In honor of World Trade Week—and for its decreed purpose of educating Americans about trade—this post is about U.S. trade policy working at cross-purposes with other policies or goals of the administration. So numerous are these examples of trade policy dissonance, that a committed wonk could devote an entire website to the task of documenting them.
If the administration were serious about making trade policy work—rather than just paying it lip service—it would compile its own exhaustive list of laws, regulations, policies, and practices that actually undermine its stated objectives of facilitating economic growth, investment, and job creation through expanded trade opportunities. Then, it would make the changes necessary to ensure that our policies are paddling in the same direction. But that is not happening—at least as far as I can see.
During his SOTU address last week, the president declared it a national goal to double our exports over the next five years. As my colleague Dan Griswold argues (a point that is echoed by others in this NYT article), such growth is probably unrealistic. But with incomes rising in China, India and throughout the developing world, and with huge amounts of savings accumulated in Asia, strong U.S. export growth in the years ahead should be a given—unless we screw it up with a provocative enforcement regime.
The president said:
If America sits on the sidelines while other nations sign trade deals, we will lose the chance to create jobs on our shores. But realizing those benefits also means enforcing those agreements so our trading partners play by the rules.
Ah, the enforcement canard!
One of the more persistent myths about trade is that we don’t adequately enforce our trade agreements, which has given our trade partners license to cheat. And that chronic cheating—dumping, subsidization, currency manipulation, opaque market barriers, and other underhanded practices—the argument goes, explains our trade deficit and anemic job growth.
But lack of enforcement is a myth that was concocted by congressional Democrats (Sander Levin chief among them) as a fig leaf behind which they could abide Big Labor’s wish to terminate the trade agenda. As the Democrats prepared to assume control of Congress in January 2007, better enforcement—along with demands for actionable labor and environmental standards—was used to cast their opposition to trade as conditional, even vaguely appealing to moderate sensibilities. But as is evident in Congress’s enduring refusal to consider the three completed bilateral agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea (which all exceed Democratic demands with respect to labor and the environment), Democratic opposition to trade is not conditional, but systemic.
Why blame only media and politicians for the public’s confusion about imports and trade deficits? Surely economists deserve some scorn. Some of the misunderstanding can be traced to the famous National Income Identity, which expresses gross domestic product, as: Y = C + G + I + (X-M). That is, national output (Y) equals personal consumption (C) plus government spending (G) plus investment (I) plus exports (X) minus imports (M).
The expression clearly lends itself to the wrong interpretation. The minus sign preceding imports suggests a negative relationship with output. It is the reason for the oft-repeated fallacy that imports are a drag on growth. Here’s why that conclusion is wrong.
The expression is an accounting identity, which "accounts" for all of the possible channels for disposing of our national output. That output is either consumed in the private sector, consumed by government, invested by business, or exported. The identity requires subtraction of aggregate imports because consumption, government spending, business investment, and exports all contain, in various amounts, import value. Americans consume domestic and imported products and services, the aggregate of which shows up in Consumption. Likewise, Government purchases include domestic and imported products and services; businesses Invest in domestic and imported machines and inventory; and, eXports often contain some imported intermediate components. Thus, the identity would overstate national output if it didn’t make that adjustment for iMports. After all, imports are not made on U.S. soil with U.S. factors of production, so they shouldn’t be included in an expression of our national output.
In a post at the Enterprise Blog two days ago, economist Mark Perry deftly parodies a typical mainstream media account of trade protectionism by editing the story in redline to contrast its original presentation with its true significance. I recommend reading the whole thing, but here’s the first paragraph:
WASHINGTON POST (Reuters) - A U.S. trade panel gave final approval on Wednesday to duties taxes ranging from 10 to 16 percent on cost-conscious firms in the U.S. who purchase low-priced Chinese-made steel pipe rather than high-price domestic pipe, in the biggest U.S. trade case to date against China American companies (and their shareholders, employees, and customers) who shop globally for their inputs and find the best value in China.
Perry’s point—and I share his frustration—is that the mainstream media typically fail to convey even a sense of the costs of U.S. protectionism to U.S. interests even though Americans (and non-Americans living in the U.S.) bear the greatest burden of that protectionism. When the U.S. government imposes duties on Chinese steel, it is imposing taxes on U.S. consuming industries, their employees, their shareholders, and their customers.
The expansion in government and poor state of the economy got me thinking about how government growth is reflected in measured gross domestic product. So here is a wonky look at the treatment of government in the Bureau of Economic Analysis GDP data.
Data notes: By “government,” I mean total federal, state, and local. For 2009, I’m using the average of second and third quarter data. All data from BEA Tables here.
GDP measures total production. In 2009, government production was 20.7 percent of U.S. GDP. Government production is roughly the sum of government value‐added (the stuff it produces itself) and government purchases. The first item, government value‐added, was 12.4 percent of GDP and mainly consists of employee compensation. For example, the Pentagon produces output by adding together fighter pilots, which it hires, and fighter jets, which it buys.
A more commonly cited measure of government is total government spending. In 2009, that was 38 percent of GDP. The difference between this number (38 percent) and the production number (20.7 percent) is 17.3 percent, and represents the sum of government interest payments and transfer payments to individuals and businesses.
Figure 1 shows how the three measurements of government size have changed over time. Government production has remained fairly stable as a share of the economy, but total government spending has soared. The growing gap between these two lines mainly represents the massive growth in transfer (or subsidy) programs, such as Social Security.
Chuck Schumer is perhaps my favorite U.S. Senator because of his endless capacity to make me laugh. He often reminds me of Inspector Clouseau, the earnest but bumbling detective from the Pink Panther movies.
Through an excellent post by Scott Lincome today, I learned not only that official NBA jerseys (those worn by the players) are made for Adidas in upstate New York, but that Senator Schumer is attempting to thwart the company’s decision to move production to Thailand.
I share Scott’s assessment of the absurdity of Schumer’s efforts, but more importantly, I wanted to share this humorous footage of Schumer’s awkward nativist appeal that basketball is an American‐centric game.…conducted in front of German‐born NBA Star Dirk Nowitski’s jersey.
That is one of the conclusions in my new paper, "Made on Earth: How Global Economic Integration Renders Trade Policy Obsolete."
For hundreds of years, trade policy has been premised on the assumptions that exports are good, imports are bad, and the interests of domestic producers are tantamount to the "national interest." Though that mercantilist worldview has never been accurate, its persistence as a pillar of trade policy into the 21st century is especially confounding given the emergence and proliferation of disaggregated production processes, transnational supply chains, and cross-border investment. Those trends have blurred any meaningful distinctions between "our" producers and "their" producers and speak to a long chain of interdependent economic interests between product conception and consumption.