Tag: economics

The Benefit of Free Trade Is Not Exports, It’s Lower Prices on Things We Want

In the news this morning, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R–UT), author of the Trade Promotion Authority bill, makes the usual case for trade agreements and TPA:

We need to get this bill passed. We need to pass it for the American workers who want good, high-paying jobs. We need to pass it for our farmers, ranchers, manufacturers, and entrepreneurs who need access to foreign markets in order to compete. We need to pass it to maintain our standing in the world.

It’s certainly good that the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee supports freer trade. But I fear he’s as confused as most Washingtonians about the actual case for free trade.

This whole “exports and jobs” framework is misguided. Thirty years ago in the Cato Journal, the economist Ronald Krieger explained the difference between the economist’s and the non-economist’s views of trade. The economist believes that “The purpose of economic activity is to enhance the wellbeing of individual consumers and households.” And, therefore, “Imports are the benefit for which exports are the cost.” Imports are the things we want—clothing, televisions, cars, software, ideas—and exports are what we have to trade in order to get them.

And thus, Krieger continues, point by point:

Cheap foreign goods are thus an unambiguous benefit to the importing country.

The objective of foreign trade is therefore to get goods on advantageous terms.

That is why we want free—or at least freer—trade: to remove the impediments that prevent people from finding the best ways to satisfy their wants. Free trade allows us to benefit from the division of labor, specialization, comparative advantage, and economies of scale.

I write about this in The Libertarian Mind (buy it now!):

Fiscal Fights with Friends, Part I: Responding to Reihan Salam’s Argument against the Flat Tax

In my ultimate fantasy world, Washington wouldn’t need any sort of broad-based tax because we succeeded in shrinking the federal government back to the very limited size and scope envisioned by our Founding Fathers.

In my more realistic fantasy world, we might not be able to restore constitutional limits on Washington, but at least we could reform the tax code so that revenues were generated in a less destructive fashion.

That’s why I’m a big advocate of a simple and fair flat tax, which has several desirable features.

  • The rate is as low as possible, to minimize penalties on productive behavior.
  • There’s no double taxation, so no more bias against saving and investment.
  • And there are no distorting loopholes that bribe people into inefficient choices.

But not everyone is on board, The class-warfare crowd will never like a flat tax. And Washington insiders hate tax reform because it undermines their power.

But there are also sensible people who are hesitant to back fundamental reform.

Consider what Reihan Salam just wrote for National Review. He starts with a reasonably fair description of the proposal.

The original flat tax, championed by the economists Robert Hall and Alvin Rabushka, which formed the basis of Steve Forbes’s flat-tax proposal in 1996, is a single-rate tax on consumption, with a substantial exemption to make the tax progressive at the low end of the household-income distribution.

Though if I want to nit-pick, I could point out that the flat tax has effective progressivity across all incomes because the family-based exemption is available to everyone. As such, a poor household pays nothing. A middle-income household might have an effective tax rate of 12 percent. And the tax rate for Bill Gates would be asymptotically approaching 17 percent (or whatever the statutory rate is).

My far greater concerns arise when Reihan delves into economic analysis.

Reich Is Wrong on the Minimum Wage

Watching Robert Reich’s new video in which he endorses raising the minimum wage by $7.75 per hour – to $15 per hour – is painful.  It hurts to encounter such rapid-fire economic ignorance, even if the barrage lasts for only two minutes. 

Perhaps the most remarkable flaw in this video is Reich’s manner of addressing the bedrock economic objection to the minimum wage – namely, that minimum wage prices some low-skilled workers out of jobs.  Ignoring supply-and-demand analysis (which depicts the correct common-sense understanding that the higher the minimum wage, the lower is the quantity of unskilled workers that firms can profitably employ), Reich asserts that a higher minimum wage enables workers to spend more money on consumer goods which, in turn, prompts employers to hire more workers.  Reich apparently believes that his ability to describe and draw such a “virtuous circle” of increased spending and hiring is reason enough to dismiss the concerns of “scare-mongers” (his term) who worry that raising the price of unskilled labor makes such labor less attractive to employers. 

