Tag: trade

America’s Economic Problem Is Regulation, not Trade

Even when Donald Trump seems to get something right, he’s mostly wrong. At least when it comes to economics.

Many Americans are suffering financially. Yet the problem is not trade: Americans have grown wealthy as a trading nation. In contrast, regulation has done much to harm U.S. competitiveness.

The Obama administration is busy writing new rules to turn America into its vision of a good society, irrespective of the impact on liberty or prosperity. Last year Uncle Sam spent $62 billion to run the rest of our lives.

Observed Patrick McLaughlin and Oliver Sherouse of the Mercatus Center: “Over the last 20 years the regulatory budget has more than doubled in real terms while the number of total restrictions has grown by about 220,000—a 25 percent increase.”

The problem is not only the expense of enforcement. Far greater is the cost of the impact on the economy.

Last year Clyde Wayne Crews of the Competitive Enterprise Institute assessed the impact of regulation in his working paper entitled “Tip of the Costberg.” He figured the total price of regulation to be $1.88 trillion.

However, these figures almost certainly are too low. Crews argued: “Too often, regulatory impacts don’t get measured. But further, the disruption of market processes and the derailment of wealth, safety and health creating processes themselves are for the most part wholly neglected.”

Regulatory costs play out in many ways. One aspect is what an individual or company spends to comply with government dictates. Far harder to measure is what does not occur as a result of arbitrary and expensive rules. What products are not launched, what enterprises are not started, what jobs are not created?

Of course, regulations theoretically are promulgated because they yield net benefits after costs. However, agencies have an incentive to inflate the value of what they are doing. That means exaggerating problems and “social costs,” overstating alleged benefits, and discounting compliance costs.

Overall how much have we lost from excessive, unnecessary regulation? A lot, according to economists John W. Dawson and John J. Seater.

They considered the cumulative impact of losing a couple percent of economic growth year in and year out from 1949 through 2005: “That reduction in the growth rate has led to an accumulated reduction in GDP of about $38.8 trillion as of the end of 2011. That is, GDP at the end of 2011 would have been $53.9 trillion instead of $15.1 trillion if regulation had remained at its 1949 level.”

Increased regulation also contributes to increased inequality. In January McLaughlin and Laura Stanley of Mercatus concluded that such rules “skew income toward politically connected producers and away from individual who lack the resources necessary to navigate the legal and regulatory framework.” 

Finally, there is the issue of lost liberty. Crews released a second study last year entitled “Mapping Washington’s Lawlessness 2016.” It reviewed what he termed “regulatory dark matter.”

The regulatory process is essentially lawless, beyond the normal accountability of a democratic system. As Crews explained: “Congress passes and the president signs a few dozen laws every year. Meanwhile, federal departments and agencies issue well over 3,000 rules and regulations of varying significance. A weekday never passes without new regulation. Beyond those rules, however, we lack a clear grasp on the amount and cost of the thousands of executive branch and federal agency proclamations and issuances, including memos, guidance documents, bulletins, circulars, and announcements with practical regulatory effect.”

Americans are suffering. But closing off the economy is no answer to them.

As I pointed out in American Spectator online: “Policymakers should address federal, state, and local governments which are doing so much to prevent American companies from out-competing foreign operations and rewarding Americans accordingly. These are the bad policies to blame for creating today’s economic problems and imposing widespread financial hardship, thereby fueling the populist Trump bandwagon.”

The Continuing Anti-Trade Adventures of Ted Cruz

Ted Cruz’s campaign has produced a new ad targeting Wisconsin voters in the lead up to that state’s primary election tomorrow. As images switch back and forth between farms and factories, Cruz lists off a number of generic demographics and blue collar occupations that his campaign “is for.” He also complains about international trade.


Here’s the substantive part of the ad:

We will repeal Obamacare, peel back the EPA and all the burdensome regulations that are killing small businesses and manufacturing. 

I’m going to stand up for fair trade and bring our jobs back from China. 

We will see wages going up. 

We’ll see opportunity again.

Senator Cruz doesn’t tell us what he means by “fair trade” or promote a specific trade policy. The term “fair trade” is usually used by politicians as a euphemism for “protectionism.” In the past, Cruz has noted that the value-added tax (VAT) he has proposed is “like a tariff” because it imposes a greater burden on imports. Perhaps this is what he means by “fair trade.”

