Free trade; not trade wars or negotiated trade

With a lot of Americans fearful for their jobs and their president saying he can protect jobs with tariffs, international trade has become a big emotional issue.

Trade is such an emotional issue because our economy is organized such that our physical and psychological well-being requires us to have steady employment. At the same time economic changes require employment flexibility. One way to deal with this conflict would be to have a guaranteed income scheme so that individuals can cope with changes. My committment to such a scheme stands behind the rest of this post and indeed all the posts on this weblog. If people can survive comfortably without employment then this fear should no longer be a factor.

We should also analyse economic issues in physical or real terms rather than financial terms. Trade is the exchange of goods and services, not money which is a tool to facilitate the exchanges. It is very easy to get a distorted picture of the economy when people analyse economic problems in financial terms.

For all merchant-pull-1398066_1920we talk about the market economy and our devotion to competition, we have a long tradition of restricting competition. One of the ways we do that is by imposing tariffs on imports from other countries. Other ways we restrict competition with subsidies and legislation.

The economics law of comparative advantage says countries are better off to specialize and trade, even if one country is more efficient in the production of all items. This is attractive to people who want economic growth. This blogger also likes the idea of efficiency so that we can have more time for leisure activities.

I also believe the best way to do free trade is unilaterally. To do free trade and get the full benefits Canada should abolish all tariffs and restrictions on foreign goods and services coming into the country regardless of what other countries do. If other countries want to subsidize our lifestyle, then that is up to them. If they do not want to buy from us, then that is saving our resource base for the benefit of our children.

The free trade agreements of which governments are so fond are in reality negotiated trade agreements. They are negotiated for the sake of special interests of producers. These are the same interests as those who want legislation to restrict competition – patents, copyright, licensing – and who want subsidies for their firms. To get a feel for the complexity of these negotiations look at this article in The Economist. Trying to negotiate to satisfy the special interests of multiple countries must be an impossible challenge.

International trade is not such an important issue for Americans because the United States is one large free trade zone and they are or have benefited from the law of comparative advantage.

Economics is a social activity and like all relationships, to be satisfying for all parties there needs to be a more or less equal exchange. Those Americans who promote trade wars are being anti social. To me that sounds un-American.

Lots of politicians and commentators worry about the dire consequences of American tariffs and the resulting trade wars. Yes. we are headed into some even more serious economic problems but they will not be caused by tariffs and trade wars. The basic problem is that we have used up the most easily accessible energy and mineral resources. Increased efficiency from free trade will help us cope with this issue but will not solve it.

Governments, competition and subsidies

Is it legitimate for city governments to get involved in the economy as The Economist reports a number of mayors are doing?  Governments have been involved in their economies for millenia.  For us this involvement helps a some people make profits and when the economy is tough it helps a few people get jobs.

There are two ways governments get involved in economics – by passing legislation that restricts competition and by giving subsidies either in cash or tax exemptions.

Most economic legislation at the national level works to restrict competition. Patents, copyright, licensing and tariffs all limit competition and allow the firms protected to charge higher prices and make profits they would not otherwise have had.  It may be the most  valuable business skill is government relations and lobbying.  During the recent golden age of prosperity with constant economic growth the higher prices have hardly been noticeable and for most people not relevant.  As we go into a period of economic decline already lot of people are hurting.

The other way governments influence the economy is with subsidies or tax exemptions.  

There are three concerns about government involvement in the economy.  

The first is that protection from competition and subsidies distort prices and encourage inefficiencies in the economy.  It might be cheaper and more efficient to make wing nuts in one place but subsidies alter that.  It may be that competition is now to determine  which, city or state/province has the deepest pockets for providing subsidies.  When firms can go where they get the largest subsidy, there is an element of blackmail and it is not clear this is a good way to start a relationship.

The second concern is that most of us most of the time make decisions for our own short-term interests rather than the long-term interests of the community.  For most of us a job today is more important than the future health of the planet or even survival of the human race.  Also one has to suspect that in this respect politicians are at the head of the line especially when they want to get reelected.

A third concern is that subsidies are good at providing jobs for a lucky few people but provide no benefit for the rest of the unemployed.  I believe subsides should be given to consumers rather than producers so that they don’t distort prices and can provide assistance to all who need it.

DI_404_SUCKZ_Stephen_HarperOne can make lots of arguments against government involvement in the economy, but one is fighting a lot of short-term interests.  The Canadian prime minister is the chief executive officer of corporate Canada.  This applies to the incumbent and probably to most past and holders of that post.

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