Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Reversing American leadership in free trade subverts US interests

Vijay K. Mathur

In 1817 David Ricardo, in “Principles of Political Economy and Taxation,” proposed his theory of comparative advantage where he argued that trade policies in England were protectionist. Comparative advantage proposed that beneficial trade, between two countries and two products, for example, is probable even if one country is absolutely more efficient in the production of both products. However, in the 1930s most nations, including the U.S., imposed trade restrictions, such as tariffs and currency devaluations, to boost exports and reduce imports. Hence, world trade and economies shrank.

After World War II, the U.S., U.K. and 42 other nations met at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, to fix the world trading system. They established the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to monitor rules for trade and international finance and provide financial assistance to countries with balance of payment deficits. Under U.S. leadership, the World Bank and the General Agreement on Tariff and Trade (GATT), precursor to the World Trade Organization (WTO), were established to provide assistance for economic development, promote trade liberalization and arbitration on complaints of unfair trade practices.

The U.S. leadership succeeded in opening up more trade among nations that benefited all countries, including the U.S. The U.S. total trade was 27.09% of the GDP in 2017 and was almost the same in 2018. Despite the U.S. tariffs on imports, the trade deficit increased by 10% during 2016-2017 ( and 12.45% from 2017 to 2018 ( It has narrowed slightly in 2019. However, Utah exports are close to three times its imports, thus resulting in a large trade surplus during 2017-2018. ( Regrettably, it may suffer from trade restrictions in future years. Business Roundtable reported that most exports from Utah are by small- to medium-size companies, and trade created 1 in 5 jobs in 2013.

Under President Trump’s administration, the U.S. leadership in promoting free trade is crumbling. The U.S. is engaged in dismantling the WTO court, weakening the institution that promotes free trade. Selectively imposing import tariffs from China and Europe, the largest trading partners, to improve trade deficits is not having much success. The U.S. withdrawal from multinational trade treaties, except replacing NAFTA with USMC (with minor changes), is not in the national interest.

Import tariffs on products do not provide effective protection to home industries. For example, an import tariff on electrical machinery and steel products increases production cost and prices of products. It decreases demand for products in the U.S., hence the demand for labor, capital and raw materials in the production of those products. Price increases also make our products less competitive in export markets, thus contributing to trade deficit, economic growth and employment. In fact domestic investment and growth is declining. Bloomberg economists calculate that a 25% tariff shaves 1.5% off economic growth, according to a May 13, 2019 article.

The Federal Reserve study from Dec. 23, shows that tariffs by U.S. in 2018 and retaliatory tariffs by trading partners have reduced manufacturing employment and increased producer prices due to an increase in input costs. Aside from the beneficial effect of trade on employment and prices, the question is what are the other gains from trade?

Trade enhances product variety and consumer choice. It promotes intra-industry trade. For example, the U.S. exports and imports automobiles of different makes, models, quality and prices. Trade increases competition in the markets, and leads to economies of scale in differentiated products. The most productive firms (businesses) survive and expand and less productive firms contract or go out of business. This increases overall productivity in industries and in the country, and hence wages. More productive and competitive firms with expanding local and world markets innovate new products and processes. Thus competition increases churn in markets and promotes formation of new businesses.

Imports from lower wage countries, especially in manufacturing, do lower wages and real incomes in the U.S., especially of mid-skill Americans. But loss of wages and income is also partly due to the use of new technologies in businesses. This problem can only be fixed if the U.S. competes in the world market in high-valued products, for example in services and intellectual property-based industries. It must train the labor force for those advanced industries. Competing in traditional manufacturing products is a lost cause. The intellectual property dispute with China is an excuse for general protectionist policies. A policy that claims that trade restrictions would brighten the future living standard of Americans is self-defeating.

Leadership requires that U.S. persuade other nations to further open their markets to increase world trade so that all can prosper in the future.

Mathur is former chairman and professor of economics, Department of Economics, Cleveland State University, Cleveland, OH. He blogs at

No comments:

Post a Comment