There’s No Such Thing as a Trade Deficit

Concerned with how trade is commonly discussed, Greg Mankiw recently issued a plea to journalists to halt the use of subjective terms to describe trade flows. Rather than words such as “deteriorated” or “improved,” the Harvard economics professor (and noted textbook author) proposes that writers employ more objective language such as “the trade balance moved towards surplus.”

Mankiw’s plea is fine as far as it goes, but it probably doesn’t go far enough. The problem in the way trade is discussed lies not only in the descriptions applied, but the nouns themselves.

To speak of trade surpluses or deficits is utterly nonsensical, or at the very least a corruption of the term “trade” that incorrectly uses it as a synonym for “exports.” Trade, however, comprises both selling and buying, both exports and imports. The amount of trade between two countries (or any other group of entities) is the sum of their exports and imports. Given that both sides engage in the same amount of bilateral trade—that is to say, the same total of exporting and importing—a trade deficit is a mythical beast and logical impossibility. Perhaps we can speak of net exports or net imports, or export deficits and import surpluses as well as their reverse, but “trade deficit” should be regarded as a term devoid of real meaning.

Talk of a trade balance either being in surplus or deficit is problematic for similar reasons. Occasionally, one may encounter the descriptor “positive” applied to the trade balance if exports exceed imports and “negative” if the opposite occurs. But—as with trade deficits and surpluses—this is completely arbitrary. It makes no more sense to say this than to characterize a surplus of imports as positive or exports exceeding imports as negative.

This is no exercise in pedanticism. Precision of language is important. Terms matter, and the way in which trade is discussed influences how it is perceived. One can’t help but wonder how many people have an irrational fear of imports because they are said to contribute to a “trade deficit” or a “negative trade balance”—terms laden with unfavorable connotations. It’s not difficult to imagine that U.S. trade policy would be on a very different trajectory if President Trump spent his formative years in a world that did not speak of trade deficits and instead used more exact language and terms.

It may be too late for Trump, but a change in terminology could go a long way toward improving the conversation around trade and clearing the path for better policy.

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Birthright Citizenship Slightly Boosts Immigrant Assimilation: What the Research Says

Former White House national security official and Hillsdale College lecturer Michael Anton wrote an op-ed recently in the Washington Post where he used falsified quotes, poor legal reasoning, and displayed ignorance of the history and debates surrounding the 14th amendment to argue that President Trump should unilaterally end birthright citizenship (here’s Anton’s poor response to the devastating criticisms). 

Few commentators discussed what the actual effects of removing birthright citizenship would be and instead focused on the comparatively unimportant legal questions.  As an exception, my piece for the American Conservative argued that such a move would diminish immigrant assimilation in the United States.  However, I neglected to mention any of the social science that backed up my assertion in the American Conservative.  Below is a short summary of the relevant literature of the evidence that birthright citizenship helps immigrant assimilation.   

There are more assertions that birthright citizenship helps immigrant assimilation and integration than there are individual research papers testing the claim.  The major measures of assimilation or integration, both internationally and domestically, consider citizenship important.  The National Academies of Sciences (NAS) mammoth literature survey on the integration and assimilation of immigrants in the United States mentions birthright citizenship but never cites research backing up assimilations claims.  “Birthright citizenship is one of the most powerful mechanisms of formal political and civic inclusion in the United States,” the report says without any supporting evidence.  Later, the authors state, “Birthright citizenship is one of the most powerful mechanisms of formal political and civic inclusion in the United States; without it, the citizenship status of 37.1 million second-generation Americans living in the country (about 12% of the country’s population), and perhaps many millions more in the third and higher generations, would be up for debate.”  Again, the report does not provide any support for how powerful a mechanism for assimilation birthright citizenship is except to show that many people born here would not be citizens. 

Perhaps the NAS report doesn’t report on how citizenship affects assimilation and integration because the United States has had birthright citizenship for a long time.  Because of that continuity of policy, there is no experiment to run in the United States to test the importance of birthright citizenship for assimilation.  However, there are three suggestive pieces or strands of literature in the American context.  The first is Immigrants Raising Citizens where the author, Hirokazu Yoshikawa, writes that citizenship confers enormous benefits on the children of immigrants but the non-citizen status of their parents limits their ability to help them succeed. 

