Although they’ve long enjoyed benefits ranging from lavish financial support to nearly uncritical mainstream media adulation, I felt a twinge of pity this morning for establishment backers of current trade and globalization policies.
As made clear from a new report from one of their leading think tanks and a recent speech from one of their leading individual lights, they’re doubling down on the claims that there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the trade liberalization priorities long held by the U.S. government, and that the trade barriers supported by populists and other critics will only backfire on the American and global economies. And as also made clear by the report and speech, they keep fighting a losing intellectual battle.
The report comes from the Peterson Institute for International Economics, and addresses the question “Do Governments Drive Global Trade Imbalances?” As emphasized by author Joseph E. Gagnon, the stakes of finding the right answer are towering:
“At current levels, these imbalances will push the net debt of deficit countries gradually toward unprecedented and unsustainable levels….Moreover, the domestic political consequences of persistent trade deficits are already evident in both the United States and the United Kingdom, having contributed importantly to the election of Donald Trump and the outcome of the Brexit referendum….”
In other words, if global trade flows continue getting more lopsided, they could set the stage for a repeat of the kind of global financial crisis they helped foster during the previous decade. And failing to calm populist political waters in the west could tempt key trading powers even more strongly to dabble in economically disastrous protectionism.
So Gagnon makes the case for a feel-good story: These major trade powers, especially the United States,
“have the necessary tools to achieve their stated goal of narrowing current account imbalances. President Trump and some members of his administration have proposed using trade barriers to narrow the US current account (trade) deficit. The data show that trade barriers have very little effect on a country’s trade balance. Fiscal policy and net official flows are the policies that matter for trade balances.”
One problem right at the outset: There’s nothing in the study whatever that explicitly measures the impact of (conventional) trade barriers. But even accepting this unusual methodology, it’s surely significant that he does conclude that “foreign exchange intervention” – i.e., currency manipulation – has an “important” affect on trade balances. That sounds like a trade barrier to me, at least in many instances.
And although fiscal (and related spending) policies aren’t normally considered examples of trade policies, they’ve clearly been used by numerous countries, especially Germany and throughout East Asia, to keep savings rates high, and therefore consumption (and imports) low. Why does Gagnon leave these out?
It’s absolutely true that fiscal and budget policies reflect the choices made by national societies, and therefore economies, and that as such, the presumption should be that they’re entirely legitimate. But at the same time, the nature of such choices can reveal whether these priorities can produce reasonably balanced trade with an economy like America’s – whose priorities on these fronts are substantially different but presumably just as legitimate.
As a result, trade policies that emphasize expanding commerce with countries regardless of their domestic priorities ipso facto can’t help but boost the trade deficit of the freer spending and/or more economically open country. And that description fits decades worth of American trade policies to a tee.
Lawrence Summers, President Obama’s former top White House economic adviser (among many other major government jobs), last month advanced an argument that’s somewhat more sophisticated than Gagnon’s, but no more convincing or useful to policymakers. In a speech to the Center for Global Development, Summers made the standard nod to the “compelling and persuasive case for free trade” and to the follow on view that “erecting tariff or quota barriers to trade between countries is usually a bad idea.”
But then, Summers’ line of argument actually became interesting. He sought to draw a distinction between the (unassailable) idea of free trade on the one hand, and the focus of many recent trade agreements – which he claimed “may be good or they may be bad, but they are not self-evidently and clearly good in the way that free trade is clearly good.” These concerns centered around goals like “securing intellectual property protection for global companies in a wider range of countries” and “achieving access for service companies to a wider range of countries” and “harmonizing rules in areas like safety standards or financial reporting standards.”
Supporters of such measures, he contended, have too often been arrogating
“the prestige of free trade…in support of a rather different agenda of better, more harmonized commercial rules” and expressed support for the view that “the participants in the debate about what constitute better, more harmonized commercial rules are mostly the kinds of people who appear in Davos rather than the kinds of people who work in the companies that are run by the people who appear in Davos.”
It’s hardly new for trade advocates to note critically that recent trade deals have dealt largely with non-trade issues, and more disturbingly, issues that the theory’s originators couldn’t imagine. Many left-of-center opponents of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement nixed (at least for the United States) by President Trump made this very point, and Summers peers such as Dani Rodrik of Harvard University and Nobelist Paul Krugman have echoed these views as well.
But Summers’ indictment of this shift in the trade agenda seems unusually strong, so it’s a great opportunity to pose three major questions that these critiques keep avoiding. First, with standard trade barriers like tariffs whittled down to near-insignificance in most cases, and such non-tariff barriers (NTBs) becoming more popular, how can genuinely free trade be sustained without somehow grappling with the latter?
Second, since the United States maintains relatively few NTBs, since these barriers are easy to identify because they’re typically line items in a completely transparent federal budget, or regulations in other, equally transparent federal documents, and since the world’s NTB champs are known for opaque governing systems that generally hide their barriers effectively, how can the United States adequately safeguard its legitimate interests without threatening to put up or actually erecting its own barriers?
So without the possibility or reality of unilaterally closing off its own market in response, how can the United States avoid being disadvantaged by legalistic systems of harmonization that (understandably but unrealistically) depend on producing evidence for winning redress?
Third, and similarly, there’s no global consensus on what kinds of health and safety regulations are genuine and valid measures to protect the commonweal, and what kinds are designed primarily as trade barriers. Therefore, how – unless again through using the threat or reality of unilateral tariffs – can countries that play it straight (like the United States) adequately safeguard their interests versus the clandestine protectionists?
The only plausible answers to these questions are, “It can’t.” And the sooner globalization’s cheerleaders acknowledge these hard truths and the commonsense measures that logically flow from them, the sooner they’ll start winning back the trust of a public that’s rightly ignoring them.