How Population Density Drives Trade Imbalances

June 15, 2020

Now that an analysis of America’s 2019 trade results has revealed that population density is the biggest factor in driving our trade imbalance – just as we’ve seen in every year previous – it’s time for an explanation of how that happens.  How is it that something that seems so unrelated to the economy and trade can have such a dramatic effect, dwarfing the effect of other parameters that would seem to be more influential – things like wages, currency exchange rates, productivity and so on?

Population density is, by far and away, the single most dominant parameter in the field of economics, but one that goes unrecognized by economists because of their cowardly refusal to give any consideration to the subject.  The reason for that dates back to the mocking of economists by other academics in the wake of the seeming failure of the theories of economist Malthus regarding population growth.

The density of the population in which you live has an enormous impact on your ability to consume products.  That impact varies depending on the product in question.  In the case of food, there’s no impact at all.  Everyone needs to consume a certain amount of calories each day to survive.   At the other end of the spectrum, the impact on the consumption of housing, or dwelling space, is huge.  For example, the average citizen in Japan – a nation ten times more densely populated than the U.S. – lives in a dwelling space that’s less than one third the size of the average American.  When people are packed together so tightly, there’s simply no room for anything else.  So the average Japanese citizen’s consumption of everything used in building, furnishing and maintaining a home is less than one third of the average American’s.  Actually, it’s even worse than that when you realize that a much greater percentage of Japanese families occupy multi-family housing, like apartments.  In those cases, walls and foundations are shared, ceilings become floors for the apartment above, etc.

The effect on every single product you can imagine is to reduce its per capita consumption.  Cars?  There’s no room to drive or park them for most people in Japan.  You’ve all seen news stories of Japanese trains carrying commuters literally packed together so tightly that they can barely breathe.

Boats?  In spite of the fact that Japan is an island nation, their per capita consumption of boats is close to zero.  The same is true for Denmark, a nation consisting of one large peninsula and many islands, but which is also very densely populated.

Lawn care and gardening equipment?  On a per capita basis, lawns and gardens virtually don’t exist in Japan.  Sporting goods?  There’s little room for golf or tennis or anything else that requires much real estate.  Even things like electronics are affected, since such cramped quarters as you find in places like Japan force people to share them.

So you get the idea.  A dense population absolutely strangles per capita consumption.  On the other hand, when someone in Japan (or China, or Germany, or South Korea, or any densely populated nation) goes to work, they are every bit as productive as an American worker.  It takes no more or less labor to manufacture something, like a car, for example, in Japan than it does in America.

People make things and people buy things and that, in a nutshell, is what makes an economy tick.  But what happens if people aren’t able to buy as much as they’re able to make?  Now you have a situation where the supply and demand for labor are out-of-balance.  Less demand for labor translates into higher unemployment.  Higher unemployment means lower wages for everyone, and it necessitates greater government spending to provide a safety net for the unemployed.  It’s a recipe for disaster for any nation’s economy.

However, there’s an escape mechanism for nations that find themselves in this fix.  They can put their excess labor capacity to work making products for export.  Of course, that requires a trading partner who’s willing to share their market.  If that partner has a shortage of labor – perhaps because they are very sparsely populated and lack the labor force needed to manufacture everything they need – then it can be a beneficial situation, one that is likely financed by the sparsely populated nation selling natural resources like food, oil, lumber, minerals, etc. to the densely populated partner.

But what if that trading partner isn’t sparsely populated and has no shortage of labor?  To welcome imports from that densely populated nation will inevitably put its own people out of work and create a big trade deficit.  It’s absolutely inescapable.  The densely populated nation won’t buy products from the less densely populated nation in equal measure because they can’t even consume their own domestic manufacturing capacity, much less take in more from other countries.

