Wednesday, February 22, 2017


Dean Baker's article on trade, and how we talk about trade politically, is so on point today that I'm just going to quote the bulk of it straight-up and insert some pictures of butterflies in order to keep your attention from blinking out.

Tomorrow (or whenever I get over this cold) I'll be back to talk about this very self-righteous, very stupid idea.

Take it away, Dean (emphases added mine):

There are an awful lot of things to really dislike about Donald Trump and his conduct as president to date, but that doesn’t mean everything his administration does is wrong. In particular, there is considerable truth to what he has said about trade costing a large number of good paying manufacturing jobs and hurting the living standards of the middle class.

Unfortunately, rather than acknowledging this point, the media show the same determination as global warming denialists in saying that trade cannot be a problem. We got two examples of this sort of denialism in recent days.

The first was a piece in the Washington Post criticizing Trump adviser Peter Navarro’s view of trade and the trade deficit. While Navarro makes many questionable arguments in pushing his views on trade, his point that the trade deficit can reduce growth and employment is absolutely correct.

Ever since the crash in 2008 the bulk of economics profession has agreed that we faced a situation of “secular stagnation,” where the economy faced a persistent shortfall of demand. In this context, anything that boosts demand, such as an increase in government spending, private consumption, or a reduction in the trade deficit, leads to more output and employment.

In this context, the piece’s comment, taken from Harvard University economics professor N. Gregory Mankiw, “that a smaller trade deficit means lower investment along with possibly higher interest rates and less consumption” is completely wrong. If the economy is operating below full employment, as it certainly has been through most of the period from 2008 then reducing the trade deficit certainly can be a net addition to growth. As Mankiw says, “even a freshman at the end of ec 10 knows that.”

In this context, Navarro’s claim that a lower trade deficit could bring in $1.74 trillion in tax revenue over the course of a decade cannot be so easily dismissed even though the Post tells us:

“Hooey, say economists across the political spectrum.”

The key question here is whether the economy is now at potential GDP and whether it is likely to be over the next decade, even with a trade deficit that is close to 3.0 percent of GDP ($538 billion in the most recent quarter). On this question, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) might be on the side of Navarro.

According to CBO, potential GDP for the 4th quarter of 2016 was $19,049 billion. This is 1.0 percent higher than the estimate of GDP for the quarter of $18,860.8 billion. This means that if CBO is right, if there had been more demand in the economy, for example due to imports being replaced by domestically produced goods, GDP could have been 1.0 percent higher last quarter.

Of course CBO’s estimates of potential GDP are not especially accurate. Its most recent estimates for potential GDP in 2016 are more than 10 percent below what it had projected for potential GDP in 2016 back in 2008, before the severity of the crash was recognized. It is possible it overstated potential by a huge amount in 2008, but it is also possible it is understating potential today. It also hugely understated potential GDP in the mid-1990s, with 2000 GDP coming in more than 5 percent above the estimate of potential that CBO made in 1996. In other words, it would not be absurd to think that the economy could sustain a level of output that is 2.0 percent above the current level. (The fact that the employment rate of prime age workers [ages 25-54] is still 4.0 percentage points below the 2000 peak is certainly consistent with this view.)
Suppose that GDP were consistently 2.0 percent higher than current projections over the next decade due to a lower trade deficit. This would imply an additional $4.6 trillion in output over this period. If the government captures 30 percent of this in higher taxes and lower spending on transfer programs like unemployment insurance and food stamps, this would imply a reduction in the projected deficit of $1.38 trillion over the decade. That’s not quite the $1.74 trillion projected by Navarro, but close enough to make the derision unwarranted.

In terms of how you get a lower trade deficit, Navarro’s strategy of beating up on China is probably not the best way to go. But there is in fact precedent for the United States negotiating a lower value for the dollar under President Reagan, which had the desired effect of reducing the trade deficit.

There is no obvious reason it could not pursue a similar path today, especially since it is widely claimed in business circles that China actually wants to raise the value of its currency. The U.S. could help it.

The second half of Baker's article is a bit jargon-y even for yours truly.  To sum it up: there are ways in which goods simply passing through America (he cites that example of German cars arriving in New York for sale to Canada) can be counted, wrongly, as imports and exports, when they are in fact "re-exports".  Baker states that the WSJ might be wrongly maligning the Trump administration:

This is where we get to the WSJ article. According to the piece, the Trump administration was asking the Commerce Department to produce measures of bilateral trade balances that took out the re-exports on the export side, but left them in on the import side. This would have the effect of artificially inflating our trade deficit with a bogus number. If this is in fact what the Trump administration is trying to do, then we should be shooting at them with all guns. (This is metaphorical folks, I’m not advocating violence.)


I take very seriously efforts to mess with the data. We are fortunate to have independent statistical agencies with dedicated civil servants who take their work very seriously. However we should wait until we have a bit more solid evidence before assuming that the Trump administration is trying to interfere in their independence, as opposed to trying to make a totally legitimate adjustment to the data that the [Commerce Department Bureau of Economic Analysis] staff would almost certainly agree is an improvement.

Call me a cynic, but I would not at all be surprised to hear that the Trump administration was messing with data to artificially inflate the size of the trade deficit.  However, innocent until proven guilty, I suppose.  The WSJ has, over the course of its history, given us plenty of reason to look askance at its pronouncements.

Did you read all that?  Good!  Tomorrow I'll be back to talk the Muslim Brotherhood and possibly North Korea, and one of these days I promise I'll get around to this article about 4chan, which covered a lot of ground before 4chan itself.

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