Now that we’ve established (in previous recent posts) that it’s disparities in population density between the U.S. and its trading partners that causes our enormous trade deficit, let’s take a closer look at what role low wages might play. Judging by the data we saw in the lists of America’s best and worst trade partners, there appeared to be little difference in the “purchasing power parity,” or “PPP,” between the lists, suggesting that low wages (which track PPP) play no role.
Let’s begin by looking at America’s balance of trade with the twenty poorest nations in the world. Here’s the list: 20 Poorest Nations. First of all, you’ll notice that this list is dominated by poor African nations, with a few others like North Korea and Afghanistan thrown in. The U.S. actually has a small trade surplus of just over a million dollars (an almost perfect balance of trade) with this group. If low wages cause trade deficits, why doesn’t the U.S. have a huge trade deficit with this group of nations? In the interest of fairness, I should point out that all foreign aid is booked as exports from the U.S., and the nations on this list are nearly all heavy recipients of U.S. foreign aid.
Let’s move on. At the other end of the scale we have the twenty richest nations. Since U.S. PPP is about $50,000, the U.S. would fall somewhere in the middle of this list. So wages shouldn’t be much of a factor with this group. Look at the list: 20 Richest Nations. As you can see, we have a small trade deficit of $9 billion with this group of nations – virtually insignificant when compared to our total trade deficit in manufactured goods of $724 billion.
What we need to do is divide all of the world’s nations in half according to PPP and compare our balance of trade with the poorest half of nations to the richest half. If we do that, the results are pretty startling. With the poorest half of nations, the U.S. has a trade deficit in manufactured goods of $60.7 billion. But with the richest half of nations, the deficit explodes to $663.5 billion!
How can we explain that? First of all, to be honest, even the richest half of nations is made up almost entirely of nations that are poorer than the U.S. Only about a dozen nations are richer than the U.S. So one could argue that the low wage theory still holds. Not true. If it did, then it should be the poorest half of nations that we have the biggest trade deficit with, not the opposite.
The real explanation is that there is a relationship between trade and wages, but the cause and effect are quite the opposite of the “low wage theory.” Low wages don’t cause trade deficits. Instead, large trade surpluses like China, Germany and Japan have with the U.S., cause higher wages. Manufacturing for export sops up excess labor supply and drives wages higher.
When the U.S. trades with poor but sparsely populated nations, they become wealthier but soon run out of labor. Their now-wealthier populace becomes good customers for American products and trade levels off in a state of balance, more or less.
But when the U.S. trades with poor, badly overpopulated nations, wages rise but their overcrowded conditions leave them unable to consume products at anywhere near the rate needed to become customers for imported products. Their oversupply of labor persists and a trade deficit with such a nation grows steadily worse.
America’s trade imbalance can never be resolved as long as it pursues policies that don’t target the real problem – disparities in population density.