In a nutshell, the mainstream economics case for the freest possible flows of international trade holds that, whatever losses may be suffered by individual parts of the economy and their workers, overall national (and global) wealth will grow – and that that’s an unmistakable good. A logical follow-on is also important: Since overall wealth increases, so does the capacity to compensate those who have lost out from trade expansion.
True, this compensation may not be dispensed. But don’t blame greater trade, most economists would insist (with not inconsiderable justification). Instead, blame national political systems or societies that fail to take advantage.
Let’s assume all these claims for the economic case (as opposed to the longstanding national security or emerging health security cases) for free trade are true. It’s noteworthy, then, that it looks like they’ve been blown out of the water by the almost certain impact of the CCP Virus emergency on the U.S. economy. At least there’s now an impressive case that trade expansion with China, anyway, has started reducing the nation’s GDP (gross domestic product – the standard measure of the economy’s size).
After all, the virus originally broke out in China, and spread to the United States because of the mushrooming of economic ties between the two countries that freer trade and commerce with the People’s Republic has produced. Some might counter that virus impact has nothing to do with trade expansion with China per se, and instead is due to the disease itself. But given the evidence that China is pandemic prone (arguably because of safety and hygiene standards that remain dreadful throughout the country despite its phenomenal recent economic progress, along with its regime’s obsession with secrecy), and the related likelihood that this problem won’t go away, it’s getting harder and harder to argue that the bilateral trade and investment boom and pandemic threats have nothing to do with each others. In other words, it’s at least reasonable to contend that rising pandemic threats have been an integral feature of freer trade and broader commerce with China.
For some specific numbers (uncertain as they inevitably remain), let’s look at a recent examination of the CCP Virus’ likely economic impact from the investment research and analysis firm Morningstar. Its take on the subject is worth highlighting because it’s the most bullish I’ve seen,
According to Morningstar, the virus’ spread as such is going to reduce the U.S. economy’s size by five percent this year in inflation-adjusted terms (the most closely followed GDP figures). That would amount to a loss of nearly $954 billion. The firm doesn’t explicitly quantify the long-term hit to the U.S. economy. But based on its assessment of the long- and short-term tolls on the global economy, and its belief that these short-term losses in percentage terms will be about half those for the United States itself, it appears that Morningstar expects the inflation-adjusted GDP losses to be some two percent. Using 2019 as the pre-virus baseline, that adds up to $381.46 billion during the (unspecified) first year of long-term effects. But since the economy would be in growth mode by then (although from a lower starting point), the yearly losses in absolute terms would grow each year, since they would represent some two percent of an ever larger pie as long as they lasted.
And remember – these forecasts are on the optimistic end. Another financial firm, Goldman Sachs, anticipates that this year, real U.S. GDP will plunge by as much as 3.8 percent this year. If correct, the national output shrinkage would be nearly $725 billion. (Unlike Morningstar, Goldman doesn’t isolate the specific CCP Virus share of these losses, but if its methodology is comparable, it could top $1 trillion.)
So those are (admittedly ballpark) figures for China trade-related losses for the whole economy. Have the claimed or estimated economic gains been greater? Not even close.
During the late-1990s, when it appeared likely that China would enter the World Trade Organization (WTO), and therefore trigger a surge in its trade with the United States and the entire world, Congress asked the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) to model the economic effects of the kinds of major tariff cuts to which China would agree. In its 1999 report, the Commission forecast a “minor” lift to real GDP – meaning an ongoing boost of less than 0.05 percent annually on an ongoing basis.
In 1999, that would’ve meant a $63 billion constant dollar GDP gain for the first year following China’s entry
To be sure, the USITC also tried to estimate the impact of the elimination of the multitude of non-tariff barriers China has long thrown up to the outside world – rules and regulations, often developed and carried out in secret, that can block or slow the growth of imports more effectively than tariffs. The Commission’s findings suggested that success on this crucial front – also predicted by supporters of China’s WTO entry – would double the U.S. GDP gains produced by expected tariff cuts. If correct, the ongoing American yearly output increase would be 0.10 percent of after-inflation GDP, or $126 billion, in the first year after these reforms were made.
Because of subsequent GDP growth, these annual gains would increase in absolute terms, and over the nearly two decades between China’s year-end 2001 WTO entry and today, could easily total trillions annually.
But many of these China tariff and especially China non-tariff barrier promises are still unkept, as even the Obama administration – a strong supporter of U.S. participation in the WTO – admitted in its final report to Congress on the subject. Maybe that’s why the private economic research firm Oxford Economics (in a study for the U.S.-China Business Council, a major pillar of the U.S. corporate Offshoring Lobby) pegged the annual GDP gains of U.S. business with China at $216 billion as of early 2017. That’s not much of a compounding gain.
Moreover, consistent with Offshoring Lobby practices, the Oxford report completely ignores the economic impact of U.S. imports from China – which have greatly exceeded exports for decades. And since China’s WTO entry through last year, the growth of the goods trade deficit has been a vigorous 235.36 percent. Nor did I see anything in its study about China’s massive theft of U.S.-owned intellectual property. Estimates vary, but even these China pollyannas admit it could amount to $600 billion each year.
As with pandemics, you could argue that intellectual property theft’s growth isn’t a built-in feature of trade with China or any other country. But since China has been far more theft-prone than it’s been pandemic-prone, and since its thieving ways were well known to Washington as WTO entry was being orchestrated, these costs clearly belong in the “costs of free trade” category – at least with China.
Finally, of course, these purely economic arguments for free trade overlook non-economic arguments for trade curbs and national self-sufficiency that have always been compelling and that the virus outbreak has now turned into slam-dunk winners. Think “national security” and “healthcare security” – unless you’re thrilled with America’s current dependence on foreign sources of vital medicines, their building blocks, and medical devices.
Predictions understandably are abounding the the CCP Virus emergency will change some lasting behaviors and ideas nationally and globally. If the above, arguably realistic, view of the economic case is correct, free trade practice and ideology belong near the top of this list.