Either a densely populated nation sustains its economy by manufacturing for export, or it lapses into abject poverty because of extreme unemployment.  Look around the world and you’ll see that this is true, although I should point out that there are a couple of exceptions.  Many small island nations, though they tend to be densely populated, maintain vibrant economies that are based on tourism.  And some small but densely populated nations have oceans of oil beneath their feet and trade that oil for all the other products its citizens require.  But these are the exceptions.  Any densely populated nation of any size is either dirt poor or is totally dependent on manufacturing for export.   Attempting to trade freely with such nations is economic suicide.  A big trade deficit and a loss of manufacturing jobs is inevitable.

What is the point of trade policy that only serves to erode our economy?  The purpose of trade is to make available products that can’t be obtained domestically.  For a nation like the U.S. – big and rich in resources – there isn’t much we need.  Tropical fruits, out-of-season produce, and a few rare minerals are examples.  But manufactured products?  There are none that we can’t make domestically and more efficiently, especially when you factor in the five billion barrels of oil burned annually by ships bringing in products from half-way around the world.  It makes absolutely no sense.

Tariffs are the only remedy available to maintain a balance of trade.  Trade deals don’t work, because there is no motivation for a nation dependent on manufacturing for export to abide by them.  The reduction in the trade deficit with China is proof that they work.  Those tariffs need to be expanded to include all Chinese imports, not just half of them like we have now.  Beyond that, their implementation needs to be spread to other densely populated nations that prey on the American market to sustain their bloated labor forces – Germany, South Korea, Ireland, Vietnam and other Asian and European nations.

Virtually every problem in America, beyond unemployment and low wages, in which a lack of funding is a factor, can ultimately be traced back to our trade deficit – inadequate funding of schools, neglected infrastructure maintenance and improvements, inner city blight, health care – the list can go on and on.  Ultimately, the federal budget deficit and national debt can be attributed to the federal spending needed to offset the financial drain of the trade deficit.

And still economists keep their heads in the sand and insist that population growth plays no role in economics.


Trade Deficits Not Caused by Low Wages

May 19, 2020

In my previous posts, we’ve seen that trade imbalances are caused by disparities in population density, and that low wages don’t appear to be a factor at all.  To prove the point, let’s now look at America’s trade with the 20 poorest nations on earth and contrast that with it’s trade with the 20 wealthiest nations.  Surely, if low wages cause trade imbalances, we’ll have big trade deficits with the poorest nations where wages are the lowest.  Here’s the list:  trade with 20 poorest nations, 2019.

As you can see, if anything, the U.S. tends to have a very tiny surplus of trade with such nations, not a deficit.  The reason for the surplus is foreign aid.  All aid is booked as exports.  The fact is that the U.S. essentially engages in no trade whatsoever with these poor nations.

Now look at U.S. trade with the 20 wealthiest nations:  trade with 20 richest nations, 2019.  Now we do see some trade deficits – some big ones – with Ireland, Switzerland, Denmark, Taiwan, Sweden, Germany and Austria, in that order.  Ireland and Switzerland – the two nations on this list with whom the U.S. has the biggest trade deficits per capita – are actually wealthier than the U.S.  The others aren’t far behind.

How can this be?  If companies move manufacturing offshore in search of the lowest cost of labor, why do we have virtually no trade at all with the poorest nations, and have massive trade deficits with some of the richest?  Look again at the list of the wealthiest nations.  The average population density of those nations with whom we have deficits is 565 people/square mile – six times more densely populated than the U.S.  The rest of the list is a mish-mash of oil exporters, low population density countries, and a couple – the Netherlands and Belgium – that, as we previously established, are anomalies because of how imports and exports are booked for those countries.

If anything, these two lists prove that there is a relationship between wages and trade imbalance, but the cause and effect is exactly the opposite of what you’ve been told.  Low wages don’t cause trade deficits.  Trade deficits cause high wages.  It only makes sense.  Manufacturing creates a high demand for labor which drives wages up.  Any nation whose economy has a strong manufacturing sector is going to be a wealthy nation.  It may start out as a poor nation, but quickly grows in wealth as its manufacturing sector grows.

