Just Use Tariffs

April 16, 2021

https://www.fidelity.com/news/article/top-news/202104130705RTRSNEWSCOMBINED_KBN2C01AL-OUSBS_1

The above-linked article is an interesting case study of the challenges involved in bringing manufacturing back to the U.S. The product in question is a semiconductor – a “chip” – that is in such short supply that it has forced the shutdown of some auto production in the U.S. The Biden administration is looking at ways to break our dependence on imported semiconductors.

Oddly, the article begins with what seems to be an American manufacturer – On Semiconductor – supplying chips to to Hyundai in South Korea, perhaps because the Reuters author, Hyunjoo Jin, is herself Korean. You’d think that Reuters could find some American to write about the actual subject of the article – the challenges Biden faces in bringing chip manufacturing back to the states – but apparently they couldn’t. Maybe we first need to begin by bringing news reporting back to the U.S.? But I digress.

Never mind all that. The point of the article is the complex supply chain engaged in delivering a semiconductor chip to an auto manufacturer that could just as easily be General Motors in Detroit as Hyundai in South Korea. The author chronicles the myriad of steps that begins in Italy and makes its way through Taiwan, Singapore and China, just to name a few. So it’s not just a matter of building a chip factory here. It would require a daisy-chain of factories to turn silicon wafers into the actual semiconductor chips. So the Biden administration is faced with subsidizing a whole array of industries to entice them to move manufacturing to the U.S. It’s enough to make your head spin. The article concludes with “Simply throwing money at this does not solve the problem. It is a more complex problem.”

Moving that supply chain back to the U.S. is certainly a very complex problem. Negotiating subsidies with a dozen or more companies to entice them to make such a move would be difficult enough, not to mention expensive for American taxpayers, if that’s the approach that the government is considering. But there’s another much simpler solution – one so simple that it would require little more than the stroke of Biden’s pen. All he has to do is sign an executive order to levy tariffs on all manufactured products from the countries responsible for our twenty largest trade deficits. Each of the countries mentioned in this article as being involved in this supply chain – China, Taiwan, Singapore (a small city-state located in Malaysia) and Italy – are on that list, responsible for our largest, ninth largest, tenth largest and eleventh largest trade deficits respectively.

Here’s what would happen. Eager to mitigate the tariff, GM (for example) would soon move the final step in that process, the manufacturing of the chip, to a new plant in the U.S., perhaps as a subsidiary. Other potential suppliers like Japan, Vietnam, Mexico or others wouldn’t be viable options since they too are on the tariff list.

Next, that new GM chip-making subsidiary, eager to avoid tariffs on its supplies from Taiwan, would soon implement plans to develop a supplier in the U.S. Once established, that company in turn would soon make plans to source its silicon wafers from a new plant in the U.S. instead of from Italy.

The Biden administration, and whatever administrations succeed it, would barely have to lift a finger to make it happen and it wouldn’t cost American taxpayers one penny in higher taxes. Would it raise the price of semiconductors and, consequently, the price of new cars? Sure, but not much. A few bucks at the most. But, in terms of your purchasing power, they’d actually be cheaper when you factor in the upward pressure on wages – your wages – as the result of the demand for labor from this whole new U.S.-based semiconductor supply chain.

There are two elements of a tariff plan that would be critical to making it effective. First of all, by targeting those twenty nations that are responsible for our biggest trade deficits, the tariffs would eliminate from consideration all those grossly overpopulated nations with bloated labor forces who prey on the American economy. When Trump enacted tariffs on Chinese products, suppliers simply moved their operations to some other such country like Vietnam or Mexico. Those wouldn’t be viable options if moving there failed to eliminate the tariffs.

Secondly, the tariffs must be applied to all manufactured products from those countries. Why? Because otherwise, making our autos more expensive would put them at a disadvantage to autos imported from those countries, but not if those imported autos are subject to the same tariffs. For example, suppose that the tariff is 50%. That tariff might raise the price of an American car by 25%, let’s say. But you’d still opt for the American car if cars from Mexico, Japan, Korea, China, Italy, etc. are priced 50% higher. Now we’re not talking about just cars, but every single manufactured product you can imagine. The manufacturing of every one of them would come back to the U.S. since American-made products would then be the cheaper option for American buyers.

By the way, there’s another factor to consider here. If you’re a globalist, you may be turned off by a proposal that seems “protectionist.” But if you are a globalist, you’re probably also a person who’s concerned about the environment. In all of the talk about fossil fuels and CO2 emissions, you never, ever hear mention of the role of the global supply chain in “fueling” the problem. Did you know that the ships that transport manufactured goods back and forth across oceans and around the globe, goods that could just as easily be made locally, burn five billion barrels of oil per year? Think about that. If the Biden administration really wants to have an impact on climate change, implementing this tariff plan is probably the best place to start.


America’s Best Trade Partners

April 9, 2021

In my last couple of posts, we’ve seen that, once again, in 2020, America’s worst trade deficits, in both absolute and in per capita terms, were with very densely populated countries. There seemed to be a clear link between population density and balance of trade. If there is such a link, then we should find the opposite effect at the other end of the spectrum. We should find that our biggest trade surpluses are with more sparsely populated countries.

