Category Archives: International

In the News: China Trade

I can’t read the article due to a paywall, but I am quoted in the Las Vegas Review-Journal about the just-signed Phase One of a trade agreement with China.

Senate Passes USMCA, Sets Bad Precedent for Future Agreements with China, UK, EU

The U.S.-Mexico-Canada (USMCA) trade agreement passed the Senate today, 89-10. As with the Phase One agreement with China that was also signed this week, USMCA is valuable damage control. Three years of unpredictable tariff increases, threats of increases, and diplomatic tensions will hopefully have more stability going forward. Unfortunately, while NAFTA needs some updates, few of them are contained in USMCA’s more than 2,000 pages.

As far as short-term policies, USMCA is not very different from NAFTA. USMCA’s real cost is long-term, which is why Iain Murray and I came out against USMCA last month. Its bad precedents will likely inform upcoming agreements with China, the United Kingdom, and the European Union. Unlike USMCA, these upcoming agreements are potentially transformative. It is important to get them right.

Trade agreements should stick to trade issues. That is the real lesson of the USMCA battle. USMCA is filled with trade-unrelated provisions covering labor, regulatory, environmental, and other policies. It contains naked giveaways to business, labor, and environmental interests. To the extent these provisions touch trade at all, they make it more cumbersome—opposite USMCA’s purpose. These same special interests will almost certainly ask for more, and receive, larger handouts in future agreements.

China is struggling to choose between freedom and continued despotism. The United Kingdom is leaving the European Union. And the EU itself is undergoing changes both internally and on its place on the world stage. The U.S. must engage each of them in ways that ensure mutual peace and prosperity. Part of that larger agenda is free trade. Our upcoming trade agreements with them must be open, transparent, and contain as few trade-unrelated complications and special interest giveaways as possible. These side agreements risk scuttling needed reforms and inflaming diplomatic tensions, while increasing corruption.

USMCA sets a bad precedent for these more important upcoming agreements. Its ratification makes it much harder to overcome political inertia and move global trade policy in a simpler, more open direction. USMCA may be a fait accompli, but it is not too late to learn from it and do future agreements the right way. This means sticking to trade and, to the extent possible, leaving politics out.

Phase One Trade Agreement with China: Tariff Stability, at the Cost of Managed Trade

The newly signed Phase One of a trade deal with China has enormous value as damage control against further tariffs, but it comes at a cost. The Trump administration has more than doubled total U.S. tariffs in its first three years, and other countries, including China, have responded in kind. Phase One’s signing hopefully marks an end to a tariff-first trade policy and its unpredictable implementation.

But a ceasefire is not a victory. Massive tariffs put in place less than two years ago will remain in place, and risk becoming normalized. American consumers and businesses will still pay tariffs on 40 percent of Chinese imports that were mostly tariff-free just a few years ago. The Trump tariffs against Chinese goods should have been entirely repealed as part of the agreement, but were not.

Congress has the power to repeal the remaining tariffs and protect against further increases, and should do so immediately. There is already proposed legislation to move President Trump’s Section 232 tariff-making power back to Congress, where all taxing power properly belongs. More substantive engagement with China would involve rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is continuing along without U.S. involvement, and using the World Trade Organization’s dispute resolution system, where the U.S. has an 85 percent success rate and a long track record of successfully encouraging reform.

Another cost of Phase One’s stability is transparency. Many terms of the now-signed agreement are still not public. Other provisions are vague. The Chinese government has a lot of work to do before it can be considered a good-faith actor in world trade. Needed reforms range from recognizing its people’s human, political, and economic rights to ending state-approved theft of technology and intellectual property. Beijing also needs to stop its self-harming policies of subsidizing private businesses and insisting on state ownership or control of nominally private enterprises. It will be difficult to hold Chinese leadership accountable to today’s agreement if nobody knows what it is in it, or if its broadly worded provisions prove unenforceable.

Given Beijing’s aversion to liberalizing reforms, this is important. For example, one section addresses forced technology transfers. “However,” The Wall Street Journal notes, “the section doesn’t require China to change any law or regulation to fulfill its obligations.” As a result, none will likely be enacted. That vagueness may have been Beijing’s condition for signing an agreement the Trump administration badly wants for short-term political reasons. In short, Trump may have gotten played like a fiddle. Whatever policy action China takes on technology transfers will now have a patina of legitimacy from the signed agreement. This is a poor political strategy from the U.S. side.