Trade imbalances are determined by whether or not a nation’s manufacturing output is absorbed by its domestic economy, or whether it is dependent on growing its manufacturing sector beyond that point in order to gainfully employ its labor force.  We’ll more fully explore what causes that situation in an upcoming post.

 


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.


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.

 

 


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.


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.

 

 

 


No More Trade Deals, No More WTO

February 29, 2020

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trade/ustr-vows-to-push-for-trade-deals-with-britain-eu-seeks-reforms-at-wto-idUSKCN20M3BN

As reported in the above-linked article, the Trump administration continues to pursue more trade deals, with Britain, the European Union and now Kenya.  With his background in wheeling and dealing on real estate, Trump sees deal-making as the way to dig the U.S. out of the deep trade deficit pit it has fallen into.  Yes, I know, “digging” isn’t the way to escape from a hole.  It only makes the hole deeper.  That’s kind of the point I’m trying to make.  Trade deals are what got us into our trade mess in the first place, including the worst deal of all – the deal with the rest of the world to set up the World Trade Organization to oversee the whole process.

The whole point of a trade deal is to coerce another country into concessions (things they don’t like), using concessions of our own (things we don’t like) as the motivation.  Then what happens?  Being the global “nice guys,” we live up to our promises – the concessions we made – while the other side doesn’t.  We cajole them about their failures to live up to their side of the bargain.  They promise to re-double their efforts.  Months go by.  Still nothing happens.  Months turn into years.  The trade deal that was initially hailed as a “big win for American workers” instead yields a massive, persistent trade deficit and the dismantling of the manufacturing sector of our economy.

Why do we need trade deals?  Just tell us what you have for sale.  We’ll then decide if we want to buy it and how much we’ll buy.  We’ll reciprocate.  Here’s what we have for sale and here’s the price.  Buy it if you want.  But if you don’t buy from us as much as we buy from you, we’ll use tariffs to assure that a balance is maintained.

You want to sell us avocados?  Or coffee?  Fine.  We won’t put any tariff on them because we’re not able to grow them ourselves.  But you want to sell us a car?  We already have companies making and selling cars – more than we know what to do with.  So we’ll put a high tariff on your cars, unless you’re able to buy just as many from us.  That kind of seems pointless though, doesn’t it?

And we certainly don’t need a “World Trade Organization” setting rules to advance their own agenda.  The Trump administration is pushing the WTO to reform and end its practice of protecting developing countries like China at the expense of the U.S., and stubbornly insisting on “free” trade with other developed countries like those of the EU – countries whose gross overpopulation assures a trade deficit for the U.S. – even after decades of proof that a massive, destabilizing trade imbalance is inevitable.  Why bother?  We don’t need the WTO.  What can they do if they don’t like our tariffs?  They can authorize other countries to raise tariffs of their own, which is what they may or may not do anyway, regardless of whether or not the WTO even exists.  So the WTO really serves no purpose whatsoever, other than to suck funding from the American economy to support its endless meetings – meetings whose only purpose is to invent new ways to divide up the American market for the benefit of other countries.

Case in point:  Trump was having great success in cutting our trade deficit with China through the use of tariffs until he signed the “Phase 1” trade deal with them last month – a deal that had essentially been in place for months already, just awaiting the formality of the signing.  As a result, all of the momentum toward restoring a balance of trade with China has been lost.  The trade deficit status quo with China has been restored, albeit at a slightly lower level, and for what?  Chinese promises  – the same promises they’ve reneged on for years.  We’ve once again ceded control of the trade situation to China.

Another example:  the “USMCA” agreement with Mexico and Canada – supposedly an improvement over the NAFTA deal that devastated American manufacturing almost as badly as our trade situation with China.  What’s been the result?  Since Trump was elected, our trade deficit with Mexico continues to spiral out of control, and it’ll be years before anyone can say definitively that the USMCA agreement didn’t work.  (Anything less than a balance of trade with Mexico is a failure.)  The USMCA agreement eliminated the threat of tariffs on Mexico and put Mexico back in the driver’s seat of the trade relationship.

