Topic: Trade Policy

Paul Krugman on Pump-Priming and Trump

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman recently chided President Trump for imagining he invented the metaphor of “priming the pump” during an Economist interview. Yet Krugman, like Trump, buys into the premise that budget deficits really do “stimulate” total spending or “aggregate demand” which is commonly measured by growth of Nominal GDP (NGDP).

Economic booms and busts clearly have huge effects on budget deficits, but where is the evidence that deficits and surpluses have their own separate (“exogenous”) effect on NGDP? 

To isolate cause and effect, we have to take out the “endogenous” effects that ups and downs in the economy have on taxes and spending. That is why the Congressional Budget Office (CBO)estimates budget deficits or surpluses (divided by GDP) without automatic stabilizers, which has traditionally been called the “cyclically-adjusted” budget. I will label it the “C-A Deficit” for short.  

CA Deficit and NGDP

The red line in the graph shows the CBO’s Cyclically-Adjusted (C-A) deficit or surplus as a share of GDP. The blue line shows the percentage growth in Nominal GDP (NGDP). 

From 1965 to 2016, the C-A Deficit averaged -2.7% of GDP, and growth of nominal GDP averaged 6.6%.

Contrary to 1960s Keynesian orthodoxy, the graph and table reveal no connection between the size of cyclically-adjusted deficits or surpluses and the rate of growth of aggregate demand (NGDP).  From 1991 to 2001, for example, the C-A Budget swings from an average deficit to a sizable surplus with essentially no change in the pace of NGDP growth. 

There is no measurable or even visible connection between larger CA-Deficits and faster NGDP growth in 2009-2012, nor between budget surpluses and slower NGDP growth in 1998-2000.  For more than 50 years, our experience has frequently been the opposite of what demand-side fiscalism predicts. This is not just a short-term phenomenon.

Where Are All These Globalists I Keep Reading About?

There’s a new scholarly journal out there called American Affairs. Eliana Johnson of Politico describes it as “a journal of public policy and political philosophy with an eye toward laying the intellectual foundation for the Trump movement.” Many people in the Trump movement purport to be in favor of “nationalism” over “globalism,” so you can imagine the journal will have some things to say about this topic. In the mission statement, the editors note the following:

We are said to live in a “globalized” world. Yet the most conspicuous global phenomenon of the present time would appear to be the resurgence of nationalism, in the United States as well as in Europe and Asia. What is the future of nations and nationalism, and what are the consequences of further separating political sovereignty from the existing political community of the nation-state? Is further “globalization” both inevitable and desirable? Can nationalism be leavened by justice—or even be essential to it—rather than being abandoned to its worst expressions?

And in the first issue, nationalism vs. globalism gets some prominent discussion. Georgetown political science professor Joshua Mitchell has a piece called “A Renewed Republican Party,” in which he talks about the “repudiation of globalism” in the 2016 election:

What term, then, should Republicans use to name the repudiation of globalism during the recent historic election? There will be a division, I suspect, along the lines we saw during the painful run-up to the 2016 election itself. On the one hand, Republicans who sided with globalists on the issue of commerce or who had a low estimation of American culture will indeed call what has happened a populist revolt. On the other hand, Republicans who think that globalism has not only been a disaster for the whole of the America but also that it is theoretically untenable will—or should—call what has happened a revolt in the name of national sovereignty, not populism.

Now, I’m not convinced that Trump really is the nationalist he plays on the campaign trail, or that his supposedly nationalist advisers are either. (The way they reach out to like-minded people in the UK, France, Germany and Russia seems kind of, well, globalist. Maybe it’s not really a repudiation of globalism they are after, but rather a different kind of globalism.)

Regardless, that’s the narrative going on right now: nationalism vs. globalism. And not suprisingly, this talking point has made the leap to a full-fledged academic fad, as evidenced by the creation of the American Affairs journal.

