America’s Best Trading Partners in 2019

May 15, 2020

We saw in my previous post that the list of America’s twenty worst trading partners in 2019, in terms of per capita trade deficit in manufactured goods, was dominated by very densely populated countries.  Only three of the twenty were less densely populated than the U.S.  Now we’ll look at the other end of the spectrum.  Man-for-man (or person-for-person), which countries buy the most American-made products?  Here they are:  Top 20 Per Capita Surpluses, 2019.

While the average population density of our worst trading partners is 524 people/square mile, the average population density of our best trading partners is 208 people/square mile.  The list includes some very large and very small countries.  The combined population density, the total population of these countries divided by their total land mass, is only 20 people/square mile.  The list also include seven net oil exporters.  As discussed in an earlier post, it’s almost automatic that the U.S. has a trade surplus with oil exporters because all oil world-wide is priced in U.S. dollars.  It leaves those countries with no choice but to buy American products in order to use those dollars.  America’s biggest source of imported oil is Canada, so that factors into their position high up on this list, but the bigger factor is their very low population density – only eleven people/square mile.

Once again, The Netherlands and Belgium appear on this list in spite of their very high population density, but that’s an anomaly caused by their position as the only port on the Atlantic-side of Europe and how exports from and imports into that port are booked.

The average increase in our trade surplus with these nations over the past ten years is only 36%.  That barely keeps pace with the rate of inflation, meaning that our trade surpluses have been stagnant, while the trade deficits with our worst trading partners has risen by 148% over the same time period.

The average purchasing power parity (or “PPP”) of the nations on this list is $43,900.  Take away tiny Oman, the wealthiest nation on earth (and one of the smallest), and the average drops to $39,600 – almost exactly the same as the average for our twenty worst trade partners.  Clearly, how rich or poor a nation is (or how high or low their workers’ wages) has no bearing on the balance of trade.  Whether we have a trade surplus or trade deficit with any given nation is determined almost solely by population density (and also whether a nation is an oil exporter).  To drive home that point, in my next post we’ll look at our balance of trade with the poorest, lowest-wage nations vs. the wealthiest, highest-wage nations.  The results are an eye-opener.

 


America’s Worst Trade Partners in 2019

May 11, 2020

In a previous post, we looked at a list of America’s biggest trade deficits and China was at the top.  But China is a very big country with one fifth of the world’s population – more than four times the population of the U.S.  Sheer size alone accounts for much of that deficit.  But which countries, man-for-man (or person for person, if you prefer) do the most damage to the U.S. economy by siphoning away manufacturing jobs through a big trade imbalance?  To determine that, we need a list of our worst trade deficits in per capita terms.  So here is a list of our twenty worst per capita trade deficits in 2019:  Top 20 Per Capita Deficits, 2019.

Little Ireland is at the very top of list, with a $9,615 per capita surplus in manufactured goods with the U.S. that is nearly three times the size of the next worst on the list – Switzerland.  If we assume that an average manufacturing job pays $50,000 per year, and that two thirds of the cost to manufacture something is labor, then the math tells us that for every eight citizens of Ireland an American citizen has lost his/her job.  Thankfully, there are only 5.2 million people in Ireland, so the damage done to the American economy’s manufacturing sector by Ireland is limited to “only” 650,000 jobs.  But think of that.  America has lost 650,000 manufacturing jobs to tiny Ireland.  No wonder Ireland is the wealthiest nation on the list – significantly more wealthy than the U.S. in terms of purchasing power parity (or “PPP”).

The list is noteworthy for other reasons.

  1.  This list is dominated by wealthy countries.  The average PPP of the nations on this list was almost $38,000 in 2018.  The average of the top ten on this list is almost $47,000 – on a par with the U.S.  It’s the same phenomenon we saw on the list of our biggest deficits in absolute dollar terms.  Clearly, low wages play no role at all in driving our trade deficit.
  2. Exactly half of the nations on this list are members of the European Union.  Another, Switzerland, is a European country, though not a member of the EU.
  3. On average, America’s per capita trade deficit with these twenty nations has grown by 148% over the past ten years, led by Vietnam and Slovakia.  Only one has declined – Israel.  (All of that decline has happened in the past two years.)
  4. Noteworthy for its absence from the list is China.  China has been on the list every year since I began publishing this list in 2010, though near the bottom of the list.  But this year they’re gone, falling to number 25.  Why?  Because of the effect that Trump’s tariffs on China have had on reducing the trade deficit with them.

