, their appetites tend to grow. While elected with promises to end our forever wars and reduce our military commitments around the world, Trump has done neither.  This is not the occasion for exploring why (I don’t doubt Trump’s sincere desire to achieve both of those goals, but his ignorance of history seems to have made him vulnerable to flipflopping in the face of pressure from the neocons, such as Secretary of State Pompeo, he has surrounded himself with). Rather it is to review his rapid descent into a major bully, to the detriment of American influence and security.

On January 3, President Trump ordered the assassination of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s paramilitary Quds Force in retaliation for an attack a week earlier on an Iraqi air base in Kirkuk that killed a U.S. civilian contractor and injured four U.S. soldiers and two Iraqis.

The drone that launched two missiles that killed Gen. Soleimani at the Baghdad International Airport also killed the Iraqi leader of the PMU, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a close Soleimani associate, and eight other Iraqis.  According to the Pentagon, “General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region,”  According to Adil Abdul-Mahdi, Prime Minister of Iraq, Soleimani was on his way to see the PM in order to discuss moves being made to ease the confrontation between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia.

The White House stressed that Soleimani’s planned attack was “imminent” thus justifying it without having to first inform Congress. Bruce Ackerman argues that Trump’s failure to obtain Congressional authorization for the attack justifies a third article of impeachment.  See: Trump-war-against-Iran-impeachable-offense  Iraqi PM Mahdi claimed that the attack on Iraqi soil was a violation of Iraqi sovereignty and a violation of the agreement between the U.S. and Iraq for stationing American forces in Iraq. Though Congress was not informed in advance, the Israeli government was told of the planned attack, according to some reports. In these circumstances, it is very difficult to know which reports are authentic and which are deliberate (or sometimes inadvertent) fake news.

In order to assess the likely impact of all this on our standing and support in the rest of the world, I like to evaluate American actions from how they might seem standing in someone else’s shoes. How would Americans react, for example, if our government had invited, say, French troops for training in the U.S., and the French Army blew up a Russian general on his way to meetings at the UN (or reverse the roles between the French and the Russians) without our permission?

But this note is not about whether this assassination was legal or good policy. For that see the following article from The Economist: Was-Americas-assassination-of-Qassem-Suleimani-justified?  It’s about the rise of American bullying in the world and its impact on our standing and ability to influence friends and enemies in ways that serve our national interest. What followed in the days after Soleimani’s assassination is mind boggling.

Keep in mind that following America’s invasion of Iraq that started on March 20, 2003, the U.S. and its coalition partners returned sovereignty to the Iraqi government at the end of June 2004. I was there as part of the Coalition Provisional Authority (I was the Senior Monetary Policy Advisor to the Central Bank of Iraq reporting to the U.S. Treasury). As we boarded helicopters to waiting planes at the Baghdad International Airport (of recent fame) many of us recalled images of the last American helicopter lifting off the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon when the U.S. ended its participation in the Vietnam War. Over the next seven years American and coalition troops remained in Iraq under terms agreed to in a Status of Forces agreement with the Iraqi government.  Following the ups and downs of troop surges and draw downs American forces were kicked out after Blackwater security contractors killed 17 Iraqis in Nisour Square in 2010.

With the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) American troops were invited back under new, less formal terms. “Instead, the current military presence is based on an arrangement dating from 2014 that’s less formal and ultimately based on the consent of the Iraqi government, which asked the parliament on Sunday to pass urgent measures to usher out foreign troops…. ‘If the prime minister rescinds the invitation, the U.S. military must leave, unless it wants to maintain what would be an illegal occupation in a hostile environment,’” said Ramzy Mardini, an Iraq scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace.  Getting-us-troops-out-of-iraq-might-not-be-that-hard-say-experts

And how did POTUS, the great negotiator, respond to the Iraqi Parliament’s vote: “President Donald Trump threatened to impose deep sanctions on Iraq if it moves to expel U.S. troops…. ‘We’ve spent a lot of money in Iraq,’ Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One as he returned to Washington after spending the holidays at his Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago. ‘We have a very extraordinarily expensive air base that’s there. It cost billions of dollars to build. … We’re not leaving unless they pay us back for it.’” Trump-threatens-iraq-sanctions-expel-us-troops

However, the Pentagon promptly announced that it was repositioning its troops in preparation for withdrawing them. Reuters released a copy of a letter on US Department of Defense letterhead addressed to the Iraqi Defense Ministry by US Marine Corps Brigadier General William H. Seely III, the commanding general of Task Force Iraq, which read in relevant part: “In deference to the sovereignty of the Republic of Iraq, and as requested by the Iraqi Parliament and the Prime Minister, CITF-OIR will be repositioning forces over the course of the coming days and weeks to prepare for onward movement…. We respect your sovereign decision to order our departure.”