From a philosophical standpoint, the agreement confirms the Trump administration’s belief in managed trade, rather than free trade. It attempts to dictate the buying and selling of agricultural products, and on what terms private businesses may do business with each other. China’s biggest obstacle to sustained future growth is its government’s insistence on micromanaging the economy. President Trump apparently wishes similar obstacles on the U.S. economy.

Finally, the agreement also sits upon bad economics. Specifically, it was largely driven by Trump and his adviser Peter Navarro’s trade deficit ideology. Economists argue that trade deficits have no bearing on economic health, and should not be a policy consideration. For example, just about everyone maintains an ongoing trade deficit with their local grocery stores. The relationship is mutually beneficial, and indefinitely sustainable. Similarly, almost all employers run ongoing trade deficits with their employees. For example, CEI buys my services as a policy analyst, yet I never buy anything from CEI. Even so, CEI’s trade deficit with me is both mutually beneficial and sustainable. At a national scale, trade deficits are an accounting measure, and that’s it. Its number, whether positive or negative, or large or small, is the sum of individual decisions people make on purpose, and to their benefit. The Trump administration’s China policy, including Phase One, is instead driven by long-discredited mercantilist ideas about trade deficits that were last in vogue in the 17th century.

Moreover, dollars sent abroad from buying imports eventually return to the U.S. in the form of direct foreign investment. Those dollars also fund the trillions of dollars of government debt both parties have excelled in creating. When Peter Navarro simultaneously complains of a large trade deficit while bragging about growing direct foreign investment, he is being intellectually inconsistent. Much of the Trump trade agenda, including the Phase One agreement with China, rests on this inconsistency.

Phase One’s tariff ceasefire is a major benefit, but trade barriers against China remain higher on net than before the Trump administration took office. Any agreement built on such a mistaken intellectual foundation will likely not work as its drafters intended—especially when a reelection campaign’s short-term need for a marketable win take precedence over sound long-term policy and the time-tested results of free trade.

Immanuel Wallerstein – The Modern World-System I: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century

Immanuel Wallerstein – The Modern World-System I: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century

Wallerstein was the primary creator of the core-periphery framework that many historians use to view world economic history. This 1974 book started it all. Several publishers rejected his initial manuscript, but when he did finally get it published, it caught on quickly. Wallerstein eventually completed four volumes in the series before he passed away in 2019.

In the context of the 16th century, the first major core country was Spain, though the Netherlands and England eventually overtook it as silver-induced inflation and the costs of empire caused Spanish decline. The two periods of Spanish dominance and Dutch-English dominance make up what Wallerstein calls the long 16th century. The periphery economies were the somewhat nearby countries that traded with these core economies throughout the long 16th century, and on through later periods.

Typically, periphery economies provide raw materials and food, which the core countries either consume or turn into more finished products. At this stage of the world economy, there were still countries outside of the European core-periphery network. For Wallerstein, these are simply separate economic systems. The boundaries are fluid, and Wallerstein was quick to point out that his categories are not categorical. Countries such as Poland and the Ukraine were nearly always periphery countries in this period. Russia went in and out of the periphery over the years. Farther-off countries such as India and China had their own independent core-periphery networks.

By the 20th century, with industrialization, mass media, and air travel, the entire world was unified into a single core-periphery system. In this book’s focus, the two-part “long 16th century,” this had not yet happened. But this was also the period when that process began in earnest, which is why Wallerstein’s larger project began there.

Wallerstein was a Marxist, and it shows in his hyper-materialist view of history, and his neglect of individuals in favor of focusing on aggregates such as nations, regions, and classes. It also causes him to ignore non-material factors such as culture, art, social norms about openness and progress, and more. Though he favorably cites Douglass North a few times, proving at least some engagement with the economic history literature, he also is not the most astute economic analyst, especially in matters of monetary policy. He seems not to grasp the concepts of equilibrium, the neutrality of money, or the law of one price. These shortcomings are not fatal to his core-periphery thesis, but they don’t help his case.

As the world becomes ever more prosperous in the 21st century, Wallerstein’s core-periphery framework is quickly becoming obsolete. It’s not the worst way to view the history of empires of colonialism, which are based on exploitation and hierarchy. But the world of the post-1800 Great Enrichment is based increasingly on equal exchange and cross-cultural tolerance and respect. There is a long way to go, obviously, and there will be stutters and reversal. But if the process continues, Wallerstein’s thesis will age as poorly as his Marxism already has.