The most noteworthy takeaway from this list, however, is this:  with only three exceptions, the nations on this list are very densely populated.  The average population density of these twenty nations is 524 people/square mile – more than 5-1/2 times as densely populated as the United States.  Regardless of whether we look at the balance of trade in absolute dollar terms or in per capita terms – no matter how we look at it – population density pops out as the overriding factor in driving trade imbalances.

In the case of Ireland, it must be recognized that there is another factor.  Ireland is a tax haven for companies.  They get a free ride in Ireland.  It’s a grossly unfair trade practice designed to siphon companies away from the U.S.  It’s unbelievable that the U.S. continues to turn a blind eye to this shake-down.  Ireland is growing rich at America’s expense.

Before we explore exactly why population density is such a huge factor, we’ll take a look at the other end of the spectrum – our best trade partners in 2019 – the nations who, man-for-man, are the best customers for American-made products.  That’ll be the subject of the next post.  Stay tuned.


China Reneging on Phase 1 Trade Deal

May 7, 2020

China isn’t living up to its commitments under the “Phase 1” trade deal it signed with Trump in early January.  It’s time for Trump to call China on the carpet.  Here are the year-to-date results through March (released by the Commerce Department on Tuesday):  Phase 1 China Trade Deal 2020 YTD.

China’s imports of goods in March were the best of the year so far, but that isn’t saying much.  Once again, their imports didn’t even come close to the 2017 baseline, much less the goals set in the Phase 1 trade deal.  One might be tempted to cut China some slack because of the Covid-19 pandemic.  However, even if people are locked up in their homes, they still have to eat.  And Chinese imports of agriculture products are the weakest of the four categories of goods, and are consistent with their weak imports of the other goods categories.

At a minimum, Trump needs to give China a stern warning that if their imports don’t rise to meet goals by the end of June – halfway through 2020 – then the deal is off and all U.S. imports from China will be subject to the 25% tariff.  This is yet another example of China playing the U.S. for fools, as it has done for two decades.  The U.S. should never again engage in any trade negotiations with China.  Tariffs are the only thing they understand and they need to be increased until a balance of trade with China is achieved.

 


U.S. Balance of Trade in 2019 vs. Population Density

May 1, 2020

So far we’ve looked at the two ends of the spectrum of America’s 2019 balance of trade – our worst trade deficits and our best trade surpluses.  We found that the list of our worst trade deficits is heavily dominated by nations with a high population density.  Conversely, we found the list of trade surpluses is dominated by two groups of nations – low population densities and net oil exporters.  Now let’s look at the whole 2019 trade picture, which includes 165 nations.  (The CIA World Fact Book lists a total of 229 nations in the world.  Not included in my study are tiny island nations and city-states which, combined, account for less than 1% of trade.)  Here’s a chart of America’s balance of trade with all nations that are more densely populated than the U.S. vs. all nations that are less densely populated, from 2005 through 2019:  Balance of Trade Above & Below U.S. Pop Density.

The difference in the results couldn’t be more stark.  With those nations that are less densely populated than the U.S., we enjoyed a small surplus of $111 billion in 2019 – down slightly from $119 billion in 2018 and essentially flat for the past ten years.  With those nations that are more densely populated than the U.S., we suffered an enormous deficit of $941 billion in 2019 – a deficit that has exploded over the past decade, more than doubling from $428 billion in 2009.

There are 114 nations more densely populated than the U.S., and 51 nations that are less densely populated.  So, you might think, maybe the uneven distribution of countries was a factor in skewing the results.  Fine.  Let’s divide the countries evenly – 82 nations that are more densely populated vs. 83 that are less densely populated.  The results are little different.  With the half of nations more densely populated, the U.S. suffers an enormous trade deficit of $842 billion, vs. a trade surplus of $129 billion with the 83 nations that are less densely populated.  By the way, the median population density is 193 people/square mile – about double that of the U.S.