Within hours, the Pentagon stated that no decisions had been taken and that the letter had been sent by mistake. “U.S. Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Monday that a leaked letter from the U.S. military to Iraq that created impressions of an imminent U.S. withdrawal was a poorly worded draft document meant only to underscore an increased movement of forces.”  Iraq-security-pm  Or maybe they forgot to consult POTUS or maybe he changed his mind.  Are you confused yet? See: Amid-confusion-and-contradictions-Trump-white-house-stumbles-in-initial-public-response-to-Soleimanis-killing

In response to Iran’s threat to retaliate for killing General Soleimani “Trump tweeted on Saturday that the United States has targeted 52 sites for possible retaliation, including “some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture.” The outcry over this clear war crime was immediate. “Secretary of Defense Mark Esper… put himself at odds with President Trump on Monday night by definitively telling reporters that the U.S. military will not target cultural sites inside Iran on his watch, even if hostilities continue to escalate in the wake of the U.S. drone strike that killed Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani at the Baghdad airport last week. ‘We will follow the laws of armed conflict….’” See: Esper’s-split-with-trump-over-targeting-iranian-cultural-sites-is-a-nod-to-the-laws-of-armed-conflict  Trump quickly backed down. Perhaps discussing these decisions with his staff before twitting them would be a good idea.

These are but a few examples of a bully on the loose. “Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif told NPR that he was scheduled to deliver an address when the U.N. Security Council meets Thursday [Jan 9] but that he was told the State Department had informed the U.N. that there was not enough time to process his request for a visa, which he said he first submitted 25 days ago.” Iran-foreign-minster-javad-zarif-denied-visa   Under the 1947 U.N. headquarters agreement, “the United States is generally required to allow access to the United Nations for foreign diplomats.”  Once again, we are violating our commitments. Iran is demanding that all future meetings of international bodies be held outside the US.  The IMF and World Bank are also headquartered in the U.S.

The American and coalition partners now in Iraq are there to support its fight against ISIS. This benefits us, our partners, and Iraq. The traditional tools of diplomacy (persuasion), rather than the threats of a bully, would ultimately be more effective.  The respectful consideration traditionally given to the views and positions of the United States in international bodies –such as global satellite spectrum allocation–global warming agreements–security agreements–or any other multilateral agreement in which we have an interest, is rapidly vanishing.  Assuming that the Trump administration can de-escalate the current tensions with Iran, something quite possible with sufficient diplomatic skill–see: The-soleimani-killing-could-draw-the-us-deeper-into-the-mideast-but-it-doesnt-have-to–our general loss of good will is the real cost of excessive bullying and it will hurt us considerably.


Is Trump killing his own re-election?

The Fed (Federal Open Market Committee) is meeting this week to review and set or reset monetary policy.  I don’t know whether it should increase its policy rate, leave it the same or reduce it.  The market expects a one quarter percent reduction in the rate.  President Trump is quoted yesterday as saying it should be reduced more than that. WSJ: the confusing Fed

There are several problems with Trump’s statement. One is that if the Fed reduces the rate, its claim to be reacting to the data and its mandate is undercut by the President’s interference. Is the Fed doing what seems best or responding to political pressure?

But if the U.S. economy is heading South, as it may be, it is probably because of the damaging effects on the U.S. and world economies of Trump’s trade wars with almost everyone but especially with China. Trump’s tariffs have imposed significant costs on the American consumers who pay them with higher prices for targeted imports. More importantly, his trade wars have injected significant uncertainty into the continued viability of the global supply chains that have helped lower costs here and abroad and increased world output.  Their retrenchment is lowering world income and pushing many economies, including potentially the U.S. economy into recession. A U.S. recession a year from now will seriously damage Trump’s chances of reelection.

Trump’s wars on trade seem to be motivated by his mistaken belief that the U.S. trade deficit with China, Germany and others reflects unfair trade practices on their part. His misuse of a national security concern to impose protectionist tariffs and restrictions on foreign competitors (protecting inefficient U.S. industries we would be better off allowing competition to shrink) seems motivated by vote buying.  The result is a reduction in our income and potentially his electoral defeat. Our trade deficits largely reflect the use of the U.S. dollar in international reserves (which require a deficit to supply them) and our large and growing fiscal deficits (much of which is being financed by China and other trade surplus countries). Trump’s abandonment of government spending restraint is the cause of those twin deficits

It’s not that we don’t have real issues with some of China’s trade related practices, but Trump’s approach to addressing them is not productive. Rather than working with the EU and Japan and others who share our concerns to confront China together, he is attacking all of them with threats of more tariffs. Rather than strengthening the WTO, he is weakening it. Rather than using the Trans Pacific Partnership (a significant advance in modern trade agreements) to encourage China to adopt its rules, Trump withdrew the U.S. from the agreement– a huge mistake. The real question is how much more damage will Trump inflict on the world economy before he surrenders and declares victory or is voted out of office.

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:

Trump and interest rates

There seems to be no norm or conventional wisdom that President Trump is not willing to overturn. Following Fed Chairman Powell’s congressional testimony Tuesday in which he confirmed the Fed’s intention to continue its gradual increase in its policy interest rate, Trump said: “I don’t like all of this work that we’re putting into the economy and then I see rates going up.”  The statement is wrong on multiple accounts.

