In the spirit of the holiday season, rather than slam noted economist Martin Feldstein for producing yet another stale though dangerously misleading blanket warning against the horrors of trade protectionism, I’ll note that he’s just (unwittingly, to be sure) created a teachable moment about instances in which erecting trade barriers is absolutely necessary. Those instances concern a practice called dumping, and in particular when the culprit is a country like China.
In U.S. and world trade law, dumping consists of selling a product or service in a foreign market at prices deemed to be excessively low. (Their specific definitions differ – see here and here for how.) For someone not steeped in these subjects, it’s entirely reasonable to ask, “What’s the problem?” After all, if a producer wants to provide a major price break for his or her foreign customers, why should those customers look a gift horse in the mouth? But for a leading economic light like Feldstein – who has been a top presidential economic adviser (in the Reagan years), it’s hard to excuse his use of the term.
The reason is that the decision to dump can result from dramatically different circumstances with dramatically different stakes for the future of the kind of U.S. economy most of us presumably want to ensure. Feldstein suggests that dumping is basically no different from the kind of price drops businesses can put in effect when they’re so technologically advanced or otherwise efficient that they can undersell less competent rivals. But this example is completely irrelevant to dumping law. Neither the U.S. nor World Trade Organization versions penalizes this kind of progress.
Feldstein might have added a common claim that, even when these international price differentials do exist, they’re no different than when producers (or service providers) decide to put their wares on sale in certain parts of the United States but not others – maybe as a special deal to jump-start business in a region they’re entering, or to energize business in a region where they’re lagging.
But although this argument against sanctioning foreign producers for dumping is more on target, it still misses the mark in a crucial respect: The dumping engaged in by countries like China is fundamentally different. And the reason is that it’s typically subsidized by foreign governments.
Such subsidized dumping is objectionable, and downright dangerous to the American economy, for several reasons that have somehow eluded Feldstein – and most of his fellow economists. Principally, it forces companies that operate in a free market setting, with all the constraints that imposes on pricing policies, to compete against companies that face no such constraints – or tend to enjoy the freedom to under-price for long periods of time.
If you’re fine (like Feldstein and other conventional wisdom-mongers?) with government-dependent entities (I hesitate to call them “businesses”) gaining the upper hand in the United States, then logically this isn’t a problem. If you believe that the American economy works best for all concerned when free market principles and practices are encouraged to the greatest extent possible, then you should be deeply concerned.
As a result, it should be easy to distinguish between bargain-basement pricing from companies that have either very patient founders or other shareholders, or lots of cash on their balance sheets, or both, from such pricing from entities that can keep drawing on foreign treasuries. The former, after all, stems from actors that are trying to judge the fundamentals of a market place, that “put their money where their mouths are,” and who will eventually be rewarded for being correct or punished for getting it wrong. The latter is a function of the decisions and priorities of foreign governments. And with a country like China, where the government maintains a whip hand over the economy, there can be no reasonable doubt which kind of pricing we’re dealing with.
All believers in free markets by definition agree on the superiority of the free market incentive system. But as often seems to be the case, they easily forget free market values, and the need to safeguard them, when it comes to international trade. (Monopoly and competition issues represent another example of this selective capitalism syndrome.)
That’s not to say that all government subsidies should be opposed. Many (like America’s minority- and women-owned business “set asides”) seek to promote important goals that societies have every right to prize. Others seek to promote important goals that societies literally can’t do without (like government support for defense industries). And even these wrinkles can have wrinkles. For example, many manufactured goods can be crucial for national defense even though they’re not weapons themselves, or even though they have many uses other than military. Steel, to which the Trump administration is considering extending major protection for just these reasons, is a newsy example.
So many dumping allegations and cases can be genuinely complicated, and understandably controversial. But even if you believe that systems of trade law can ultimately resolve these disputes in acceptable ways (I don’t), it should be clear that government-fostered dumping simply doesn’t belong in this category, and that government-run economies like China’s don’t deserve the standard legal protections (like presumption of innocence) when put in the dock.
What should be even clearer: Anyone not recognizing this basic dumping distinction should never gain the ear of those officially responsible for America’s well-being. But because it’s the holiday season, I won’t specifically recommend blackballing Martin Feldstein. At least not right now.