I should point out that, divided around the median population density, the half of nations that are above the median account for 5.6 billion people, while the half of nations below the median population density account for only 1.7 billion people.  One might argue that, to be a fair analysis, there should be an equal number of people on each side, and not an equal number of nations.  OK, let’s look at it that way.  In order to do that, because it has such a large population, China has to be divided, allocating 59% of its population to the more densely populated half, and 41% of its population to the less densely populated half.  The deficit with China will be divided proportionately.  If we do that, the U.S. has a trade deficit of $557 billion with the half of the world’s population that lives in more densely populated conditions vs. a trade surplus of $273 billion with the half of the population living in less densely populated conditions.

But splitting the population evenly, as we did above, results in a huge discrepancy in the land surface area of the world in one half of the analysis vs. the other – 5.2 million square miles vs. only 0.7 million square miles.  If we divide the world evenly in terms of surface area, the U.S. has a trade deficit of $924 billion vs. a trade surplus of $94 billion with the more densely populated half of the world’s surface area vs. the less densely populated half.

No matter how you look at it, population density is consistently the biggest driving force in determining the balance of trade.  So if the U.S. wants to achieve a balance of trade with the rest of the world, it’s only logical to employ a mechanism aimed at population density – a tariff structure, for example, that’s indexed to a nation’s population density.  Applying tariffs on any other basis isn’t fair.  Should a nation be punished because it’s big instead of little?  Developed vs. undeveloped?  “Free trade” is an example of an unfair tariff system – unfair to the U.S.  It applies a tariff of zero to everyone on no basis whatsoever – without any justification – and the results speak for themselves.  The U.S. is being killed with a huge trade imbalance that has destroyed its manufacturing sector.

Who would (or should) be hit hardest by a population density-indexed tariff structure?  We’ll look at that next.

 

 


Planet of The Humans

April 23, 2020

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-earth-day-documentary/michael-moores-planet-of-the-humans-asks-what-if-green-energy-cannot-save-the-planet-idUSKCN2231U8

It’s the mission of this blog to raise awareness of the economic consequences of “overpopulation,” that is, what happens when we become so densely populated that we become incapable of gainfully employing everyone.  There are other consequences of overpopulation – environmental consequences among them.  There’s no shortage of people, however, devoted to that topic.  I’m the only one dedicated to raising alarm about the economic consequences, so I try to stick to that topic.

On the rare occasions when I’ve addressed the topic, I’ve been highly critical of environmentalists, like in this post.  The environmental movement struck a deal with the devil decades ago when it agreed to turn a blind eye to the problems of population growth and the notion of “sustainable development” (an oxymoron) in exchange for corporations’ embrace of simpler issues like air and water pollution controls.

The above-linked article is perhaps the first example I’ve seen of a life-long environmentalist who is finally opening his eyes to the fact that the environmental movement has been a colossal failure, and that reining in population growth and “sustainable development” is this planet’s only hope.  The documentary film that’s the subject of the article, directed and narrated by environmentalist Jeff Gibbs, can be watched for free on youtube.  Here’s the link:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zk11vI-7czE&feature=youtu.be.  It’s a great film and I encourage you to watch.


America’s Biggest Trade Surpluses in 2019

April 21, 2020

In my last post, we saw from the list of America’s worst trade deficits that every country but one was more densely populated than the U.S., suggesting a relationship between population density and balance of trade.  If that’s true, then we should see the opposite when we look at a list of our biggest trade surpluses.  We should see a list of countries with lower population density.  So here’s the list of our biggest trade surpluses in manufactured goods in 2019:  Top 20 Surpluses, 2019.