In any event, some simple facts about trade might be helpful to explain the problems with Cruz’s approach. For example, nearly 60% of imports are materials and capital goods used by American companies. So, Cruz’s “fair trade” is a tax on the very same “small businesses and manufacturing” whose burdens he wants to lift. Oh, and reduced employment in America’s thriving manufacturing sector is not due primarily to trade with China.

The biggest difference between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz on trade is that Trump has been more specific. Trump has singled out specific trade deals he opposes and has promised to tax specific companies specific amounts. Also, Trump’s disdain for trade has been apparent from the beginning of his campaign, while Cruz’s rhetoric and positions have been getting gradually worse in response.

While Trump has been getting lots of attention for his anti-trade rhetoric, it’s worth remembering that other candidates are not offering better policy proposals. They are simply less sensational in how they present the same flawed message.

Topics:

Can Competition ‘Make America Great Again’?

Many worry about international trade and the increased competition to which it leads, while overlooking trade’s incredible benefits. In a refreshing Wall Street Journal article, the founder and CEO of FedEx, Fred Smith, reflects on how trade and deregulation have improved American living standards over the course of his lifetime. He recalls how many luxuries enjoyed by few during his youth plummeted in price and became accessible to more people than ever before. 

“Foreign travel was exotic, expensive and rare among the population as a whole” during the 1960s, Smith reminds us. Industry deregulation and international Open Skies agreements changed that. “Long-distance telephone calls were expensive, international calls prohibitively so,” and cell phones did not even exist yet. “From furniture to TVs and appliances, and especially automobiles, American brands dominated consumer spending” across the United States, and were often out of reach to the less affluent. Then trade worked its magic: 

[Trade] has rewarded Western consumers with low-cost products that have substantially improved standards of living. [Today] Americans and Europeans don’t need to be affluent to afford cell phones, digital TVs, furniture and appliances.

The moral of Smith’s story is clear: competition, which trade and deregulation facilitate, has an extraordinary tendency to enhance efficiency and bring down prices.

Don’t Get Fooled by Trump

Watching Pete Townshend wailing on his Fender Stratocaster last night at the Verizon Center reminded of what I’d read about Fender’s history. Part of the Fender story regards how the firm got hammered by Japanese competition in the 1970s, but then bounced back by refocusing on quality. So while I was listening to “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” I’m embarrassed to say I was pondering Donald Trump’s misguided statements favoring protectionism.

As president, Trump suggests he’d block imports from China, Mexico, and even Japan. But what Trump does not seem to realize is that import competition makes American companies stronger. To make America great again, we need both import competition and domestic policy reforms, including slashing the corporate tax rate to 15 percent, as Trump is advocating.

Let’s look at a bit of history. American firms Fender and Gibson have long been the dominant electric guitar makers. But both firms were in decline in the 1970s, as quality fell and import competition increased. Leo Fender had sold his guitar company to conglomerate CBS in 1965, and within a few years musicians began noticing substantial drops in product quality. A similar decline happened at Gibson in the 1970s, which was also controlled at the time by an ineffective corporate parent.

Japanese guitar firm Ibanez saw an opportunity. It had expanded into electric guitars in the 1960s with the idea of making cheaper copies of American products. But by the 1970s, the firm realized that it could make higher-quality products than the Americans, but at lower cost. And like Honda and Toyota in automobiles, Ibanez focused on product innovation, while the American firms rested on their laurels. Ibanez’s strategy succeeded, and today it is one of the top guitar firms.

By the 1980s, Gibson was “floundering” and “might well have gone under,” noted an article in Guitar World. And Fender was “all but dead,” according to the company’s official history. But America’s capital markets came to the rescue. Fender was bought out in 1985, and Gibson in 1986, by teams of investors determined to revive the firms’ traditions of quality. Today, Fender and Gibson are back on top of this competitive industry.

By the way, the weakness of Fender and Gibson also prompted American entrepreneurs to enter the fray. Randall Smith started guitar amplifier company Mesa Boogie in his California workshop in the late 1960s. Smith told Guitar World that he saw the decline of Fender and Gibson in the 1970s, and he was determined to “avoid that fate and remain dedicated to the instruments and the musicians that play them.” Smith’s company went on to invent an array of new features for guitar amps that have become standard in the industry.