The second piece is the academic literature (see ft. 9) that shows that earning legal immigration status through an amnesty or DACA, even if it results in a status less than citizenship, confers enormous assimilative and economic benefits on the beneficiaries.  DACA and amnesties are better experiments to test the importance of citizenship or legal status by itself rather than normal naturalization because studies of the former policies remove the endogeneity concern while studies of the latter variety are plagued by it.  That’s a concern because people who choose to naturalize are probably different than those choosing not to, and those differences probably explain assimilative or economic outcomes better than the actual grant of citizenship.

The third piece, a book chapter by Irene Bloemraad, has a section based on interviews with many U.S.-born children of immigrants and what they think it means to be an American.  A common answer is that being born in the United States makes them an American.  One respondent said “we are all 100 percent Americans, we were born here. No matter what people say, we are Americans.”   Another telling exchange went like this:

One Vietnamese American teen’s response was typical.  Asked why he thinks of himself as America, he seemed a bit puzzled and said, “Because I was born here.”  This sort of response – repeated among a fair number of the teens – did not involve discussion of civic principles of cultural habits.  U.S. birth was enough or this teen to feel like he was American.

The third sentence of that quote may worry some folks concerned about the assimilation of the children of immigrants, but I doubt almost any other American-born teen would have answered differently.  Compared to Real Americans and not to the Imagined Americans of nationalist lore, birthright citizenship appeared to have helped here. 

However, the United States is not a great place to study the effects of birthright citizenship because we have not had a shift or reinterpretation in those rules in over a century.  Some countries like Ireland, the Dominican Republic, and Germany, have recently changed their citizenship laws to restrict birthright citizenship, also known as jus soli, and provide a quasi-natural experiment to study these effects

Germany provides the best opportunity to study the effects of birthright citizenship on assimilation.  The German Citizenship and Nationality Law of 1913 only granted citizenship to those who had at least one parent who was a German citizen at the time of the child’s birth.  In 1999, the German parliament amended that law to create a birthright citizenship component for children born on January 1, 2000, or after if at least one parent had been ordinarily resident in the country for at least eight years.  The law also created a transition period for many children born from 1990 through 2000 to naturalize if they met the requirements of the new law. 

New Lawsuit Would Increase Legal Immigration

A prominent law firm—Kurzban, Kurzban, Weinger, Tetzeli and Pratt, P.A.—filed a lawsuit Wednesday that has the potential to reshape legal immigration in a significant way. I submitted an expert affidavit in support of the lawsuit, which the lawyers cite in their motion for a preliminary injunction. The suit challenges the government’s unlawful practice of counting spouses and minor children against the green card limit for EB-5 investors—an issue I have written extensively about in prior posts.  

The EB-5 program allows almost 10,000 foreign nationals to receive permanent residence (i.e. a green card) if they invest up to $1 million in a new business that creates 10 jobs. In fiscal year 2014, the government announced that investors reached the annual quota for the first time, and a large backlog has developed. However, the government has chosen to reduce the quota by the number of spouses and children of the investors.

As Table 1 shows, 64.4 percent of those who received permanent residence under the program from 2014 to 2017 were the spouses and children of the investors. Thus, this practice has effectively reduced the quota for investors by almost two thirds.

Table 1: EB-5 Investors, Spouses, and Children Receiving Legal Permanent Residence

 

2014

2015

2016

2017

Totals

Spouses

2,521

2,424

2,229

2,296*

9,470

Share Spouses

23.5%

23.8%

22.6%

23.3%*

23.3%

Children

4,267

4,159

4,204

4,048*

16,678

Share Children

39.8%

40.8%

42.6%

41.1%*

41.1%

Derivatives

6,788

6,583

6,433

6,345*

26,149

Share Derivatives

63.3%

64.6%

65.2%

64.4%*

64.4%

Principals

3,935

3,605

3,430

3,510*

14,480

Share Principals

36.7%

35.4%

34.8%

35.6%*

35.6%

Total

10,723

10,188

9,863

9,855

40,629

Sources: I-526 Principals and derivatives from Department of Homeland Security, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017; *2017 derivative-primary shares estimated based on the average during the prior three years

As outlined in the complaint and motion for a preliminary injunction, this practice has no basis in law. Subsection (b)(5) of section 203 of the Immigration and Nationality Act specifies:

Visas [i.e. green cards] shall be made available, in a number not to exceed 7.1 percent [i.e. 9,940] of such worldwide level [i.e. 140,000], to qualified immigrants seeking to enter the United States for the purpose of engaging in a new commercial enterprise….