At first glance, this list doesn’t seem quite as supportive of a relationship between population density and balance of trade.  Exactly half of the nations on this list are less densely populated than the U.S., whose density is 93 people per square mile.  But look more closely at the list and some countries jump out at you:  United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and Nigeria.  Four of these five nations are far more densely-populated than the U.S.  What comes to mind when you look at this list?  Oil.  All are net exporters of oil to the U.S.  And without exception (including smaller oil exporters who didn’t make this list), the U.S. has a trade surplus with net oil exporters.  Why?  Because all oil sold world-wide is priced in U.S. dollars.  If you want to buy oil from Saudi Arabia, you pay for it with U.S. dollars.  If you want to buy oil from Nigeria, you pay with U.S. dollars.  The result is that net oil exporters are loaded with U.S. dollars and – you may not realize this – but the United States is ultimately the only place where U.S. dollars can be used as legal tender (with the one exception of oil in other countries), meaning that net oil exporters must buy something from the U.S. with those dollars.  It can be anything – products, government securities, real estate – anything that is sold in the United States.   A good share of those petro-dollars are used to buy American exports.

Two other very densely-populated, non-oil-producing nations on the list also need explanation.  The Netherlands and Belgium are both very densely populated.  But together they have the only deep-water ports on the Atlantic side of the European Union.  So many of the American exports that are destined for other nations in Europe are imported through those two countries.  Ships arrive full of American exports.  Somehow, however, only half as many imports from those countries head back to the U.S.  Obviously, those ships don’t return only half full.  So how do I explain it?  Frankly, I can’t, but what I suspect is happening is that imports from other European nations that depart from the Netherlands and Belgium ports are actually booked as exports from those originating nations and not from the port of departure.  We need to look at Europe as a whole (a continent nearly as densely populated as China) and, when we do, we find a massive trade deficit.

In spite of the presence of those nations that cloud the results from this list, the validity of the relationship between population density and the balance of trade is still evident.  The average population density on this list is 248 people/square mile vs. 617 people/square mile on the list of our biggest trade deficits.  And the combined population density (total people divided by total land mass) is only 46 people/square mile vs. 510 people/square mile on the list of deficits.  That’s a pretty powerful correlation!

There are other important takeaways from this list:

  1. The total of the trade surpluses on this list is $180.4 billion, vs the total of our top twenty trade deficits of $978.7 billion.  That’s a difference of almost $800 billion, which pretty accurately represents the amount of money drained from our economy each year through trade.
  2. Over the past ten years, the average growth in the trade surpluses with the nations on this list is only 7%, which is less than the rate of inflation, meaning that our actual trade surpluses are shrinking.  Compare that to the average rate of growth in the deficits of 298%.  It’s clear that the manufacturing sector of our economy is very rapidly being decimated by trade.
  3. The average “purchasing power parity” (“PPP”) of the nations on the list of our top twenty trade surpluses is $36,780.  That almost exactly matches the average PPP of the list of our top twenty trade deficits:  $35,445.  It seems clear from comparing these two lists that wages play absolutely no role in determining balance of trade.

These two lists that we’ve compared contain both very large countries and very small countries.  For example, the list of deficits includes China and India who together represent almost half of the world’s population, but also include Ireland and Denmark who together represent less than one tenth of one percent of the world’s population.  Is it possible that these results are skewed by the sheer size of countries?  Can we factor that out?  Yes, and that’s exactly what we’ll do in an upcoming post.

However, before we do that, and now that we’ve looked at both ends of the spectrum, we’ll take a look at the entire trade picture with the whole world to see whether the influence of population density is still evident.  That’ll be my next post.


America’s Worst Trade Deficits in 2019

April 19, 2020

I’ve just finished the long, tedious process of analyzing the international trade data for 2019, which was posted by the Commerce Department in late February this year, instead of the mid-summer release caused by the government shutdown last year.  We’re going to look at this data in a lot of different ways in this and upcoming posts, so let’s begin with the basics.  The biggest problem with international trade is that the U.S. has been running a massive, ever-growing trade deficit for the past forty-five years.  All of the deficit is due to imports – and very weak exports – of manufactured products, and this category of products is where it hurts the most.  A deficit in manufactured products hurts the most because that’s where the most – and the highest-paying jobs – are lost.

