When Trade Theories Confront The Real World, The Real World Wins

Dave Johnson

I had a conversation over the weekend about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). She’s for it, because “more trade is always good.”

TPP covers a whole lot more than what we would think of as “trade.” Regardless, let’s look here at the idea that expanding trade is always good.

Trade Is Good

Trade is good. We all at the very least trade our time for our pay. We might make or grow or draw or write something that we sell (trade) for money. Trade is basic.

But how we trade always makes a difference. If we trade our time and get paid too little, is that a good thing because it was a “trade”? Obviously the way trade gets done – the rules/policies that are in place – makes all the difference. So the question to consider is whether our current international trade policies as applied under our current economic order a good thing or a bad thing for We the People of the United States.

Cross-Border Trade

“Increasing cross-border trade” sounds like a worthy goal. But if you close a factory in the U.S., move the machines and jobs to a low-wage country, then bring the goods back here to sell in the same stores, you have just “increased cross-border trade.” How should we look at this?

The people now making the goods are paid much less, the investors who own the factory are pocketing much more. Sounds bad, unless you’re one of those owners.

Economists will tell you this is good because fewer of the resources of your economy are being expended to obtain whatever that factory was producing. Those resources can now be applied elsewhere by the investors, toward more productive investment. Sounds good.

Theoretically those American workers will now be freed up to do more productive work, potentially at a better pay rate. Sounds good.

But the way our current economic order works, those resources (the difference between what the American workers were paid and the lower costs of making the stuff somewhere else) are more often applied to the offshore tax-haven accounts of the elite investors than toward “more productive” investments. Sounds bad.

And the way our current system is working, without this new investment those workers remain unemployed, competing with the rest of the people in the workforce, which drives down everyone’s wages except for a few at the top. The reality is that if people laid off due to trade find new jobs, it is at a lower rate of pay. Sounds bad.

Economic theory confronts the reality of America’s current economic order and falls short. The elites use rigged “trade” deals to knock down labor costs. Instead of applying the gains toward investment in our economic future and higher wages for America’s workforce, they apply it to their bank accounts.

Comparative Advantage

The idea of comparative advantage says that countries (regions, etc.) should do what they are good at and trade with others for the things the others do better. Some countries are good at growing bananas and they can trade them for things they can’t grow or make.

But what counts as a comparative advantage?

A few years ago The New York Times took a look at the shift of manufacturing (and associated jobs) from the U.S. to China, in the report “How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work.” The report is known for the Steve Jobs quote, talking to President Obama, saying, “Those jobs aren’t coming back.”

The reason Jobs said those jobs are not coming back was that in China the workers sleep in dormitories, 12 to a room, and can be rousted out of bed at any hour to complete “rush” jobs. They can be made to stand all day, work with dangerous chemicals, are paid very little, cannot organize unions, cannot even vote for a government that would make their lives better.

In other words, China offers a “comparative advantage.” That advantage is that they are not a democracy, workers have no rights and no voice. China is very “business-friendly.” So why would a company like Apple use American workers when they can use workers kept in these conditions?

Our democracy is a comparative disadvantage in world trade. Sounds bad.

Again economic theory confronts the reality of America’s current economic order and falls short. America had factories, China offered low-wage workers and the opportunity to freely pollute. Elites moved the factories to China. Elites use “trade” to attack democracy, turning government of, by and for We the People into a comparative disadvantage in world markets.

Click to see a video of Ian Fletcher talking at, of all places, the Heritage Foundation about his book, “Free Trade Doesn’t Work.” At 21:06 to 25:47 minutes he takes a very good look at the idea of comparative advantage in the real world. In sum:
1) Absence of externalities is not a competitive advantage. The pollution is still there, the workers are still exploited.
2) Capital mobility means you are allocating your capital outside of your own economy.
3) Comparative statistics look at a snapshot, a fixed point in time. If China doesn’t already have a factory making X it is not comparative advantage to go open one there. It is not the best move today if the other country is not already producing the thing for less.

Economies Of Scale

When trade is “opened up” across a border it doesn’t mean that new customers suddenly appear, anxious to buy goods and services produced by America’s small businesses. It’s not like there were no producers and suppliers on the other side of that trade border. The goods and services of an economy were likely already being supplied by someone.

Acme Widget, based in the American town of Plainville, is not suddenly going to get orders from small towns all across the new trading partner Tradonia. Tradonia already has suppliers of widgets. Those suppliers will just as easily come sell their widgets in Plainville.

Economists will say that “opening up” trade across a border increases competition, which benefits consumers. But this is not how it actually works. What has really opened up is a larger playing field with more opportunities for big companies on both sides of trade borders to dominate a larger market than the one they had been dominating, with a resulting decrease in aggregate employment.

In our current economic order big companies have advantages because of their size, and unfortunately rules are made based on which companies are ready to shell out the cash to influence how the rules for competition and domination of industries are made. Larger companies dominate and remove smaller competitors. One or two of these companies will get most of the business in both countries and become very large; the others will be gone. Due to economies of scale the overall widget manufacturing employment will decrease. The new monopolies and near-monopolies will then have the ability to charge what they want.

Once again economic theory confronts the reality of America’s current economic order and falls short. Opening up trade borders is more likely to bring further consolidation of giant companies, not more competition.

Reality Wins

These are just a few examples of the problems of academic trade and economic theory confronted with the realities of what actually happens in actual countries.

Another economic theory says that trade will balance as a result of currency adjustments. Supposedly when a country is running a surplus its currency rate will increase and things made in those countries will cost more, so purchases will shift back to the country that had a deficit. But in the real world, the United State competes with real countries that don’t play this way. Our country has an enormous, humongous trade deficit and has run continual trade deficits every single year since the late 1970s when “free markets” and “free trade” ideology came to dominate. This is because we follow an economic theory ideology, and other countries look at reality and adjust. So they win.

Reality trumps economic theories and ideologies – Every. Single. Time.

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