William Dalrymple – The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire

William Dalrymple – The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire

The East India Company (EIC) was one of history’s largest monopolies. Its story is relevant to today’s antitrust debate, and the larger question of where the private sector ends and the public sector begins. Dalrymple seems eager to paint a portrait of capitalist and corporate greed, but the facts won’t quite allow it. He grudgingly allows that the EIC was not a free-market institution, but he often insists on treating it that way just the same.

The EIC was a public-private partnership from the start, and received government bailouts. It had de facto taxing authority in India, a power no fully private company enjoys. The EIC had its own 200,000-strong army, twice the size of the British army. The East India Company was a government in everything but name, and it acted like it, to the point of toppling India’s existing government in 1765 and replacing it with itself.

Contemporary economists and philosophers such as Adam Smith and even the conservative Edmund Burke opposed empire and its accoutrements not just on moral grounds, but on fiscal grounds. Ventures such as the EIC cost the government more than they made from it.

Dalrymple doesn’t go into this as much as he should, but the EIC’s story shows that there is no bright line where the private sector ends and government begins. This kind of philosophical discussion would have been very useful for clarifying his message.

The lessons from the East India Company’s story apply to today’s climate of too-big-to-fail, bailouts for politically connected industries, and subsidy programs for businesses big and small. All of these nearly always come with political strings attached, and mix together the public and private in ways few outside of the economics profession expected. Beneficiary companies become executors of government policy, rather than engines of value creation.

In the EIC’s case, this meant corruption, coups, atrocities, war crimes, and racially motivated mass murders. Today’s rent-seekers’ interests are mostly limited to greed, fortunately. But they are still worth fighting about, and EIC’s cautionary tale is useful for that fight.

Paul Kriwaczek – Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization

Paul Kriwaczek – Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization

A survey history of Mesopotamia from about 8,000 years ago until the sixth century B.C., with a special emphasis on Babylon, from its rise around 1800 B.C. to its collapse.

The chapters on cuneiform writing, commerce, the birth of trade, and the Sumerian education are especially fascinating. One of the most common archaeological finds are clay writing tablets that students used for practice. From these, we can glean much about how writing was taught, as well as what was taught. Another useful insight is that Mesopotamian language was a lot like ours. It depended heavily on context and inside cultural knowledge. In our time, a sign with a picture of a car can mean many things—a warning for pedestrians, or to mark a parking spot or a garage, and so on. Many cuneiform words were the same way. Their base-60 numbering system treated decimal places similarly—the only way to tell, say, 26 from 206 or 2,006 was context. One imagines this was grist for many a court case.

The famously severe legal codes of Hammurabi and other Mesopotamian figures had a similar lack of literalism. The more severe punishments, including a horrific precursor to Roman crucifixion, were either written down only to instill fear, or were carried out extremely rarely for the same reason. A Gary Becker-inspired economic analysis of how the severity and frequency of Mesopotamian punishments affected crime rates would make for an interesting historical study, though the data collection problems are rather obvious.

Bryan Caplan and Zach Weinersmith – Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration

Bryan Caplan and Zach Weinersmith – Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration

A graphic novel about immigration policy, and a superbly done one at that. Caplan, a former professor of mine at George Mason, wrote most of the words. Weinersmith, creator of the Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal web comic, did the artwork and many of the jokes.

This book is aimed at skeptics, and Caplan and Weinsersmith do a much better job of appealing to them than most people do. In some ways, Open Borders is an example of what happens when someone is able to pass an ideological Turing test—a concept Caplan coined in 2011. They are routinely charitable to their opponents, and confront their strongest arguments as their proponents actually present them. This is much more effective than building up straw men and knocking them down, leaving the original argument untouched. It is also more difficult, which is why many people do not bother.

If immigration restrictionists pick up the book—and early sales figures suggest some of them are—Caplan and Weinersmith should allay a lot of peoples’ fears with their calm, accessible presentation that is rigorously backed with data and research (interested readers can consult roughly 30 pages worth of notes at the back of the book). They convey a tone that is light-hearted and serious at the same time, which is not an easy balance to strike. And even if they don’t convince very many people to embrace open borders, the sheer weight of data, theory, philosophy, and morality in their favor should at least push most readers a little bit in their direction at the margin.

Caplan and Weinersmith make a very good team. Hopefully they collaborate again in the future.