The economy is now fully employed and interest rates probably should have been returned to normal some time ago.  The alarming current and projected fiscal deficits of the federal government will force interest rates and trade deficits still higher.  This is Trump’s fault– not Powell’s.  “Who pays uncle Sam’s deficits?”  The major policies threatening to undermine the economic boost from tax and regulatory reforms are Trump’s trade policies (pulling out of the Trans Pacific Partnership, stalling and threatening U.S. withdrawal from NAFTA, Steel and Aluminum tariffs (taxes) on our friends in Canada, Mexico and the EU, and a deepening trade war with China).  Leaving the TPP  Resisting the interest rate increases needed to keep inflation at 2% would increase the most regressive tax around (inflation).

But Presidential interference in implementing monetary policy, as is now being undertaken by President Erdoğan in Turkey, violates a long established principle and practice of central bank independence.  Historically, inflation, which falls heaviest on the poor and undermines economic efficiency and growth, has resulted primarily from governments turning to their central banks for financing in misguided and ultimately futile efforts to keep interest rates (government borrowing costs) low.

President Trump can save the economic benefits of his tax and regulatory reforms by rejoining the TPP, rapidly concluding amendments to NAFTA that improve productive efficiency and fairness, dropping the steel and aluminum tariffs, ending the trade war with China, joining with the EU, Canada, Japan and others to bring China into compliance with the rules of a strengthened WTO, and establishing a fiscal budget surplus primarily through entitlement reform.

Econ 101: Trade deficits

Responding to critics of the administration’s proposed steel and aluminum tariffs, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross stated on CNBC: “I think this is scare tactics by the people who want the status quo, the people who have given away jobs in this country, who’ve left us with an enormous trade deficit and one that’s growing. [The trade deficit] grew again last year, and if we don’t do something, it will keep growing and keep destroying American jobs.” “Wilbur-Ross’s-star-rises-as-trump-imposes-tariffs”

Though the forces determining our trade deficits have many moving parts, it is not that complicated to explain why everything in the above statement is wrong. In this note I explain why:

  • Our trade deficits are caused more by U.S. government fiscal deficits than by the mercantilist export promotion policies of China, Japan, and Germany;
  • Mercantilist policies that subsidize exports and restrict imports don’t cost American jobs but rather reallocate workers and capital to less productive jobs that lower our standard of living; and
  • Challenging mercantilist policies using the tools and provisions of the WTO and other trade agreements better serves our long run interests than unilaterally imposing tariffs and inciting trade wars.

To understand the relationship between our fiscal deficit and trade balance, it is essential to understand the macro level relationship of our trade deficit to the other broad categories of our national income and expenditures. So take a deep breath as I explain the national income identities through which I will explore that relationship.

The economy’s total domestic output, known as Gross Domestic Product (GDP), can be broken into the broad components of our output/income that reflect how that income is spent. I understand how a little math can discourage some from reading further, but this is necessary and I hope you will indulge me. Starting with the components of expenditures:

GDP = C –M + I + G + X, or GDP = C + I + G + (X-M)

C = household consumption expenditures / personal consumption expenditures
I = gross private domestic investment
G = government consumption and gross investment expenditures
X = gross exports of goods and services
M = gross imports of goods and services

C-M is household consumption of domestically made goods and services, while M is household consumption of foreign made goods and services. If we subtract M from X (foreign expenditures on domestically made goods and services) we have the famous trade balance. When we buy more foreign goods and services than foreigners buy of our output, i.e., when X-M is negative, we have a trade deficit. As discussed further below, it is important to note that the trade balance (deficit or surplus) is between the U.S. and the rest of the world. Bilateral deficits or surpluses with individual countries are irrelevant.

But another way of breaking up total output (and thus income) is into how households allocate it:

GDP = C + T + S


T = household tax payments (personal and corporate income taxes plus sales taxes)

S = household saving

These two equations each provide definitions of the same quantity (GDP) and thus can be set equal to each other. This enables us to arrive at a useful formulation of the trade deficit:

C + I + G + (X-M) = C + T + S, or M-X = I-S + G-T;

The relationships in the identity can be described in several ways. Our fiscal deficit (G-T) must be financed by domestic net saving, i.e. a negative I-S, or by foreigners (M-X), i.e. a trade deficit or a mix of the two. Government finances its deficits by selling treasury securities domestically or abroad. If they are purchased domestically, residents must save more for that purpose or investors must borrow less from existing saving. If a fiscal deficit doesn’t crowd out private investment or increase private domestic saving (e.g., if I-S = 0) then it must be financed by foreigners who get the dollars with which to buy U.S. treasure securities by selling their goods and services to us in excess of what they buy from us, i.e., a trade deficit.

The above relationships are derived from definitions. They are tautologies. If the government’s spending exceeds its tax revenue it must borrow the difference from someone: a diversion of spending that would have financed investment (crowding out), a reduction in consumption (i.e., increase in saving), or an increase in the share of consumption spent abroad (increase in imports) giving foreigners the dollars they lend to the U.S. government. The interesting part—the underlying economics—is how markets bring about these results (usually a mix of all three).

