C’mon, who’s really clueless about trade?

From Forbes, the kind of thing you find in among Chamber of Commerce types: Trump’s Tariffs Are A Reminder He’s Clueless About Trade. Sure he is, and the evidence keeps piling up day by day. If we lived in a crony-capitalist-free world, and no one ever cheated in their trade relations,* maybe such blanket statements would make sense. But truly lacking in any penetration is the manipulation of arithmetical statistical identities as if they were actual theoretical constructs where a change in one variable is the cause of a change in another. In reality, with such identities, these are accounting balancing items which have no effect on actualities in the real world, but are only a record of what took place.

Now here is where the simple analytics of the trade deficit can be used to prove the cluelessness of the Trump trade team on “trade,” of all things, and the utter futility of its policy prescriptions having any impact on America’s aggregate trade deficit. In economics, identities play an important role. These identities are obtained by equating two different breakdowns of a single aggregate. Identities are interesting, and usually important, by definition. In national income accounting, the following identity can be derived. Indeed, it is the key to understanding the trade deficit.

(Imports – Exports ) ≡ (Investment – Savings) + (Government Spending – Taxes)

Given this identify, which must hold, the trade deficit is equal to the excess of private sector investment over savings, plus the excess of government spending over tax revenue. So the counterpart of the trade deficit is the sum of the private sector deficit and the government deficit (federal + state and local). The U.S. trade deficit, therefore, is just the mirror image of what is happening in the U.S. domestic economy. If expenditures in the U.S. exceed the incomes produced in the U.S., which they do, the excess expenditures will be met by an excess of imports over exports (read: a trade deficit).

This is the same as fiddling with Y=C+I+G and pretending that an increase in G can cause an increase in Y. Complete sophistry. There is much more to say about free trade and I have been meaning to say it for a while. This might therefore be what finally stirs me to spell it out in more detail, but this will have to do for now.

* See, for example, Australia takes Canada to WTO over rules on selling wine. My dual nationality obviously makes it impossible for me to see the rights and wrongs of this, but let me say that no Australian will ever understand the liquor laws of Canada, which were introduced as temporary measures during World War I. There’s a lesson in there as well.

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