But what I keep wondering is: where are all these globalists that we are supposed to be afraid of? Mitchell tells us that American citizens want “their towns, counties, cities, states, and country” back. But back from whom? Who exactly has taken these things from us?

Trade Statistics Are a Source of Great Mischief

Following is my response to the Commerce Department’s request for public comments on the “Causes of Significant Trade Deficits.”

In a globalized economy, where the value embedded in most manufactured goods originates in multiple countries and two-thirds of trade flows are intermediate goods, bilateral trade accounting is meaningless.  In a world where statistical agencies attribute the entire $180 cost of producing an Apple iPhone to China, where it is merely assembled for a cost of about $6, what do trade statistics and trade balances mean?   By assigning 100 percent of the value of an import to the final country on the assembly line, trade statistics have lost most of their meaning.

The misguided belief that the trade account is a scoreboard measuring the success or failure of trade policy explains much of the public’s skepticism about trade and trade agreements, lends plausibility to claims that the United States is routinely outsmarted by shrewder foreign trade negotiators, and provides cover for the same, recycled mercantilist and protectionist arguments that have persisted without merit for centuries.

If the trade deficit reduces economic activity and destroys jobs, why are there positive relationships between these variables?  The overall trade deficit, by and large, is also a meaningless statistic.  It is neither a barometer of economic health nor a running tally of debt with which we are burdening future generations.


China’s War on Free Speech

China’s market economy with socialist characteristics rose from the ashes of Mao Zedong’s failed experiments with central planning. Under that repressive regime, private enterprise was outlawed and individuals become wards of the state. When Deng Xiaoping became China’s paramount leader, he abandoned Mao’s class struggle as the centerpiece of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and embarked on economic liberalization. There was hope that greater freedom in trading goods and services would also lead to a freer market in ideas.

That hope was dashed when troops cracked down on protesters in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. Deng’s famous “Southern Tour” in 1992 resumed economic reform—and China has become the world’s largest trading nation—but protectionism in the market for ideas remains intact. Under President Xi Jinping, who advocates globalization but has cracked down on the free flow of information, China has become less free. 

In the just released World Press Freedom Index, published by Paris-based Reporters sans Frontières (RSF), China is ranked 176 out of 180 countries, just a few notches above North Korea—and President Xi is referred to as “the planet’s leading censor and press freedom predator.” In preparation for the 19th CCP Congress later this year, there has been an uptick in the war on free speech. 

At the White House, Confusion (Apparently) Reigns on US Trade Agreements

Friday afternoon, US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross announced a new White House Executive Order to study “violations and abuses” of US trade agreements. The EO itself is hardly remarkable – President Trump’s first 100 Days have featured numerous executive demands for studies, investigations and reports on various international trade issues (without any actual anti-trade actions, so far) – but what was remarkable was the substance of Ross’ speech itself, which appeared to be unaware of certain basic facts about US trade agreements. In this regard, Ross’ statements raise questions about not only the White House’s basic research competence, but also what they’ll eventually produce in their final “trade agreement abuses” report.

A full accounting of the errors and omissions in Ross’ press briefing is beyond the scope of this short blog post, but the four most basic are below. (My Cato colleague Simon Lester handles some of Ross’ confusion surrounding basic World Trade Organization rules and procedures in a separate blog post, so be sure to check that out too.)


Antidumping 101: Everything You Need to Know about the Steel Industry’s Favorite Protectionist Bludgeon

Last week, invoking a seldom-used provision of a 1962 law, President Trump launched an investigation to determine whether steel imports present a threat to U.S. national security. An affirmative finding by the Commerce Department would permit the president to impose trade restrictions in response to the threat. But the real threat to U.S. national security is not an abundant supply of cheap imported steel. The real threat is a hyper-litigious steel industry intent on isolating the U.S. economy at enormous cost to downstream U.S. industries, exporters, and consumers. 