So let’s begin this analysis with a list of our worst trade deficits in manufactured goods:  Top 20 Deficits, 2019.  The deficit with these 20 nations is almost $1 trillion!  It’s no great surprise that our deficit with China leads the list, by a wide margin.  And it would be worse by $20 billion if I hadn’t included Hong Kong with China.  (The Commerce Department tracks them separately, but we’re kidding ourselves to think that Hong Kong is an independent city-state.)  What’s new and interesting however is that the deficit with China is actually down substantially – by $73 billion – from 2018.  This is thanks to the Trump administration’s program of imposing tariffs on Chinese imports.  Look at how much the deficit with China has changed over the past ten years.  Though it grew rapidly for the first nine years of this period, it fell enough last year to yield only a 24% growth in the last ten.  That’s the 2nd slowest growth among the twenty nations on this list.

The deficit with Mexico has grown rapidly – 154% over the past ten years – to become our 2nd worst trade deficit.  However, if we are to believe the President, this should begin to change as the new USMCA agreement with Mexico and Canada – which replaces the now-defunct NAFTA agreement – begins to take effect this summer.  We’ll see.

Note that, contrary to the belief that low wages cause trade deficits, this list of our worst trade deficits is actually dominated by wealthy, developed nations, including many European nations.  In fact, if we add up the EU nations on this list, the combined deficit is $187 billion.  (The UK and Switzerland are not in the EU.)  By the way, the growth in the deficit with the U.K. – 3,125% in ten years – isn’t a typo.  When I first wrote Five Short Blasts in 2007, the U.K. was one of a few anomalies where, in spite of the high population density, we actually enjoyed a trade surplus with them.  But that trade surplus evaporated and, in 2010, the U.S. actually had a very small trade deficit with the U.K.  The deficit of $9.6 billion in 2019 is more than thirty times larger than the small deficit in 2010.  It’s growing rapidly.

As we’ve seen every year, it’s not low wages that cause our trade deficit.  So what does cause it?  I just gave you a hint.  Look at the population density of the nations on this list and compare it to the population density of the U.S. – 93 people/square mile.  The average population density of the nations on this list is almost seven times greater.  The combined population density of the nations on this list – the total number of people divided by the total land mass – is more than five times greater.  Only Sweden, near the bottom of the list, is less densely populated.  Nineteen of these twenty nations are more densely populated than the U.S.  Most are more than four times as densely populated.  Now that’s a powerful correlation to our balance of trade!

But why?  Why does something so seemingly unrelated have such a powerful effect on the balance of trade?  It’s because people who live in over-crowded conditions are incapable of using as many products as people who enjoy living in more wide open spaces.  They have no place to store them and no place to use them.  (Think cars.  the average Japanese person doesn’t have a garage and the roads are too crowded to drive anyway.)  Yet, they are every bit as productive.  The inescapable consequence is that, in order to be gainfully employed, they must produce far more than they consume, and there’s ony one thing that can be done with their excess production:  export it.  Unless the nation that those excess products are exported to takes some kind of action to keep those products out, their own citizens are now doomed to be put out of work by the market share they’ve lost.  Trading freely with badly overpopulated nations causes a massive shift of manufacturing jobs to the more densely populated nation.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Trade deficits are just one end of the trade spectrum.  What about surpluses?  Will we find that those nations are less densely populated, which the population density theory would predict?  Stay tuned.


Month 2 Results of “Phase 1” China Trade Deal – Not Good!

April 6, 2020

China got off to a weak start during the first month of the “Phase 1” trade deal that it signed with Trump in early January.  What is the “Phase 1” trade deal?  In exchange for China’s promise to dramatically increase its purchase of a wide range of American goods, Trump delayed the implementation of the next large round of tariffs on Chinese imports.  The agreement uses China’s purchases in 2017 as a baseline.  Here’s the goals that were established:  Phase 1 China Trade Deal Goals.

In January, China didn’t even come close to matching the 2017 baseline in any of the four categories of products, much less the goals to boost their imports.  In February, instead of increasing their imports to begin to catch up, their imports in three of the four categories fell even further.  (Their imports of manufactured goods increased slightly, but was still well below the 2017 baseline.)  Here’s the February results:  Phase 1 China Trade Deal 2020 YTD.

Of course, China was dealing with the Covid-19 outbreak at this time, so some might say we should cut them some slack.  Yes, they were dealing with that crisis, but only in Hubei province, in which the city of Wuhan is located.  And crisis or no crisis, people still have to eat.  Yet their imports of agriculture products fell in February from the already-low January figure.