Throughout all of this deal-making for the past three years, the trade deficit declined slightly in 2019, and that decline was thanks to tariffs and not any deals.  The trade deficit remains enormous, leaving the manufacturing sector on life support and leaving us more vulnerable to recession and supply disruptions, something that’s becoming painfully obvious as the coronavirus problem worsens and we discover that we’re dependent on China for our supply of protective clothing and for pharmaceuticals to combat it.

President Trump, please, no more trade deals.  Kiss the WTO goodbye and put the U.S. Trade Representative’s office to work setting an managing tariffs.

 


Is the “Phase 1” trade deal with China a bad deal?

January 20, 2020

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trade-china-details-factbox/whats-in-the-u-s-china-phase-1-trade-deal-idUSKBN1ZE2IF

The above-linked Reuters article provides a breakdown in basic terms of what’s included in the “Phase 1” trade deal with China.  To make it easier to understand – and in preparation for tracking progress – I’ve created this spreadsheet, which shows what China has agreed to in terms of boosting its imports from the U.S.  Phase 1 China Trade Deal.

In addition, China agreed to:

… stronger Chinese legal protections for patents, trademarks, copyrights, including improved criminal and civil procedures to combat online infringement, pirated and counterfeit goods.

…  follow through on previous pledges to eliminate any pressure for foreign companies to transfer technology to Chinese firms

… refrain from directly supporting outbound investment aimed at acquiring foreign technology

… refrain from competitive currency devaluations

China’s retaliatory Dec. 15 tariffs, including a 25% tariff on U.S.-made autos, have been suspended.

So what did the U.S. give up in return?

… will cut by half the tariff rate it imposed on Sept 1. on a $120 billion list of Chinese goods, to 7.5%.

Tariffs that were scheduled to go into effect on Dec. 15 on nearly $160 billion worth of Chinese goods, including cellphones, laptop computers, toys and clothing, are suspended indefinitely.

That’s the deal in a nutshell.  On the surface, it sounds like a good deal, boosting exports by $200 billion per year.  But don’t be fooled.  This deal rolls back some existing tariffs and suspends new tariffs – tariffs that were making rapid progress toward restoring a balance of trade with China – in exchange for nothing more than promises, and China has a long history of breaking its trade promises.  China got exactly what it wanted – time – more time to continue business as usual.

With this deal, the U.S. is once again trying to export its way out of its massive trade deficit.  It’s similar to the vow that Obama made in January of 2010 to double export within five years.  It didn’t happen.  Not even close.  It’s impossible to export your way out of a trade deficit with nations whose gross over-crowding makes them utterly dependent on manufacturing for export to sustain their bloated labor forces.  And that’s China, among others.

Aside from their promise to boost imports, that promise about protecting intellectual property has been made many times before.  It’s untrackable and meaningless.  And currency manipulation?  The data proves that trade deficits have nothing to do with currency valuation.

The only hope is that the Trump administration will be more diligent than previous administrations in holding China’s feet to the fire, returning to the use of tariffs when China fails to meet its commitments.  China’s betting they won’t, and that future administrations will roll over like previous administrations.

I’ll begin tracking China’s progress on meeting its import commitments (or lack thereof) beginning with the January trade data, which isn’t released until March.


Case Study on Shifting Production Out of China

January 15, 2020

https://www.fidelity.com/news/article/top-news/202001140706RTRSNEWSCOMBINED_KBN1ZD1FV-OUSBS_1

The above-linked article provides an interesting example of a small company trying to move production out of China to avoid the tariffs.  This is a low volume, niche bicycle company.  Some of the points made in the article merit comment:

After months of research and several trips, a small Taiwanese factory agreed to make his bikes but he had to triple orders and pay 30% of the cost of goods up front, unlike in China where he paid upon delivery.

The new terms locked up as much as $1 million of working capital until the bikes were shipped and required a new credit line. After a year of toil, State Bicycle managed to shift production of only two of its five models which are sold in the United States.

