I hope you’ll all forgive me for an exercise in self back-patting that (I hope) you’ll read through the end. But the two instances described here of leading economics commentators expressing support for highly unconventional trade policy positions I’ve taken for years are simply too striking to pass up. Even more eye-opening: They appeared within a week of each other!
In chronological order, the first came courtesy of Martin Wolf, the Financial Times columnist who’s more-than-the-average pundit because he boasts both considerable policymaking experience and serious academic chops. As those two bios make clear, he’s also been a strong (though not completely uncritical) supporter of the standard free trade and globalization policies that decisively shaped the entire world economy, including America’s positions, for decades until the CCP Virus’ breakout. (Or did the turning point come with the financial crisis of 2007-08? Oh, well – no need to settle that question right now.)
That’s why I was so amazed to see in his column this past Tuesday the observation that the United States “gains many of the benefits of trade through internal specialisation” essentially because it’s “a large country with a sophisticated economy and diverse resources….”
Wolf’s point may not sound like much. But it not only contradicts the long-standing conventional wisdom – and rationale for supporting the freest possible global trade flows – that emphasizes (1) the centrality of international specialization for maximizing the prosperity of all individual countries and indeed the entire world, and (2) the imperative of exposing national economic activity to global competition in order to force domestic industries continually to improve quality and lower costs.
Wolf has also echoed (unwittingly, no doubt) my own argument that, whatever the validity of these ideas for most countries, there’s no reason for Americans to place any special value on them.
The reason? As I explained in an article in the Summer, 2019 issue of the journal American Affairs, the greatest possible degree of international specialization is advantageous and even crucial for the prosperity of most individual countries because they lack the ability to provide for a critical mass of their essential needs at affordable cost, let alone generate progress.
Any number of reasons or combination of reasons could be responsible. They might lack vital raw materials. Even if they’re wealthy and/or technologically advanced, their domestic market alone might be too small for most forms of economic activity aside from subsistence farming to achieve the scale needed for efficient and therefore relatively low-cost production. Alternatively, this domestic market could be inadequate because most of their people are too poor to be satisfactory customers.
In addition, because they’re so small, inadequate domestic markets have been considered incapable of generating enough competitive pressure needed to force their own producers to keep improving quality, innovating, and to maintain reasonable prices.
Conventional trade thinking has held that these problems could be overcome by individual countries (1) focusing on turning out the goods and services they could provide most efficiently (interestingly, whether in world-leading fashion or not), and (2) selling them where they were in greatest demand (because of other countries’ shortcomings) in exchange for what they themselves required.
Even better, such free trade would continually maximize the efficiency, and therefore the wealth, of all countries, as well as create the conditions for sustainable progress by requiring efforts to enter new, more promising industries to meet global competitive standards.
My own article, however, emphasized that the United States isn’t like most other countries. In fact, it’s uniquely blessed with both the size, the variety of resources, and the economic and social dynamism to supply nearly all its needs and wants from within. In the words of that 1980s inspirational song, in economic term, the United States “is the world.’
As a result, Americans have no inherent need to keep their home markets open, or open them wider, in order to secure adequate supplies of goods and services. And if they’re unhappy with the levels of competition their companies face, because of the country’s gargantuan scale, their best bet for maximizing such competition is resuming the vigorous enforcement of antitrust laws – which, as I documented, had long been largely neglected.
Wolf didn’t accept the policy implications I drew concerning these insights about America’s economic distinctiveness. But since he evidently accepts the basic proposition, it’s legitimate to ask why not.
The second example of a leading economic authority making one of my central points came yesterday on the Project Syndicate website. That in itself is pretty remarkable because, as I’ve previously suggested, Project Syndicate is best described as a digital op-ed page for globalist elites. Just as remarkable, and gratifying, the author of the post in question is Robert Skidelsky, a veteran British politician and venerable academic who’s best known for a highly acclaimed three-volume biography of John Maynard Keynes, the most influential economist of the 20th century and a scholar whose work still shapes much global economic thought and policy.
According to Skidelsky, one of two major gaps in President Biden’s economic proposals – and especially his stated desire to rebuild manufacturing in America – is its failure to impose tight curbs on imports. Without a plan that Skidelsky (and its originator) calls “compensated free trade,” the author writes that domestic industry won’t be “built back better.”
That’s already nearly identical to arguments I make all the time. But what I found most intriguing was Skidelsky’s principal rationale: America’s still towering trade deficits are bound to permit too many of the job- and production-creating benefits of Mr. Biden’s stimulus spending to drain overseas.
That’s virtually identical to the case that I and a colleague made early during the recovery from the previous U.S. recession. Unfortunately, then President Barack Obama apparently didn’t see our New York Times article, because he ignored the continuing growth of the deficit, and partly as a result, the rebound he presided over was the weakest in American history.
I’m hardly above wishing to have gotten some credit for these ideas. But progress on the economics of trade (as opposed to the ongoing U.S. policy departures from free trade absolutism bemoaned by Wolf) has been so slow to develop that I’ll take it in whatever form it comes – and of course be keeping an eye out for more.