When the government increases its need to borrow, other things equal, the increase in the supply of treasury securities relative to the existing demand for them increases the interest rate the government must pay. Higher interest rates generally encourage more saving and discourage investment. If we have no trade deficit (X-M = 0 so that G-T = S-T), the government’s deficit (G-T) must be financed by net saving (S-T). Depending on how much of the net saving comes from an increase in saving and how much from a decrease in investment, government deficits are bad for investment and economic growth in the long run (abstracting from countercyclical budget deficits and surpluses meant to offset cyclical swings in aggregate demand).

However, much of our fiscal deficits have been financed by foreigners (predominantly China and Germany) through their trade surpluses and our trade deficits. The market produces this result because the higher interest rates on U.S. treasury securities (and until now their perceived low risk of default) attracts foreign investors. The foreign demand for dollars in order to buy these treasury securities increases (appreciates) the exchange rate of the dollar for other currencies. An appreciated dollar makes American exports more expensive to foreigners and foreign imports cheaper for Americans. The resulting increase in imports and reduction in exports increases the trade deficit, which then finances our fiscal deficit.

As Alan Blinder put it: “Nations that invest more than they save must borrow the difference from abroad. Happily, the U.S. can do that because foreign countries have confidence in American securities. When we import more than we export, foreigners get IOUs in return for goods and services Americans want. That sounds more like winning than losing: We get German cars, French wines, and Chinese solar panels, while the Germans, French and Chinese get paper assets. America’s tremendous ability to export IOUs has been called our “exorbitant privilege.” Yes, privilege.” “This-is-exactly-how-trade-wars-begin”

If you have made it this far, you will be better able to understand the errors of Secretary Ross’s statement above: “if we don’t do something, it [the trade deficit] will keep growing and keep destroying American jobs.” If the United States government wants to reduce our trade deficit, it should reduce, rather than further increase, our fiscal deficit.

As noted above, however, our trade deficits reflect many moving parts. In the above example, foreigners want to increase their holdings of U.S. dollars (and dollar assets) in part because the dollar is a widely used international reserve asset. Our trade deficit is the primary way in which we supply our dollars to the rest of the world (and its central banks). However, what if our trading partners were manipulating their exchange rates in order to produce trade surpluses for themselves?

In the past, China followed such a mercantilist policy of promoting its exports over imports as part of its economic development strategy. In that case our trade deficit would result in foreign investments in the US with the net dollars accumulated abroad even without U.S. fiscal deficits. If they are not soaked up financing government debt they will be invested in private securities or other assets (such as Trump Hotels). Just to keep it complicated, these foreign investments would either add financing to increased domestic investment (if they lowered U.S. interest rates) or would buy existing American assets freeing up funds of the sellers to help finance government deficits or new investment. As I said, there are many moving parts, which adjust depending on prices (interest rates) and the public’s buying and investing propensities.

Tariffs don’t violate the above national income identities. Rather they potentially change the allocation of resources toward or away from traded goods. The Better Way tax reform proposals of Congressman Kevin Brady in 2016 included a so-called border adjustment tax, which taxed all imports equally and exempted all exports from the domestic expenditure tax. The tax on imports would have been, in effect, a tariff on all imports. Interestingly Brady’s border adjustment tax would not have affected our trade balance nor distorted resource allocation. The dollar’s exchange rate would have adjusted to nullify the impact of the tariff/tax on the prices we would pay domestically on imports.

Contrast this with the tariffs proposed by President Trump on steel and aluminum imports. These tariffs were meant to prop up inefficient American steel and aluminum firms by increasing the cost of their imported competition. As such it would reallocate our workers and capital to activities that are less productive than they would otherwise be used for (i.e., to the increased production of steel and aluminum). Once all of the adjustments were made we would be poorer, though still fully employed. “Econ-101-trade-in-very-simple-terms.”

It turns out, however, that Trump’s tariff threats were probably a negotiating ploy (He has temporarily exempted Canada and Mexico from the tariffs and is making deals with other suppliers in exchange for suspending the tariff). China is already paying special tariffs on these products to counter Chinese government subsidies and only sells the U.S. 2% of its steel imports. Thus the tariff is largely irrelevant for China. The net short-term affect of Trump’s ploy may well result in almost no tariff revenue and no protection for U.S. steel and aluminum producers and some improvements in other trade deals with our trading partners (or at least what the President considers improvements). In short, Trump’s tariff threat could turn out to be helpful. However, given Trump’s generally negative and/or ill-informed views on trade, this may be an overly generous interpretation.

As The Economist magazine put it: “If this were the extent of Mr. Trump’s protectionism, it would simply be an act of senseless self-harm. In fact, it is a potential disaster—both for America and for the world economy.” “Trumps-tariffs-steel-and-aluminum-could undermine-rules-based-system” Why? Even if the tariffs are waved sufficiently to avoid the retaliatory trade war Europe and others are threatening, Trump’s use of the national security justification for his steel and aluminum tariffs can’t be taken seriously. “That excuse is self-evidently spurious. Most of America’s imports of steel come from Canada, the European Union, Mexico and South Korea, America’s allies.” The Economist My long time friend Jim Roumasset noted that “Wilber Ross did indeed make such a finding [of a national security threat], but then declared that the tariffs are “no big deal.” In other words, the tariffs won’t improve national security. Unfortunately, there is neither check nor balance against the ignorance of commerce secretaries.”