Only two months in, it’s becoming clear that the Chinese are ignoring the terms of this trade deal.  They’ve already gotten what they wanted – a halt to the increase in tariffs, they are back in control of the trade  situation, and they can hope once again that America will take its eye off the ball as it has always done with trade deals.

If I were Trump, I’d wait until the March results are posted in early June.  Then I’d give them a stern warning that if they don’t improve their performance within the next three months, the deal will be off and I’d raise the tariffs beyond those that were delayed by the January signing of this ill-conceived deal.  And I would cease any further pointless trade negotiations with China.


Emerging Lessons from The Covid-19 Pandemic

March 31, 2020

As the Covid-19 pandemic has played out, lessons have begun to emerge about our society which, in blissful ignorance over the past seven decades, we have evolved in the interests of growth and efficiency in ways that are now proving to be dangerous – dangerous to our health, our economy and even civilization as we know it.

Globalism and Global Supply Chains:

Nothing became more readily apparent as the virus took hold than our inability to produce even the most basic medical supplies – masks, face shields, gowns, medicines and ventilators.  Why couldn’t we just crank up the capacity at our factories?  Because we don’t have any.  Like everything else, we’ve made ourselves totally dependent on foreign sources for these items.  Why couldn’t those foreign sources crank up their factories and just send us what we needed?  Because they were in the same boat and needed them themselves.  The whole world quickly found itself in the same boat.  “Globalism” has provided the perfect mechanism for spreading local outbreaks across the world almost overnight and has rendered us nearly incapable of fighting them.

At the beginning of the outbreak in the U.S., we were critically short of N95 masks, a shortage that, while being addressed, threatens to persist.  So just make more, right?  Some companies are tooling up to do just that.  But that’s the problem.  It takes time to “tool up.”  We haven’t been making any such masks in the U.S., so there’s no factory where we can just add more shifts or crank up the output.  The manufacturing has to be tooled up from scratch.

How hard can it be to make simple masks?  Start with the fabric.  No fabric of any kind is made in the U.S. any more.  It has to be engineered to screen out a minimum particle size.  Now it has to be thermoformed into the shape of a mask.  That takes special molding tooling.  To make that tooling requires sophisticated machining equipment.  We have that equipment, but almost all of it is foreign-sourced.  So what happens when that equipment breaks down?  Multiply that level of complexity a thousand-fold in order to produce ventilators which also aren’t made in this country (at least they weren’t until Ford, GE and GM began building factories recently to do it).

The same goes for test kits and pharmaceuticals, all of which until now have been foreign-sourced.

President Trump recently vented his frustration with this situation in one of his daily White House briefings.  He vowed that while we can engage in trade with everyone, we can never again let ourselves be dependent on anyone.  Others have made the same observation.  Complex global supply chains that depend on pulling together materials from all over the world in order to keep society functioning is a recipe for a disaster.

It’s interesting how quickly those who, in the past have mocked others as “protectionists” and “isolationists,” have resorted to exactly those measures to stem the spread of this pandemic.  Now, isolating ourselves is our only hope for saving hundreds of thousands of people and, while doing so, we’re put at risk by the globalism that they championed.

No Spare Capacity:

Global competition has fueled a relentless drive for efficiency, just-in-time delivery supply chains and cutting costs to the bone.  That means squeezing every ounce from every capacity available, whether it’s labor capacity, factory capacity, and even the capacity of our health care system.  Everything has been functioning with virtually no capacity to spare.  Even in the best of times, the intensive care units and emergency rooms at our hospitals function at near-capacity.  Most of you have visited hospitals before all this started.  How many empty beds did you see as you walked down the halls?  How many times did you pass a patient on a gurney in the hallway?

How many times have you gone to a store – any kind of store – and found that you were fortunate enough to get one of the few remaining items you’re looking for that are left on the shelf?  Maybe there are none, and you’re told that more are arriving tomorrow.  It’s because inventory management systems have cut to the bone the amount of inventory in the warehouse.  We’ve even learned that the stockpiles of critical items maintained by FEMA and the CDC, while sufficient for smaller local or regional disasters, are woefully short of what would be needed for any kind of major disaster.  (And isn’t it interesting how our definition of “major disaster” has just changed?)