Subsection (b)(5) provides no green cards whatsoever to spouses and children of investors. This means that all of those visas should be available to the investors themselves. Only later in a separate provision—subsection (d) of section 203—are green cards provided for spouses and minor children of those immigrants:

A spouse or child… shall, if not otherwise entitled to an immigrant status and the immediate issuance of a visa under subsection (a), (b), or (c), be entitled to the same status, and the same order of consideration provided in the respective subsection, if accompanying or following to join, the spouse or parent.

Nothing in this provision applies the EB-5 cap under subsection (b)(5) or any other cap to the spouses and minor children. The government cannot simply create a quota where Congress has not provided one. Indeed, as I’ve written before, members of Congress in 1990—when the EB-5 program was created—explicitly envisioned spouses and children not counting against the quota. They made exact predictions of how much investment would be made based on the belief that fully 10,000 investors would enter under the new law.

Not only that, but the requirement that spouses and children receive the “same order of consideration” requires that they not be subject to the cap. The law defines “order of consideration” as “immigrant visas made available under subsection (a) or (b) shall be issued to eligible immigrants in the order in which a petition on behalf each such immigrant is filed…” In other words, the line is entirely determined by the date when the principal applicants—the investors—file their petitions “under subsection (b)”. The derivatives—spouses and minor children—are not part of the “order” at all. They get the same spot in line as their spouse or parent.

Obviously, this lawsuit would be a big win for investors and their families if it succeeds. Based on my calculations in my affidavit, nearly half of those involved in this lawsuit alone will have children reach adulthood during this time and lose their eligibility. New applicants applying this year face nearly 16 years to wait if they applied this year, meaning that anyone with a child over the age of 5 will never be able to immigrate.

As importantly, this legal analysis applies with equal force to all the other major immigration categories—family-sponsored, employer-sponsored, and diversity lottery winners—so a good outcome in this case would set a precedent that immigrants in those categories could use to have their spouses and children excluded from the quotas as well. This outcome would immediately boost immigration levels by about 40 percent, and over time, as new immigrants enter and are able to sponsor their parents after becoming citizens, this share would grow even further.

About those EU Trade Concessions…

As Simon Lester noted, President Trump and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker caught the world by surprise Wednesday when they announced a step back from the rapidly escalating trade war between the United States and European Union.

In his statement, Trump added this bit of news:

And the European Union is going to start, almost immediately, to buy a lot of soybeans—they’re a tremendous market—buy a lot of soybeans from our farmers in the Midwest, primarily. So I thank you for that, Jean-Claude.

… Secondly, we agreed today to a strengthen and [sic] strengthening of our strategic cooperation with respect to energy. The European Union wants to import more liquefied natural gas—LNG—from the United States, and they’re going to be a very, very big buyer. We’re going to make it much easier for them, but they’re going to be a massive buyer of LNG, so they’ll be able to diversify their energy supply, which they want very much to do. And we have plenty of it.

Simon qualified that news in his post: “This was probably going to happen anyway because of market shifts and other factors.”

To say the least.

Concerning soybeans, a month ago Bloomberg explained that EU imports of the crop are set to rise dramatically as a result of another U.S. trade war, in this case with China. China has slapped retaliatory tariffs on U.S. soybeans, and Brazil is set to supplant the United States in that market. American farmers now have a surplus of soybeans—which the EU is happy to buy so long as the price is right.

This is reminiscent of the Arab oil embargo of the 1970s. In that case, the Arab states simply sold their oil to someone else and the United States bought its oil from someone else. (Well, we would have, if we hadn’t messed things up by putting a price cap on oil.)