Ignore (as Reich does) that any additional amounts paid in total to workers mean lower profits for firms or higher prices paid by consumers – and, thus, less spending elsewhere in the economy by people other than the higher-paid workers.

Ignore (as Reich does) the extraordinarily low probability that workers who are paid a higher minimum wage will spend all of their additional earnings on goods and services produced by minimum-wage workers. 

If Poor Nations Want Economic Convergence and Capital Accumulation, They Need Good Policy

There’s a “convergence” theory in economics that suggests, over time, that “poor nations should catch up with rich nations.”

But in the real world, that seems to be the exception rather than the rule.

There’s an interesting and informative article at the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank which explores this theory. It asks why most low-income and middle-income nations are not “converging” with countries from the developed world.

…only a few countries have been able to catch up with the high per capita income levels of the developed world and stay there. By American living standards (as representative of the developed world), most developing countries since 1960 have remained or been “trapped” at a constant low-income level relative to the U.S. This “low- or middle-income trap” phenomenon raises concern about the validity of the neoclassical growth theory, which predicts global economic convergence. Specifically, the Solow growth model suggests that income levels in poor economies will grow relatively faster than developed nations and eventually converge or catch up to these economies through capital accumulation… But, with just a few exceptions, that is not happening.

Here’s a chart showing examples of nations that are – and aren’t – converging with the United States.

Chairmen of House and Senate Budget Committees Propose Good Fiscal Frameworks, Particularly Compared to Obama’s Spendthrift Plan

Earlier this year, President Obama proposed a budget that would impose new taxes and add a couple of trillion dollars to the burden of government spending over the next 10 years.

The Republican Chairmen of the House and Senate Budget Committees have now weighed in. You can read the details of the House proposal by clicking here and the Senate proposal by clicking here, but the two plans are broadly similar (though the Senate is a bit vaguer on how to implement spending restraint, as I wrote a couple of days ago).

So are any of these plans good, or at least acceptable? Do any of them satisfy my Golden Rule?

Here’s a chart showing what will happen to spending over the next 10 years, based on the House and Senate GOP plans, as well as the budget proposed by President Obama.

Keep in mind, as you look at these numbers, that economy is projected to expand, in nominal terms, by an average of about 4.3 percent annually.

The most relevant data is that the Republican Chairmen want spending to climb by about $1.4 trillion over the next decade (annual spending increases averaging about 3.3 percent per year), while Obama wants spending to jump by about $2.4 trillion over the same period (with annual spending climbing by an average of almost 5.1 percent per year).

Even the IMF Agrees that Spending Caps Are Effective

It’s not very often that I applaud research from the International Monetary Fund.

That international bureaucracy has a bad track record of pushing for tax hikes and other policies to augment the size and power of government (which shouldn’t surprise us since the IMF’s lavishly compensated bureaucrats owe their sinecures to government and it wouldn’t make sense for them to bite the hands that feed them).

But every so often a blind squirrel finds an acorn. And that’s a good analogy to keep in mind as we review a new IMF report on the efficacy of “expenditure rules.”

The study is very neutral in its language. It describes expenditure rules and then looks at their impact. But the conclusions, at least for those of us who want to constrain government, show that these policies are very valuable.

In effect, this study confirms the desirability of my Golden Rule! Which is not why I expect from IMF research, to put it mildly.

Grading the Rubio-Lee Tax Reform Plan

In my 2012 primer on fundamental tax reform, I explained that the three biggest warts in the current system:

  1. High tax rates that penalize productive behavior.
  2. Pervasive double taxation that discourages saving and investment.
  3. Corrupt loopholes and cronyism that bribe people to make less productive choices.

These problems all need to be addressed, but I also acknowledged additional concerns with the internal revenue code, such as worldwide taxation and erosion of constitutional freedoms an civil liberties.

In a perfect world, we would shrink government to such a small size that there was no need for any sort of broad-based tax (remember, the United States prospered greatly for most of our history when there was no income tax).

In a good world, we could at least replace the corrupt internal revenue code with a simple and fair flat tax.

In today’s Washington, the best we can hope for is incremental reform.

But some incremental reforms can be very positive, and that’s the best way of describing the “Economic Growth and Family Fairness Tax Reform Plan” unveiled today by Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Senator Mike Lee of Utah.