That’s all great for minimizing costs, but now we can see just how risky that can be.  People are paying for that kind of efficiency with their lives.  There is a role for government to play in assuring that a certain minimum amount of spare capacity exists throughout our supply chains – supply chains that are not dependent on other nations – that can be readily tapped in the event of national disasters like pandemics, wars, etc.

The Risks of Dense Populations:

Consider where this virus originated and where it’s hit the hardest.  It originated in a country with one fifth of the world’s population, a country so densely populated that it’s people, at least in some quarters, rely on live animal markets as a source of food.  China is four times as densely populated as the U.S.  Pause and think about that.  Imagine if the U.S. had four times as many people.  Imagine New York city with four times as many people.  Or Chicago.  Or any other city you can think of.  Imagine our rural areas with four times as many people.  They’d no longer be so rural.

Where has the virus hit hardest?  Italy is almost twice as densely populated as China.  So too is Germany and the U.K.  Most of Europe is as densely populated as China.  Major cities in the U.S. and around the world are hundreds of times more densely populated.

Even in the best of times, living in a densely populated area is a little risky.  With a sky-high cost of living (especially housing), and with many (perhaps most?) people living paycheck-to-paycheck, you’re at constant risk of finding yourself homeless.  The supply of basic necessities relies on complicated supply chains that are vulnerable to disruptions.  In the worst of times – and what we’re enduring right now, while bad, is probably not even close to being “worst” – living in such densely populated conditions is downright dangerous.  Diseases can spread like wildfire.  Natural disasters or wars could cut off supply lines.

What’s the solution?  Live in a less densely-populated society.  How is that possible?  Modern civilization requires both urban and rural areas.  Cities are needed to pull together labor forces to manufacture goods and provide certain services, while rural areas are needed for farming, forestry, recreation, etc.

The way to achieve this is with fewer, smaller cities and more rural, wide-open space.  Consider countries like Canada and Australia – each with the same size as the U.S. but with one tenth or less population density.  Though each is dealing with coronavirus outbreaks, they’re no where near the scale of what the U.S. is facing.  Why?  Because they were already more isolated to start with.

On the other hand, think about India – a place so densely populated that it’s almost impossible for them to practice any kind of social distancing.  Will they pay the price, or will the fact that India is a hot climate where the coronavirus, like the flu, can’t survive to any great extent spare them?  No one knows.  Only time will tell.

Then there’s cruise ships.  Before any of this happened, we were already hearing constant stories of norovirus outbreaks that sickened passengers, cut cruises short and necessitated thorough cleaning of the ships.  Now we’ve seen that, given a deadlier virus, those ships are death traps.  And each is just a small-scale example of what can happen in a densely-packed society.

Secure Borders:

Together with the advocates of free trade and globalism, the open border advocates have also gone silent.  Our failure to quickly shut down international travel exacerbated the spread of the virus in the U.S.  How much worse could it have been had we not been able to shut down the borders at all?  How much worse could it have gotten had we not already taken steps to secure our southern border?  Now we can see the value in maintaining secure borders, and the need to further tighten down on illegal immigration.

Beyond these, there are many, many other lessons to be learned about preparedness for major disasters.  One lesson that will only become clear as our economy begins to recover is that we’re going to pay for decades for the folly of allowing our economy to be siphoned away to drive growth in the rest of the world.  Our dependence on deficit spending to offset the drain of the trade deficit had already become dangerous as our national debt swelled to an unsustainable level.  We were already bailing as fast as we could to keep our leaky boat afloat.  Now, the $2 trillion stimulus package, together with the $4 trillion in additional debt that the Federal Reserve is issuing, will blow the transom off the boat.  It will prove impossible to keep the economy afloat while maintaining a trade deficit.  It’s critical that we get serious about restoring a balance of trade, both to reinvigorate our manufacturing base and to stop the hemorrhaging of our national debt.

