Fred P. Hochberg – Trade Is Not a Four-Letter Word: How Six Everyday Products Make the Case for Trade

Review of Fred P. Hochberg, Trade Is Not a Four-Letter Word: How Six Everyday Products Make the Case for Trade (New York: Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster, 2020)

Hochberg, who headed the Export-Import Bank from 2009-2017, has written a surprisingly good book on trade. Few economists have favorable views of Ex-Im. The agency’s longstanding corruption problems, cozy relationships with Boeing and other large companies, and its mercantilist economics make it almost indefensible on the merits (see my papers here and here). As with many ex-government officials, Hochberg is a much better economist when he doesn’t have to play politics.

Unfortunately, Hochberg says little in the book about his eight years at Ex-Im. This would have made for fascinating reading. It would have been useful to learn, in extended form, about Hochberg’s views on how Ex-Im works in practice, how he would defend the agency, and where he would criticize it.

Hochberg also presided over the most eventful chapter in Ex-Im’s 85-year history, which included its authorization lapse in 2014-15, when the agency practically shut down. Even after its eventual reauthorization, Ex-Im operated at a severely limited capacity for the remainder of Hochberg’s tenure. The Senate refused to confirm the new board members needed to approve large transactions. Ex-Im did not return to full capacity until 2019.

While Hochberg does refer to his old job several times, it is usually in passing, and never in detail. He does not once mention the great post-2014 Ex-Im political controversy.

By sticking instead to broader-brush trade policy and avoiding anything too controversial, Trade Is Not a Four-Letter Word comes across as a subtle job application for a higher-level position in the next Democratic administration, such as Commerce Secretary or U.S. Trade Representative. If the Ex-Im version of Fred Hochberg took such a job, trade policy would likely continue to be ridden with special-interest handouts and trade-unrelated inititatives. If, instead, the Fred Hochberg who wrote this book took office, trade policy would be not perfect, but it would be pretty good, and certainly an improvement over the last few administrations.

Unfortunately, I have a hunch which side of Hochberg would prevail if he re-entered politics.

Like many politicians who also know better, Hochberg almost bends over backward trying to argue that the American middle and lower-middle classes are net losers from trade. These are America’s largest voting blocs, and many of them live in swing states.

This is a difficult long-term case to make when living standards by almost every measure, from life expectancy to average height to access to air-conditioning, internet, and other technologies, have been improving for both rich and poor for more than a century. In terms of hours of work needed to afford everything from a refrigerator to a new car, goods are becoming more affordable and higher-quality over time, which benefits the poor most of all. This has been happening for decades, and the process is not slowing down. Trade, as Hochberg persuasively argues elsewhere throughout the book, is a major reason why. This doesn’t stop him from trying to appeal to likely voters, though his biggest successes come from reasoning through anecdote, and by omission.

Still, Hochberg gets the big picture right, and he paints it well. The six chapters on the six products he chooses as examples are the strongest part of the book. Trade makes modern life possible, he argues. Whether it’s taco salads, minivans, bananas, smartphones, college degrees (an odd choice, but think of it as a stand-in for human capital), or Game of Thrones, just about everything we enjoy today is a product of international trade. Moreover, this is a good thing. What we have today is far better than what we would have under closed borders. As other thinkers from Hans Rosling to Matt Ridley to Julian Simon have argued for a long time, living standards today are higher, health care is better, ideas are more rigorously tested, and technology improves faster. This is what happens when there is a relatively open global market for both supply and demand.

Narrowing down to policy specifics, Hochberg is strongly anti-tariff. One hopes he would maintain this stance in a cabinet role or in elected office. His long section on why trade deficits don’t matter—in short, because people get something in return for their money—is similarly excellent. It is also inconsistent with his Export-Import Bank tenure. Ex-Im is intended, at least in part, to reduce the U.S. trade deficit by increasing exports. But at least Hochberg knows better now, and is willing to say so publicly now that he is out of office, though he doesn’t mention Ex-Im’s role in the capacity.

His defense of some other policies is weak, such as his case for defending trade adjustment assistance. He does not favor similar measures for workers displaced due to non-trade factors, such as technology or changing fashions. His way of resolving this inconsistent stance is unconvincing. Essentially, he argues that trade-related job displacements are due to government policy, while other job displacements are not. Therefore, the government owes them something to soften the blow of trade-related job displacements. But trade decisions are made by private individuals, and the role of policy in those decisions is indeterminate; how does one calculate how many job losses, or which ones, is policy-related? In jobs that are cut for more than one reason, which is most cases, what proportion is policy-related?

Moreover, many non-trade government policies cost jobs. These range from barriers to entry to environmental requirements to minimum wages to cumulative paperwork burdens. By Hochberg’s criteria, these displaced workers deserve compensation, yet he doesn’t favor it. I would argue that rather that treating symptoms with compensation, it would be better to treat the root problem by getting rid of the bad policies in the first place. But that’s for another time.

Taken as a whole, Hochberg is neither a brave nor an adventurous thinker, but he gets the big picture. As a bonus, Hochberg’s prose style is informal and easy to read, though the Game of Thrones references get to be a little much at times. Trade has costs and benefits. Add them up on a ledger, and the benefits are greater, by far. However, Hochberg’s interventionist streak is almost reflexive and seemingly unthinking. Markets fail all the time, including in international trade. That does not mean policymakers can improve matters. Given knowledge and incentive problems, this is rarely the case. The view that market failures can be fixed by an idealized government is known as the Nirvana fallacy, and Hochberg would do well to take it into account.

Just as a fish doesn’t think of the water it swims through, so do Washington types rarely think about the complicated web of policy they make others swim through. It’s just there, and always has been. It’s nothing to question or give careful thought to in a big-picture sense. Trade Is Not a Four-Letter Word definitely has that Washington vibe to it. But if Hochberg moves more Washington types to favor freer trade at the margin, his book will have done more good than he has, or will, in office.

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