Free Trade Ad Nauseam
So much has been written, by so many, against the muddled ideas that have now overwhelmed good sense on trade policy in the United States government that one wonders whether there is anything left to say. Yet it is worth recalling what Pierre-Joseph Proudhon reportedly told the Russian intellectual Alexander Herzen: “And do you imagine that once a thing has been said, it is enough?….It has to be dinned into people, it has to be repeated over and over again.”
What we need now is a primer on the major misconceptions in the hope that, unlike Gresham’s Law, which says that bad money drives out good money, good economics will drive out bad economics. Four, in particular need to be corrected.
The first misconception is that exports create jobs, while imports do not - a fallacy that the great trade economist Harry Johnson traced to mercantilism, and which the US has resurrected. In fact, in a world where parts and components come from everywhere, interference with imports imperils competitiveness. The success of parcel-delivery companies, for example, depends on imports, which must be brought from the borders inland, as well as on exports.
Second, the credo “Trade, not aid” has given way to the mistaken belief that trade matters less than foreign assistance. The labor constituency, ever fearful of import competition, has undermined trade policy. It has also shifted aid policy in directions that assign priority to areas where the returns to US efforts are relatively minuscule.
Thus, the US State Department has ceased being an advocate of multilateral trade liberalization, despite decades of massive gains from the removal of trade barriers. Instead, its aid arm, the US Agency for International Development, has now retreated into low-yield programs conceived as randomized experiments. That technique impresses Bill Gates, and the new USAID administrator, Rajiv Shah, has experience with it. But, even if all such programs succeeded, their benefits would not add up to a fraction of the documented gains that have accrued from trade and other macro-level policies in which the US has lost interest.
Third, many believe that manufactures deserve preferential support. This is practically the mantra of US President Barack Obama’s administration, and it has cost him the support not only of much of the economics profession, but also of Christina Romer, who chaired his Council of Economic Advisers. In a recent newspaper commentary, she refuted virtually all of the arguments advanced by manufacturing lobbyists for special treatment.
Add to the critiques that of Nobel laureate Robert Solow, a staunch supporter of Obama’s Democratic Party. He agrees that there are activities that yield higher social returns than private returns. The problem, he notes, is that neither he nor anyone else can possibly know which ones they are, whereas the lobbyists claim that they know this precisely.