Economists have long boasted that “mankind is clever enough to overcome all obstacles to further growth.”  At the same time, survivalists have built bomb shelters, amassed stockpiles of food, ammunition, batteries and other gear, and have practiced survival skills.  Suddenly, the latter group looks a little less wacky and the economists seem a bit humbled.  Mankind is not clever enough to overcome all obstacles to growth because, in a finite world, it’s impossible for so many reasons that they can’t even be listed.  Try as we might to keep growing the population, nature will find a way to restore balance in ways that we can’t even imagine, and likely with consequences too horrible to contemplate.

We’d better learn these lessons, because next time it could be much worse.  Though this virus is very contagious and much deadlier than the flu, it’s not as deadly as it could be.  In 1918, the Spanish flu killed approximately 50 million people at a time when the world’s population was just 3 billion.  In 2003, the SARS virus killed 10% of the people it infected.  Luckily, SARS was only contagious when it when symptoms became obvious, making it easy to identify and isolate those infected, which limited the number of cases to just over 8,000 world wide.  Then there’s ebola, a virus that kills half of everyone it infects.  Imagine if a virus emerged that was that lethal and was just as contagious as the novel coronavirus.  It could wipe out three billion people or more and threaten the very survival of mankind.  It might be a hundred years from now.  It might be tomorrow.  But fail to learn these lessons from this virus, and that’s what’s going to happen.

 

 

 


“Phase 1” China trade deal off to a really bad start

March 7, 2020

You’d think that if China liked the “Phase 1” trade deal that it signed with the Trump administration in early January, and the hope for tariff relief that it offered in the future, that China would have gone out of its way to demonstrate a good faith effort in its first month.  It did just the opposite.  To say that it didn’t meet its quotas for imports from the U.S. would be an understatement.  I suspected that China never had any intention of complying with this agreement.  They already got what they wanted – a reprieve from any further tariffs and a return to the status quo trade relationship with the U.S. – one in which it protects its massive trade surplus.  So I promised to track China’s progress in complying (or not) with the agreement.  The trade data for the month of January was released yesterday by the Commerce Department.  So here we go.

First of all, a little background is in order.  What did China agree to in this “Phase 1” deal?  They agreed to meet four major milestones in terms of importing U.S. goods and services in the years 2020 and 2021, with the objective of reducing China’s trade surplus with the U.S.  The goals use 2017 as a baseline.  Here are they are:  Phase 1 China Trade Deal Goals.

These goals weren’t broken down into monthly goals, but it was made clear to the Chinese that the U.S. would be tracking progress toward meeting these goals and would quickly call out China if they fail to demonstrate progress.  It would be reasonable to expect that China would gradually ramp up its imports of U.S. products such that by the end of 2020 they would have met the goals for the year as a whole.  Therefore, I’ve broken down the annual goals into monthly goals that ramp up in a linear fashion to meet the annual goals.  For example, in order the meet the goal for their purchases of U.S. manufactured goods – $121.1 billion for 2020, starting from a baseline of $88.2 billion in 2017, which is $7.35 billion per month – China needed to import $7.772 billion in January, $8.194 billion in February, $8.616 billion in March, and so on, in order to reach $121.1 billion by the end of the year.

The results are in for January.  China failed to meet the goal for each category of products, and not by a little.  Here’s the results (in billions of dollars):

Category                     January Goal            January Actual

Manf’d Goods                 $7.772                          $5.597

Energy Products              $0.995                           $0.276

Agriculture Products       $2.16                             $0.944

Total Goods                     $10.921                         $7.215

Monthly data for services exports to China isn’t available.

In each case, China’s imports of American products not only didn’t meet the goals, but declined from the 2017 baseline levels.  One month’s worth of data isn’t enough to pass judgment yet on whether or not China is failing to live up to the “Phase 1” deal, since monthly figures vary up and down.  Like I said at the beginning, however, you’d think that China would want to get off on the right foot.  If I were Trump, I’d review the data through March (which isn’t released until May) and then warn China if their imports are lagging.  Three months later, I’d scrap the “Phase 1” deal and reinstate all tariffs that had been planned prior to its signing.  Hopefully, at that point, Trump will have learned a lesson about making any further trade deals with China.  There is simply no way that China will voluntarily reduce its trade surplus with the U.S.  Tariffs are the only way to make that happen.