The large expansion of international trade made possible by removing trade barriers, including lowering tariffs, has enormously benefited us (the U.S. and the rest of the world). In 1980 60% of the world’s population earned less than $2.00 a day (inflation and purchasing power parity adjusted). Because of economic growth, significantly spurred by expanding world trade, this number as plummeted to 13% by 2012 (latest figure available). This incredible feat was made possible by the collective agreements of virtually all of the world’s countries to increasingly lower tariffs and other trade barriers and to agree on global rules for fair competition. These trade rules were developed under the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT) created after WWII as one of the three Bretton Woods institutions (the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the GATT), which became the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995.

With its large and diverse membership of 164 rich and poor countries, the GATT/WTO has not been able to conclude new global trade agreements since 1995. Thus attention shifted to regional, multilateral agreements such as the 11 country Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) successor to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) from which Trump very foolishly withdrew the U.S. last year. “The-shriveling-of-U.S.-influence”

When China was admitted to the WTO in 2001 we expected that it would continue to liberalize and privatize its economy in accordance with the requirements of the WTO’s rules. The expectation was that China’s membership in the WTO would draw it into the liberal international rule based trading system.

In 2002, the IMF sent me to China to discuss these requirements in the banking sector with the Peoples Bank of China. We had high expectations. Unfortunately, China’s liberalization has gone into reverse in recent years. While not a trade issue, China’s recent launch of its centralized rating of the good behavior of its citizens, drawing on its extensive surveillance capacities, and its just announced intension to bar people with low “social credit” scores from airplanes and trains is certainly not an example of the more bottom up civil liberties, human rights views and approaches of most other countries. “China-to-bar-people-with-bad-social-credit-from-planes-trains.”

China’s behavior has been a disappointment. From its accession into the WTO, China began flooding the world with its “cheap” exports while continuing to restrict its imports from the rest of the world. The normal market reaction and adjustment to the inflow of dollars to China from its resulting trade surplus would be an appreciation of the Chinese currency (renminbi), which would increase the cost of China’s exports to the rest of the world (and lower the cost of its foreign import). However, China intervened in foreign currency markets to prevent its currency from appreciating and as a result China accumulated huge foreign exchange reserves (peaking at 4 trillion U.S. dollars in 2014). Not only did China intervene to prevent the nominal appreciation of its currency, but it also sterilized the domestic increase in its money supply that would normally result from the currency intervention, thus preventing the domestic inflation that would also have increased the cost of its exports to the rest of the world.

China’s currency manipulation was not seriously challenged at that time. Economic conditions in China have more recently changed and since 2014 market forces have tended to depreciate the renminbi, which China resisted by drawing down its large FX reserves (all the way to 3 trillion USD by the end of 2016—they have risen modestly since then). China is no longer a currency manipulator as part of an export promotion (mercantilist) policy.

But China does continue to violate other WTO rules with many state subsidies to export industries and limits and conditions for imports and foreign investment (such as requiring U.S. companies to share their patents as a condition for investing in or operating in China). A government subsidy of exports distorts resource allocation and thus lowers overall output in the same way but in the opposite direction as do tariffs. Both reduce the benefits and gains from trade and are to be resisted. The WTO exists to help remove such barriers and distortions in mutually agreed, rule based ways. A tariff that balances a state subsidy helps restore the efficient allocation of resources upon which maximum economic growth depends. These are allowed by WTO rules when it is established that a country’s exports violate WTO rules. President Trump is considering such targeted tariffs (his steel and aluminum are certainly not an example of this type of tariff) and hopefully they will conform to WTO requirements. “Trump-eyes-tariffs-on-up-to-60-billion-chinese-goods-tech-telecoms-apparel-targeted”

Trump’s bypass of WTO rules for his steel and aluminum tariffs, undermine the WTO and the international standards that have contributed so much to lifting the standard of living around the world. Despite its many weaknesses and shortcomings our interests are better serviced by strengthening the WTO rather than weakening it. “Trumps-tariffs-aren’t-killing-the-world-trade-organ”

“Whatever the WTO’s problems, it would be a tragedy to undermine it. If America pursues a mercantilist trade policy in defiance of the global trading system, other countries are bound to follow. That might not lead to an immediate collapse of the WTO, but it would gradually erode one of the foundations of the globalised economy. Everyone would suffer.” The Economist

As an aside, our bilateral trade deficits (e.g., with China) and surpluses (e.g., with Canada) are totally irrelevant and any policy designed to achieve trade balance country by country would damage the extent and efficiency of our international trade and thus lower our standard of living. See my earlier discussion of this issue in: “The-balance-of-trade”