Hartley Peavey has a similar story. As a teenager in Meridian, Mississippi, Peavey began building guitars and amps for his friends, which led to his founding Peavey Electronics in 1965. He wanted to offer consumers better value for money than the gear on the market at the time. Peavey used innovative manufacturing techniques to keep his costs down and to challenge Fender and Gibson with quality guitars at lower prices. Today, Peavey is one of the largest names in amps and guitars, and it ships many of its products worldwide from factories in Mississippi.

In sum, Trump is singing the right song on corporate taxes, but don’t be fooled by his rhetoric on trade.

For more on guitars, see here.

Topics:

Fact Checking the Washington Post’s Fact Checker on Trade and Manufacturing

Pinocchio Quattro!” is Washington Post “Fact Checker” Glenn Kessler’s response to Donald Trump, for his claims about trade, currency manipulation and manufacturing. No doubt the 4-pinocchio distinction is well-earned. Actually, without issuing a score, my analysis in Forbes today reaches similar conclusions.

Reading Kessler’s explanation and justification for the award, I was pleasantly surprised by how well he characterized and conveyed the salient, underlying trade issues. Non-trade experts and non-trade-beat reporters often miss the nuance and get things wrong. Nonetheless, for the purpose of even greater precision, I’m going to reiterate, clarify, amplify, and slightly modify some of the points Kessler makes. (Thanks for being a prop, Glenn).

Topics:

Why You Shouldn’t Fear Trade with China

Trade has enriched humanity, continuously providing cheaper and better goods while dramatically decreasing global poverty. Extreme poverty’s end is now in sight. A Gallup poll released recently shows that 58 percent of Americans view trade as an opportunity rather than a threat, and this belief has been rising. Yet we seldom hear of the incredible benefits of exchange. The 2016 presidential election has brought with it an increased interest in U.S. trade with China, with political figures like Donald Trump prominently focusing on the alleged “harm” done by China to the United States. Here are the three main arguments that trade-skeptics use regarding China and reasons why those arguments are wrong. 

1) Trade-skeptics often claim that trade with China is “taking American jobs.” However, in most cases American and Chinese workers are not competing for the same jobs because they do different kinds of work.   

Comparative advantage and specialization play an important role in every trade relationship. China has the comparative advantage in light manufacturing and heavy industry, while the United States has an advantage in areas involving a high degree of human capital like technology, education, and precision industrial manufacturing

Fewer and fewer Americans work in grueling areas like traditional manufacturing and agriculture, both of which are still common in China. The fall in traditional manufacturing and agriculture employment has been more than offset by a rise in the caring professions and in creative and knowledge-intensive careers, which are safer, more intellectually stimulating, and help improve the standard of living in the United States. 

Fact Checking Trump on Trade

Watching the Presidential primary debates, there are numerous instances where I – and no doubt many others here at Cato and elsewhere – think, “I should really correct that inaccuracy in a blog post tomorrow.”  But sometimes you wake up and find someone else has already done the job for you.  Here are Washington Post fact checkers Glenn Kessler and Michelle Ye Hee Lee skillfully taking down one of Donald Trump’s ridiculous statements on trade:

“I don’t mind trade wars when we’re losing $58 billion a year [to Mexico], you want to know the truth. We’re losing so much. We’re losing so much with Mexico and China — with China, we’re losing $500 billion a year.”   –Trump

Trump has the numbers right on the trade deficit with Mexico and overstates them with China — but he gets the economics very wrong in both cases. A trade deficit means that people in one country are buying more goods from another country than people in the second country are buying from the first country.

So in Mexico’s case, Americans in 2015 purchased $294 billion in goods from Mexico, while Mexico purchased $236 billion in goods from the United States. That results in a trade deficit of $58 billion. In the case of China, Americans in 2015 bought $482 billion in goods from China, while Chinese purchased $116 billion from the U.S., for a trade deficit of $366 billion.

But that money is not “lost.” Americans wanted to buy those products. If Trump sparked a trade war and tariffs were increased on those Chinese goods, then it would raise the cost of those goods to Americans. Perhaps that would reduce the purchases of those goods, and thus reduce the trade deficit — but that would not mean the United States would “gain” money that had been lost.

Trump frequently suggests, as he did in the debate, that Mexico could pay for the wall out of the $58 billion trade deficit. But that is nonsensical. The trade deficit does not go to the government; it just indicates that Americans are buying more goods from Mexico than the other way around.