Commodities like oil and soybeans move in world markets, and so if one particular buyer and one particular seller aren’t getting along, there are plenty of other buyers and sellers to step in, so long as someone’s willing to pay for the extra handling costs. (Don’t be surprised if Chinese consumers and U.S. farmers are the ones stuck with those costs for the soybeans.)

So the soybean “concession” is really just the EU doing what it was going to do anyway.

Antitrust Articles In Regulation

The Department of Justice recently filed a notice to appeal a federal judge’s decision to permit an $85.4 billion merger between AT&T and Time Warner. Though the judge rejected the government’s argument that the merger will raise prices for consumers and limit competition, the decision to appeal sends a clear signal that the Justice Department plans to aggressively pursue antitrust cases.

The appeal also exemplifies a recent resurgence of antitrust activism. Along with the AT&T and Time Warner deal, over the past year there has been renewed interest in antitrust, particularly in regards to tech giants like Google and Facebook. This resurgence represents a shift away from the consensus that government should not intervene in firm concentration unless it is clear that consumers are being harmed, and towards the conception that “big is bad,” regardless of whether consumer harm can be demonstrated.

But, as University of Chicago law professor and later federal judge Frank Easterbrook outlined in a seminal 1984 paper, a key question at the core of antitrust cases is the impact of Type I (false positive) and Type II (false negative) errors. A Type I error is the incorrect finding that firm concentration is causing consumer harm while a Type II error is the opposite, the incorrect finding that firm concentration is not causing consumer harm. Easterbrook argued that Type II errors are less harmful—though a firm’s practices are causing harm, in a dynamic market competing firms will find ways to offset the harmful advantage. But the government intervention impelled by a Type I error is not as easily offset.  Thus antitrust policy should err on the side of allowing practices rather than declaring them illegal.

“Zero Subsidies” Through a U.S.-EU Trade Agreement Is Unlikely

Recall that President Trump said this yesterday in the context of his remarks with European Commission President Juncker:

This is why we agreed today, first of all, to work together toward zero tariffs, zero non-tariff barriers, and zero subsidies on non-auto industrial goods. 

Zero tariffs on these products through a trade agreement is a plausible and useful goal. On the other hand, zero non-tariff barriers could only be achieved through the U.S. joining an EU-style single market, which I don’t think anyone has in mind here. It is possible to remove a few of the more egregious regulatory barriers, but we should be realistic about what can be achieved.

But let’s focus on subsidies. On this issue, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said this today at a Senate Committee hearing (starts around 34:45):

The idea is [to have] a balanced package and move from where we are to an environment where you don’t have tariffs or subsidies. Because that’s an important part. You can’t compete with someone who is subsidized. And we don’t subsidize for the most part. 

In terms of whether we subsidize “for the most part,” I thought this recent op-ed from Cato Senior Fellow Doug Bandow would be helpful:

Subsidies Galore: Corporate Welfare For Politically-Connected Businesses Is Bipartisan

Congress created the usual special interest frenzy with its latest iteration of the Farm Bill. Agricultural subsidies are one of the most important examples of corporate welfare, money handed out to businesses based on political connections.

Business plays a vital role in a free market. In real capitalism there are no guaranteed profits. But corporate welfare eliminates this handicap for the well-connected.

Business subsidies that allow politicians to channel economic resources toward their preferred ends distort investment and trade. Moreover, turning government into an engine of illicit profit encourages what economists call rent-seeking. Well-organized special interests usually triumph over the broader public and national interest.

Aid comes in many forms.

Agriculture has spawned a gaggle of sometimes bizarre subsidies. Like a dairy program which created milk surpluses, in turn encouraging state price fixing, generating massive cheese stockpiles, in turn triggering giveaways to the poor. Payments, loans, crop insurance, import quotas, and more underwrite farmers.

Money also goes to agricultural enterprises through the Rural Business-Cooperative Service, which supports “business development.” The recently defeated Farm Bill even included $65 million in special health care subsidies for agricultural associations. Ironically, farm households enjoy higher median income and wealth than non-farm households.

The Market Access Program is one of several initiatives to subsidize agricultural exports. Other programs support general trade and investment.

For instance, the Export-Import Bank is known as Boeing’s Bank. It provides cheap credit for foreign buyers of American products. Which, ironically, gives foreign firms an advantage over U.S. producers who must pay full fare. Ex-Im’s biggest beneficiary in recent years has been China, especially its state-owned firms.

