Driven by population density disparities, U.S. trade picture darkens again in 2020

In recent posts, we’ve examined America’s trade results in 2020 and found that, at least at the opposite ends of the spectrum, our worst trade deficits and our best trade surpluses were overwhelmingly driven by one factor alone – the population density of our trade partners. Now let’s look at the whole picture – our trade results with the entire world. If population density is such a huge factor, let’s divide the world’s nations in half and see how we did with the nations whose population densities were above and below the global median which, by the way, is 196 people per square mile. Here’s a chart that shows those results and has tracked them for the past sixteen years:

With the more densely populated nations of the world, the U.S. suffered a trade deficit in manufactured goods of $894 billion in 2020, blowing away the record of $842 billion set only one year earlier. With the other half of nations, the deficit was only $17 billion. That’s a huge difference. The deficit with the more densely populated nations was more than 52 times larger than the deficit with the less densely populated nations.

But wait. The theory is that disparities in population density drive our trade imbalance. So the U.S. is likely to have a deficit with any nation more densely populated than our own, and our own density is 93 people per square mile, less than half of the global median. So let’s divide the world’s nations at that level. If we do, the deficit with more densely populated nations grows to $999 billion in 2020, while our trade balance with less densely populated nations was actually a surplus of $88 billion.

Economists and free trade advocates in general claim that it’s actually low wages that drive trade imbalances. Does that claim hold water? In 2020, with the half of nations who are the poorest, the U.S. had a trade deficit of only $120 billion. With the wealthier half of nations, we had a deficit of $791 billion – almost seven times larger! Not only is the low wage theory invalid, the data shows that the relationship between wages and trade imbalance is exactly the opposite. It makes sense when you think about it. Countries who manufacture for export and maintain large trade surpluses with the U.S. grow richer. If they are sparsely populated, the trade imbalance soon equalizes when they run out of labor capacity. But if they are very densely populated, their trade surplus will persist.

It absolutely baffles me that no one else is able to make the connection between population density and trade imbalances. I’ve been tracking this data for sixteen years and, with each passing year, the effect distorts our trade imbalance even more. The manufacturing sector of our economy is being destroyed and is doing real damage to the economy as a whole. As I write this, our auto industry has been driven to its knees by its inability to provide itself with computer chips. Our dependence on imports has become an existential threat. Yet our leaders turn a blind eye. They see the enormous trade deficit and put no effort whatsoever into even understanding it, much less actually doing something about it. Our trade policy amounts to nothing more than a global welfare program, providing the world with manufacturing jobs at the expense of our own workers. It makes me sick.

Oh, it gets worse. Next we’ll look at the latest trade data released this week for the month of March.

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