Undercover Economist

The topsy turvy logic of Trump’s trade tirades

When the US president attacks Canada’s prime minister as “dishonest and weak”, before staging a love-in with the dictator of North Korea, you know that the journey through the looking glass is complete.

But for economics nerds, the puzzle isn’t that Donald Trump is making concessions to a rogue state while slapping hefty tariffs on the steel and aluminium produced by his allies. It is that the entire debate about trade is upside-down and back-to-front.

Mr Trump complains of “Trade Abuse”, saying that other countries “impose massive Tariffs and Trade Barriers” while “sending their product into our country tax free”. This is narrowly true, broadly false and wholly absurd.

The narrow truth in Mr Trump’s tweet is that there are some unconscionably high tariffs around. Beyond a small quota, Canada’s average tariff on dairy imports is well over 200 per cent. The broad falsehood is the idea that only the US levies low tariffs. American tariffs are indeed low — the World Trade Organisation estimates that its weighted average tariff rate is 2.4 per cent. But at 3.1 per cent, average Canadian tariffs are only slightly higher, as are those of the EU (and therefore France, Germany, Italy and the UK). Japan’s tariffs are lower than the US.

Real obstacles to trade are higher than this, partly because there are regulatory differences that are hard to quantify, and partly because by looking at a weighted average tariff, we put less weight on any trade that has been squeezed by trade barriers. Still, tariffs between rich countries are low and there is nothing obviously unfair about the situation. If Canada’s average tariff of 3.1 per cent is cause for a trade war, it is hard to imagine a victory for either side being anything other than pyrrhic.

Now let us ponder the absurdity, the real topsy-turvy part of the entire argument. Most people — including Mr Trump — intuitively believe that most victims of Canada’s huge dairy tariff are American. They aren’t. They’re Canadian.

Any Canadian who drinks milk or eats cheese pays a higher price because inexpensive dairy imports are being taxed at the border.

And there’s a more subtle cost to Canadians, perhaps best understood by imagining a simplified Canadian economy with only two goods, milk and cars. The more milk these Canadians import, the more cars they will have to export to pay for it. A tariff on dairy imports will have exactly the same effect as a tax on car exports. The economist Abba Lerner proved this in 1936.

In the real world the dairy tariff acts as a tax on Canadian exports of anything from maple syrup to aeroplanes. Intuitively, it seems like an obstacle directed against foreign importers. But it makes just as much sense to see it as the result of an internal power struggle that Canadian dairy farmers have won — and Canadian miners, manufacturers and milkshake drinkers have lost.

The same is true for Mr Trump’s new steel and aluminium tariffs. Ostensibly an attack on perfidious foreigners, the tariffs hurt any American who directly or indirectly uses steel or aluminium, all 327m of them. And by obstructing US imports they obstruct US exports, too.

This simplified analysis leaves out some important facts. It is unclear, however, that the omissions change the argument.

There is the China shock: some US communities were damaged by the inflow of cheap Chinese imports beginning in the late 1990s. The damage was local, but deep and lasting. Still, overall US consumers benefited enormously from these Chinese imports, and in any case it’s hard to blame Canada.

There is the US trade deficit. This is the result of the world’s insatiable desire to invest in US assets, coupled with the American consumer’s preference to spend rather than save. It has little to do with tariffs on milk powder or anything else.

There is a case for “infant industry” protection — using trade barriers to shield a new industry from competition while it finds its feet. The trick is harder than it sounds, and often fails, but some emerging Asian economies have used it to great effect. But what is the infant industry in the US? It is the fading industrial titans, not the infants, that usually manage to lobby for protection.

There is the need for rules to determine what counts as a trade barrier or a subsidy. These rules rely on international institutions and norms. A happy side effect of the institutions is that they help defang lobby groups eager to blame foreigners while picking the pocket of consumers. The US wrote many of these rules. As a lone bully it is just conceivable that it might do better without them, but it is more likely simply to lose less heavily than some.

All these complications are real, but they do not change the fundamental nature of the argument about trade, which was best summarised by the British economist Joan Robinson. In 1937 she pointed out that, except as a narrow negotiating ploy, it made little sense to meet tariffs with tariffs: “It would be just as sensible to drop rocks into our harbours because other nations have rocky coasts.”


Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 15 June 2018.

My book “Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy” (UK) / “Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy” (US) is out very soon in paperback – feel free to pre-order online or through your local bookshop.

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