“Even though trade policies are unlikely to change the long-run trade balance, they are not unimportant. Americans will be better off if the United States can use trade negotiations to open foreign markets for its exports, not because more exports will increase the US trade surplus, but rather because US incomes will be higher if more US workers can be employed in the most efficient US firms that pay high wages, and if those firms can sell more exports at higher prices. Similarly, US living standards will be higher if the United States reduces its trade barriers at home because this will give consumers access to cheaper imports and make the economy more efficient. Ultimately, therefore, the goal of US trade policies should not be focused on trade balances but instead on eliminating trade barriers at home and abroad.” This is quoted from the excellent and more detailed discussion of many of these issues that can be found here: “Five reasons why the focus on trade deficits is misleading”

There is another, very important negative byproduct of Trump’s transactional, confrontational, zero sum approach to getting better trade agreements. Mutually beneficial trade relations strengthen political and security relations and cooperation. These have been important non-economic benefits, for example, of NAFTA. Trump’s confrontational approach undermines these benefits. Pew Research Center surveys in 37 countries found that: “In the closing years of the Obama presidency, a median of 64% had a positive view of the U.S. Today, just 49% are favorably inclined toward America. Again, some of the steepest declines in U.S. image are found among long-standing allies.” Senator Ben Sasse delivered an exceptional speech on this subject followed by an outstanding panel discussion of the NAFTA negotiations at the Heritage Foundation. I urge you to watch the following video of that event: “The-national-security-implications-of withdrawing from-NAFTA”

The shriveling of U.S. influence

Today in Chile 11 of the original 12 countries that had signed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) multilateral trade agreement on February 4, 2016 are signing the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP or TPP-11 for short, i.e., the TPP minus the U.S.). Upon taking office President Trump promptly withdrew the United States from the agreement saying that it was “a bad deal”. In fact it modernized and raised the level toward U.S. standards in the areas of e-commerce, intellectual property protection, and dispute resolution. Though the agreement provided significant benefits to the U.S. and despite the U.S. withdrawal, the remaining participants (Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam) preserved the basic provisions of the original agreement while freezing 22 provisions of particular interest to the United State to facilitate its rejoining at a latter time should it return to its senses.  China and other Pacific Rim countries are also welcome to join if and when they meet the agreement’s high standards. This will not be easy for China should it chose to return to its earlier efforts to integrate into the rules of the world trading system.

The U.S. Congressional Research Service summarized the key provisions of the TPP as follows:

“The TPP would provide several principal trade liberalization and rules based outcomes for the United States. These include the following:

  • lower tariff and non tariff barriers on U.S. goods through eventual elimination of all tariffs on industrial products and most tariffs and quotas on agricultural products;
  • greater service sector liberalization with enhanced disciplines, such as nondiscriminatory and minimum standard of treatment, along with certain exceptions;
  • additional intellectual property rights protections in patent, copyrights, trademarks, and trade secrets; first specific data protection provisions for biologic drugs and new criminal penalties for cybertheft of trade secrets;
  • investment protections that guarantee nondiscriminatory treatment, minimum standard of treatment and other provisions to protect foreign investment, balanced by provisions to protect a state’s right to regulate in the public interest;
  • enforceable provisions designed to provide minimum standards of labor and environmental protection in TPP countries;
  • commitments, without an enforcement mechanism, to avoid currency manipulation, provide transparency and reporting concerning monetary policy, and engage in regulatory dialogue among TPP parties;
  • digital trade commitments to promote the free flow of data and to prevent data localization, except for data localization in financial services, alongside commitments on privacy and exceptions for legitimate public policy purposes;
  • enhanced regulatory transparency and due process provisions in standards setting; and
  • the most expansive disciplines on state owned enterprises ever in a U.S. FTA or the WTO, albeit with exceptions, to advance fair competition with private firms based on commercial considerations.”

No trade agreement (yet) is perfect and the TPP represented a significant improvement for the U.S. and its trading partners of existing agreements.

The 11 signers, in addition to embracing standards that will promote economic growth in their own countries in the long run also sought originally to enhance America’s role and leadership in the Asian Pacific area (i.e., as a counterbalance to the rising strength of China). With or without the U.S. more countries are expected to join the CPTPP after the governments of the current 11 have ratified it. At the top of this list are Taiwan, Thailand, South Korea, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka.

President Trump has chosen to retreat from American leadership in setting and helping to oversee the rules of international cooperation and trade. It seems unlikely that Wilbur Ross and Peter Navarro will give up their fixation on protecting a hand full of inefficient, uncompetitive American industries, so Congress should take back its constitutionally given authority over trade policy delegated to the President in the Trade Act of 1974.

China’s misbehavior can be better addressed using the rules and provision of the WTO in ways that would strengthen the rule based international order rather than weakening it as Trump is now doing with the use of the national security provision. If China is selling its aluminum below cost, i.e., dumping it, we should impose a tariff on China under WTO rules against dumping. The use of the national security provision of the WTO is laughable on the face of it and would weaken rather than strengthen the rule of law in the trade area.

Trade and Globalization

Specialization and the accompanying astounding development of productive technologies have lifted the standard of living around the world to unbelievable heights over the last three centuries. Trade—selling what we specialize in making and exchanging them for the wide range of things we need and want to consume—has made this possible. The pace of wealth creation and poverty reduction has accelerated in the last half century as the size of the markets in which we trade have expanded rapidly with falling costs and barriers to global trade.