Let’s step back and take a look at this situation.  Bear in mind, we’re talking about bicycles here.  Bicycles are not terribly sophisticated nor difficult to make.  The biggest components – the frame and the handlebars – are nothing more than bent and welded tubing.  Tools to bend and weld tubing are readily available at low cost right here in the U.S.  Beyond that, we’re talking about rims, hubs, spokes, sprockets, bearings, axles, chain, a seat, tires and little else.  The million dollars of working capital and the money spent on those trips to Taiwan could have easily purchased the tooling to make those parts right here.  How much sense did it make to spend months of globe-trotting like a chicken with your head cut off, and all that money?

In a move to help bicycle companies, the Trump administration has been granting tariff exclusions to some of their imports since September. The relief, however, is only for a year and is meant to give them more time to move production – ideally to the United States.

Therein lies a big part of the problem.  Companies believe the tariffs won’t hold and can just wait them out.  Eat the tariffs for a year or so and avoid the cost of moving production.  Trump’s use of tariffs has been far too timid and too narrowly focused on China.  Why only focus on China when, in per capita terms, other countries’ trade surpluses with the U.S. are much larger?

Don DiCostanzo, chief executive officer of Pedego Electric Bikes https://www.pedegoelectricbikes.com in California, said higher labor costs and the absence of a viable supply base have made it “virtually impossible” to assemble bikes in the United States.

Seriously?!?!?  Again, we’re talking about bicycles here.  We build cars, trucks and airplanes in the U.S.  Are we to believe that the simple parts I’ve listed above can’t be sourced in the U.S.?  Most any half-competent machine shop, of which there are thousands in the U.S., could quickly produce those parts.  With a little effort, Pedego could set up shop and make them themselves.  Yes, labor costs would be a little higher, but not that much, and they’d be offset by far lower shipping costs.

In the 1970s, the United States assembled more than 15 million bicycles a year. Now it makes fewer than 500,000, according to industry data presented to the United States Trade Representative (USTR) in 2018. By contrast, China made about 95% of the 17 million bikes sold in 2018, U.S. Census data showed.

OK, wait a minute.  This paragraph just refuted the whole premise of this article – that there’s no supplier base and labor costs are too high to build bicycles in the U.S.  Now we learn that somebody is actually building a half million of them in the U.S.  Obviously there actually are sources available for the parts and bikes can be built and sold here at a profit.

Pedego Electric Bikes said it didn’t have any difficulty finding a factory in Vietnam because it was among the first companies to move there. But it faced other challenges.

It had to bring in workers from China to train local staff. Batteries had to be sourced from Japan or Korea and tires from Malaysia. “We had to set up the supply chain,” DiCostanzo said. “That was perhaps the most frustrating part.”

They had to bring workers in from China to train the Vietnamese?  Why didn’t Pedego train them themselves?  It’s likely because Pedego laid off everyone in the company who actually knew how to manufacture bicycles when they moved to China in the first place.  Personally, I’d be ashamed to market bicycles that I didn’t even know how to make.  Nor would I want to buy one from a company who knew so little about their own product.

“It is very difficult to get out of China,” said Alex Logemann at U.S. industry association PeopleForBikes https://peopleforbikes.org.

Baloney.  They had no problem getting into China when it was an undeveloped backwater of rice farmers and little else.  Getting setting up somewhere else, especially in the U.S., should be far easier.

By the way, I own two bicycles myself – both of them Schwinn.  The oldest, a Schwinn Continental that I bought in 1971, is a beautiful bike that was built in the U.S.  While somewhat crude by today’s standards, it was one of the finest bikes you could buy back then and it’s my favorite.  The newer one I received as a gift and it’s a nice bike, but it saddened me when I learned that it was built overseas.

When I first read this article, I was rooting for these companies to figure out a way to set up shop in the U.S.  I think I’ve changed my mind.  Frankly, I hope they all fail, making it that much easier for those companies who are currently building those half million American-made bikes to flourish and grow.  Nearly every bike sold in the U.S. was American-made at one time.  It could be that way again.