The Overseas Private Investment Corporation underwrites U.S. investment in potentially unstable nations. If the project pays off, investors win. If not, the rest of us lose. Why should the public guarantee investor profits?

At the other end of the commercial spectrum is the Small Business Administration. Smaller firms are a vital part of the American economy but they are not an underserved market. There is no dearth of, say, liquor stores. SBA is a response to a political opportunity, not an economic need.

Much corporate welfare is disguised in broader terms. The Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration subsidizes “development” in “distressed communities,” meaning the agency underwrites business, with dubious results. There are some 180 federal pork barrel “economic development” programs.

The Rural Utilities Service (formerly the Rural Electrification Administration), continues, never mind that rural America got electricity decades ago. Today RUS has expanded into Broadband internet and even television service.

The Bureau of Land Management (mis)manages federal lands, subsidizing use of rangeland by ranchers, for instance. There are incentives for airline companies to serve small markets. Foreign Military Financing is presented as a national defense measure, but in most cases the chief beneficiaries are arms makers.

Housing subsidies are many, most notably mortgage support and tax preferences, though the latter was trimmed by last year’s tax bill. The Trump administration is pushing subsidies for what the president calls “beautiful” coal power plants.

Federal research and development offers bountiful benefits to business. The more basic the R&D, the better the argument that the public interest is being served. The closer to commercialization, the more the expenditures are essentially corporate welfare.

For example, the Obama administration funneled $535 million worth of loan guarantees to Solyndra, which President Barack Obama called an “engine of economic growth.” The company filed for bankruptcy in 2011.

Tesla Syndrome

The Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing program provides $25 billion in loans for development of cars powered by alternative fuels. Tesla is a major beneficiary. Some firms enjoy multiple benefits.

Although most public attention falls on direct expenditures, trade “protection” is no less a form of corporate welfare. Both tariffs and quotas allow domestic manufacturers to charge more. Tariffs and other fees alone come to around $40 billion a year.

Tax preferences are another means of corporate welfare. Buried in the tax code, they often are difficult to identify, Measures which affect only one firm or industry, in contrast to those with general economic impact, should be treated as subsidies. The Tax Foundation once figured “special tax provisions” to cost more than $100 billion annually in lost revenue.

States and localities also offer subsidies, many through grants, free property, and tax preferences to attract businesses to a particular area. Estimates of these costs run between around $50 billion and $80 billion.

Few in Washington really want to cut spending. But ending corporate welfare would be a start to restoring fiscal sanity in Washington.

As this piece demonstrates, we subsidize a lot, and the reality is that bilateral trade agreements can’t and won’t do much to stop it. There are some WTO obligations that place limits on the amounts and kinds of subsidies, and those help. But I wouldn’t expect much progress on subsidies in any U.S.-EU trade talks.

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Some Things a Central Bank’s Banker Doesn’t Know about Monetary History

In February 2018 Agustin Carstens, the General Manager of the Bank for International Settlements in Basel, gave a speech at Goethe University in Frankfurt entitled “Money in the digital age: what role for central banks?” The speech quickly became notorious in the cryptocurrency community for its brusque dismissal of Bitcoin and other cryptoassets. Among other things, Carstens there called Bitcoin “a combination of a bubble, a Ponzi scheme and an environmental disaster.” A combination? One may judge the price of Bitcoin a bubble, but there is no other sense in which Bitcoin is a “Ponzi scheme.” The BIS being the central bankers’ bank, crypto supporters in response mocked Carstens for merely representing the interests of national fiat currency monopolies in quashing potential competitors.

More recently Carstens gave an interview to a Swiss periodical, available in English translation on the BIS website, in which he reiterated his anti-cryptocurrency position. “It’s a fallacy to think money can be created from nothing” was one of the oddest claims he made there, given that fiat monies are closer than cryptocurrencies are to being gratuitously created. This interview too has provoked criticism from crypto defenders.

Overlooked in the debate over Carstens’ dubious statements about Bitcoin and cryptocurrency have been the dubious statements he makes about historical forms of private money. I want to shine some critical light on those statements.