But new technologies that displace older ways of doing things require workers and firms to adapt. New skills must be learned to replace the old, no longer needed, ones. Americans have been particularly adept at such flexible adjustments and thus have experienced greater increases in wealth and living standards than most other countries. No pain, no gain, as we might say.

Workers and firms have tried from time to time to defend their positions from the competition of other workers and from firms with newer and better technologies. Protectionist tariffs enacted to “protect” American jobs in 1930 deepened and prolonged the Great Depression. The closed shop autoworkers unions in Detroit seriously damaged the American auto industry. But generally Americans pushed aside these restraints on free markets and trade to the huge benefit of the population as a whole.

Nonetheless, such competitive advancements in our ability to produce more and more did require those with outmoded skills to acquire new ones. When the pace of innovation was measured, the required adjustments by workers and firms were easier to make. Younger workers would acquire the new skills from the outset while older ones would eventually retire. The turn over of firms, even very large and well established ones (Dell, Polaroid, Kodak, Motorola, Chrysler, Yahoo, etc.) has always been large in the U.S., continually making way for new and better ones.

The last half century has seen a rapid increase in the expansion of markets – globalization. While this increased competition and innovation has reduced poverty in the world at a never before seen rate, it has also increased the numbers of workers having to give up the skills they had refined and acquire new ones generally requiring a higher level of education. These adjustments have often been difficult for those having to make them, especially for middle aged and older workers. We seem to be experiencing a backlash from those forced to adjust.

“The experience of the past quarter century suggests strongly that the central factors of our era are not nationalism or militarism, but rather the two periods of radical change stimulated by technology and innovation during not one but two Industrial Revolutions. The first one began 175 years ago; the second, the information age, has now lasted about four decades.”[1]

Immigration is an aspect of globalization and the wealth creating impact of free trade. It raises similar but even more challenging tensions between freedom and progress and security and protection of the status quo. It also calls for careful management of the pace of immigration to soften the anxieties of potentially affected workers.

More liberal trade agreements facilitate globalization. Ironically President Obama, who opposed the trade agreements on the table when he first ran for the Presidency is now fighting for the adoption of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), while Hillary Clinton, never one to put the national interest above her own, who as Secretary of State helped start the TPP negotiations, now opposes it. And Donald Trump, who shouts out what ever passes through his mind at the moment, is currently strongly protectionist (i.e. protecting the status quo).

Rapidly increasing globalization has enabled an incredible lifting of living standards but has also increased the insecurity and costs to those displaced and needing to seek out new employment. We need to provide more effective assistance to these people. This should be the focus of our policy discussions, not closing off progress (protectionism).

[1] John Kornblum, “The Amerexit,” The American Interest, July 25, 2016

The Market vs. the State

It is in our natures to serve our personal interests first and those of others second. The interests of others include not only those around us in need but also our children and future generations in general, which are served by far sighted policies that might entail short-run and immediate sacrifices. Communities and societies that have instilled in each generation the values that promote and serve such longer-run interests will flourish relative to those with more narrowly “selfish” values.

Adam Smith famously explained in The Wealth of Nations how an individual’s pursuit of his personal gain benefits society at large. In the marketplace the fruits of our labors enjoy the greatest profit the better they meet the desires and needs of our customers at the lowest possible cost. While we might like to cut corners and raise our prices if we could get away with it, competition in the market prevents us from doing so.

Free trade and the international agreements that promote it is an example of the trade off between personal and community or national interests that I am raising. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) will further extend the freedom to trade among the countries signing up to them while raising the standards for working conditions, intellectual property protection, and conflict resolution.

I began an article on free trade written a year and a half ago with: “World per capita income didn’t change much from the time of Christ to the founding of the United States ($444 to $650 in 1990 dollars), a period of 1,790 years. But in the following 320 years it jumped to $8,080. And about half of that jump came over the last 50 years. What explains this fairly recent explosion of well being? Many things, of course, but central to this explosion of wealth was trade.” free-markets-uber-alles As the most disheartening and distressing U.S. presidential campaign in my lifetime has made clear, the huge gains from freer trade as with the huge gains from technical advances have not been evenly shared thus highlighting the trade off between personal and community interests I am exploring.

We have long accepted that economic progress should not be stopped because it would make a particular set of skills or tools less valuable. When someone developed cheaper and better ways of providing us with music than the old 78 inch vinyl record—itself an amazing technological feat in its time—those producing the old records were forced to learn new skills. We should debate whether society (family, church, community governments, etc.) should help those adversely affected by technological progress and how best to do it, but few would want to prevent such progress from which almost everyone in the world has eventually benefited enormously.

Government, which represents an exercise of our collective will, is meant in part to give primacy to our concerns for the interests of others and/or the long run over our individual, immediate personal well being. The American constitution was all about trying to do that without the government becoming captive of the self-interest of those running it. Our natures, whether we operate as private individuals constrained by the market place or as public officials constrained by the law and a broadly agreed public purpose, remain a mix of self-interest and public interest. The fundamental difference between our behavior as private citizens or public servants is in the external constraints that impact our behavior. Our natures otherwise remain the same.