With the Trump administration full of steel executives and their lawyers one needn’t ponder too long to get the gist: U.S. trade policy is in the hands of an industry that accounts for 0.3 percent of U.S. GDP, has never had much interest in cultivating foreign demand for its products, has limited stakes in the global trading system, and is monothematic in its demand for aggressive trade law enforcement.

The wall of tariff’s protecting U.S. steel interests is already much higher than the walls erected to insulate virtually any other industry from foreign competition. Currently, there are 151 antidumping and countervailing duty (anti-subsidy) measures in force against most types of steel from most major exporters. And that severely impairs the competitiveness of America’s far more numerous, far more economically significant downstream, steel-using companies.

Under U.S. trade remedy laws, the authorities are prohibited by statute (on account of steel industry lobbying) from even considering the impact of prospective antidumping and countervailing duties on the operations of downstream companies. Absurd self-flagellation, right? The absurdity is magnified when you grasp that the duties paid by U.S. importers (i.e., the steel users), which are big enough deterrents to doing business with foreign suppliers in the first place, aren’t even the biggest concern. Under the seriously corrupted, capriciously-administered U.S. trade remedy laws, the importers don’t even know what their final duty liability is going to be until about one year (on average) after the product is imported.  The amount of duty paid upon entry of the product is an estimate of the duties that ultimately will be owed when Commerce gets around to “calculating” the actual incidence of dumping or subsidization next year.  Imagine getting a supplemental bill today for the groceries you purchased last April.  Would you even buy those groceries in the first place, without knowing the final price tag? Of course not. And that’s the intention of the retrospective nature of the U.S. trade remedy laws.


Lumber and Dairy Trade Disputes: No Need to Freak Out

U.S. - Canada trade relations are in the news, and not in a good way.  There are two particular products at issue: lumber and dairy. Here’s what Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross had to say yesterday: 

It has been a bad week for U.S.-Canada trade relations. Last Monday, it became apparent that Canada intends to effectively cut off the last dairy products being exported from the United States. Today, in a different matter, the Department of Commerce determined a need to impose countervailing duties of roughly one billion dollars on Canadian softwood lumber exports to us. This is not our idea of a properly functioning Free Trade Agreement. 

As background, there are two separate issues. First, on dairy, there are allegations that a Canadian government program, in combination with certain private sector practices, has led to reductions in U.S. dairy exports to Canada.  There may be something to this claim, and I can imagine the U.S. might file a complaint at the World Trade Organization.  Trump’s tweets may make it sound like there will be some kind of harsh tariff retaliation outside the context of the WTO, but I’m skeptical.  We haven’t yet seen any blatant trade law violations of this sort from the Trump administration (and hopefully we won’t), and I think it’s more likely they will go the WTO. 

Then there’s lumber.  This is a long-standing U.S. - Canada trade dispute (my colleague Dan Ikenson gives the background here), and it is picking up again, as the Department of Commerce made a preliminary determination of countervailable subsidies on imports of softwood lumber from Canada.  This is from the fact sheet they issued: 

Commerce calculated preliminary subsidy rates for five mandatory respondents: for Canfor Corporation, 20.26 percent; for J.D. Irving, Limited, 3.02 percent; for Resolute FP Canada, Ltd., 12.82 percent; for Tolko Marketing and Sales Ltd. and Tolko Industries Ltd., 19.50 percent; and, for West Fraser Mills, Ltd., 24.12 percent. Commerce established a preliminary subsidy rate of 19.88 percent for all other producers/exporters in Canada. 

Before anybody panics, let me reiterate that this is nothing new.  Note that there was a preliminary determination on subsidized Canadian lumber back in August 2001, where DOC calculated a single country-wide subsidy rate of 19.31%.  While there are a lot of potentially system-destroying trade actions from the Trump administration to worry about, this one is just the usual, routine kind of trade remedy action.  Not that I support this sort of thing, of course, but it’s part of the system. Also note that it is just a preliminary determination, subject to a final review by the Commerce Department, as well as a final injury determination by the International Trade Commission. And the parties may be able to work out an agreement, as they have in the post.