The power of government can be exploited to thwart the discipline of competitive markets on the dominance of self-interest over the common interest. Preventing government from being captured by the self-interest of those running it or those who seek special privileges from it is no easy task. To that end our constitution strictly limited what government could do (the enumerated powers) and encumbered it with checks and balances. The dangers of such capture posed by the military industrial complex of which President Eisenhower warned, is well known and real (e.g. $400 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter that few believe we need), but the same is true of most other intrusions of government into private affairs, such as all of our many wars (on drugs, terror, poverty, etc.) as well.

Sadly our government has expanded well beyond its necessary functions into every nook and cranny of our personal lives with increasingly pernicious and alarming results. The abuses of its ever-expanding powers for personal and partisan benefits are exemplified by the scandal of asset forfeiture,the-abuse-of-civil-forfeiture/, which alarmingly continues, the long and bipartisan history of political abuse of the IRS, irs-tea-party-political, and most recently the legal attack on companies questioning the climate change forecasts of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) by the AGs United for Clean Power using the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act in an effort to silence criticisms of UN climate studies. prosecuting-climate-chaos-skeptics-with-rico. Such a blatant government attack on free speech is truly shocking. These are but a few examples of growing government tyranny and corruption.

The most effective defenses against such corruption are to limit the scope of government as much as possible (i.e. subject individual actions to the discipline of the market as much as possible) and to strengthen public insistence on adherence to the rule of generally applicable law. As trade has moved beyond the village and nation, so must the rule of law.

Following World War II the United States led the establishment of international arrangements and laws governing trade (WTO) and financial (IMF and WB) and diplomatic (UN, NATO) relations among nations. The U.S. was the natural leader of this globalized world not only because it had the largest economy and the largest military, but because it was generally respected for its commitment to the rule of law. More than any other country the U.S. was seen as committed to the longer run prosperity of the world above short run tactical benefits for itself.

In an April 12, 2016 interview by Steve Clemons in The Atlantic, U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew observed that “In the 21st century, the world needs the United States to be a North Star. The world wants us to be the North Star. I really do believe that. I am amazed at how other countries want to hear our advice and what we think makes sense. Sometimes we may have the habit of lecturing too much. We have to be careful not to do that.”

In recent years American leadership has been slipping. Rather than draw China more tightly into the global rule based trading system, we have pushed them away. After the United States convinced the IMF’s European members to accept a reduction in their share of votes in the IMF in order to bring the voting shares of China, India, and some other emerging economies more in line with their economic size, it took the U.S. Congress more than five years before it approved the amendments to the IMF Articles of Agreement needed to implement this agreement. In the mean time China set up its own international lending organization. US-leadership-and-the-Asian-Infrastructure-Investment-Bank

Rather than strengthen cooperative, diplomacy based relationships the U.S. has launched a series of generally failed wars to promote “democracy,” (Gulf War 1990-91, Somalia 1992-5, Haiti 1994-5, Bosnia 1994-5, Kosovo 1998-99, Afghanistan 2001 – to date, Iraq 2003-11, Libya 2011). These have weakened respect for American leadership.

On the economic front the United States has imposed hugely costly anti-money laundering (AML) and global tax reporting (FACTA) requirements on the rest of the world without regard for their cost and despite the lack of any evidence of benefits.  Operation Choke Point   These are serious abuses of American leadership that will produce a growing backlash. But it is not just misguided arrogance that is undermining our role in the world, it is the growing perception that our leadership is increasingly motivated by the selfish personal interests of crony capitalists rather than the high principles that have serviced us and world so well in the past.

Consider the example of the FATCA (Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act). Badly designed corporate and income tax laws in the United States have pushed an increasing number of companies and wealthy people out of the U.S. Rather than clean up its tax laws, the U.S. attempts to tax the income of Americans where ever they earn it and where ever they might live. The only escape is to renounce U.S. citizenship. The Obama administration is now proposing an exit wealth tax for American’s giving up their citizenship. It reminds me of the measures the Soviet Union took to prevent its citizens from leaving. Have we really fallen so low?

The use of off shore, tax minimizing structures by American companies and individuals (i.e. legal tax planning measures) as well as illegal efforts to hide income have been met by increasingly intrusive efforts by the U.S. to find and tax such income. Quoting from the introduction of the Wikipedia article on FATCA: “The Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) is a 2010 United States federal law to enforce the requirement for United States persons including those living outside the U.S. to file yearly reports on their non-U.S. financial accounts to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FINCEN). It requires all non-U.S. (foreign) financial institutions (FFI’s) to search their records for indicia indicating U.S. person-status and to report the assets and identities of such persons to the U.S. Department of the Treasury.”

As the world attempts to comply with American extra territorial demands, the United States itself is not. Such reporting requires knowledge of the beneficial owners of companies. Most companies established in the United States, such as those incorporated in Delaware, are not required to provide the identities of beneficial owners. The U.S. seems to have no intention of requiring its companies to comply with what it demands from other countries.

The decline and fall of the “American Empire” seems to be underway. It doesn’t need to be.