Here’s the data – America’s biggest trade surpluses in manufactured goods in 2020. At first glance, the population density effect doesn’t seem as clear on this list. Half of these nations are less densely populated than the U.S. Among the other half, some are actually far more densely populated. There’s something else going on here. Note that I’ve highlighted in yellow six nations that are net oil exporters. This is important because the U.S. is virtually assured of having a trade surplus in manufactured goods with oil exporters, even if the U.S. itself imports very little oil from those nations. Why? Because all oil, worldwide, is priced in U.S. dollars. When an oil exporter like Saudi Arabia, for example, sells a barrel of oil, they’re paid in U.S. dollars. The only other place where U.S. dollars can be spent is in the United States. So Saudi Arabia then has no choice but to use those dollars to purchase American goods.

There are three very densely populated nations on the list – The Netherlands, Belgium and Guatemala – that can’t be explained away as oil exporters. The first two – The Netherlands and Belgium – are tiny adjoining nations who take advantage of their geographic advantage as the only seaport on Europe’s Atlantic coast to be ports of entry for U.S. goods for much of Europe.

Strip away the above effects of the oil trade and the role of The Netherlands and Belgium as ports of entry, and the effect of population density becomes clear once again. The average population density of this list is 265 people / square mile – high, but less than half that of the nations that comprise our twenty worst deficits. Also, the average is grossly exaggerated by the presence of very tiny nations on the list. The population density of this group of twenty nations, as a composite, is only 46 people / square mile. Compare that to the composite density of the twenty nations with whom we have our worst trade deficits – 499 people / square mile, more than ten times greater.

How about economists’ claim that it’s low wages that drive trade imbalances? That theory is debunked by this list of our trade surpluses, just as it was by the list of our trade deficits. The average purchasing power parity (or “PPP”) on this list is actually about $5,000 lower the average of the nations with whom we have our worst deficits – not a big difference, but it’s actually the opposite of what the low wage theory would predict. Whether our trade partners are rich or poor has absolutely no impact on our balance of trade.

Finally, there’s data in this list that should be cause for alarm. Over the past ten years, our average surplus with these nations has shrunk by 34% while our average deficit with the twenty nations who make up our worst deficits has grown by 113%. Our manufacturing sector has been so canibalized by the densely populated nations of the world that there is increasingly little left for others to buy from us. The manufacturing sector of our economy is on the brink of collapse. This may be the greatest existential threat that our country faces. We got a taste of it during the Covid pandemic when we found ourselves at the mercy of foreign suppliers for virtually everything, including the simplest of things like face masks and gowns and more complex items like respirators. How long could we sustain ourselves in a crisis like a war when our foreign suppliers could simply cut off our supplies of virtually every manufactured product? Even as I write this our auto plants are idled by a shortage of imported semiconductors.

As we did on the deficit end of the spectrum, we’ll next look at a list of the twenty nations who, in per capita terms (man-for-man) are our best trading partners.


America’s Worst Trade Deficits in 2020

March 29, 2021

Many people – perhaps most – have little understanding of the economic impact of the balance of foreign trade. The best way I can explain it is to use your own checking account as an example. If more money is drawn out of your account than the income that goes into it, then you’re steadily getting poorer and, if kept up long enough, you’ll eventually be broke. Until you reach that point, you create an illusion of prosperity by buying more than you can afford, but it’s just that – an illusion. Your day of reckoning – of financial ruin – is fast approaching.

The United States, just like every other nation, has a national account that’s very much like your checking account. Influxes of money, like income taxes, other federal taxes, tariffs on imports and the money collected from foreign entities for exported goods make us richer. Conversely, outflows are bad – like money spent by the federal government (for defense, domestic programs, etc.) and money spent on importing goods. Those make us poorer.

Therefore, our balance of trade with the rest of the world makes us either richer or poorer, depending on whether it’s a surplus or a deficit. And we’re not just talking about red numbers on some obscure balance sheet deep within the Department of Treasury. A trade deficit hits you directly in the wallet. For every $50,000 increase in the trade deficit, another American’s job is lost. If it wasn’t your job, you’re still hit in the wallet when an ever-growing number of unemployed compete for your job and put downward pressure on your wages. Do the math. Since our last balance of trade in 1975, the deficit in manufactured goods has grown by $1 trillion. Divided by $50,000, that’s a loss of 20 million high-paying manufacturing jobs. The downward pressure on wages has been enormous.

With all that said, let’s take a look at how we did in 2020. Each year I think to myself that America’s trade picture couldn’t get worse, but each year it does. The year 2020 was no different. If anything, our downward spiral accelerated. Our deficit in manufactured goods came in at $911 billion, blowing past the “old” record of $831 billion set only one year earler. Which countries were our worst trading partners? Here’s the list: America’s 20 worst trade deficits in 2020.

First of all, look at the total deficit for these twenty countries. It was $1.001 trillion. That’s more than America’s trade deficit with the entire world. In fact, our entire trade deficit is due to our deficit with only the top twelve nations on this list. Think about that. Take away those twelve nations, and the U.S. enjoys a balance of trade with the other 216 nations of the world.

Now look more closely at the list. It’s no surprise to see China at the top. They’ve been there for at least the last fifteen years. What is a surprise is that the deficit with China fell precipitously in 2020, from a record high of $416 billion in 2018. Why? Because of the 25% tariffs that the Trump administration imposed on half of all Chinese imports. It’s proof that tariffs work.

Unfortunately, those tariffs on Chinese imports also explain, at least in part, the explosive growth in the deficit with other nations, most notably Vietnam. Companies scrambled to move their manufacturing operations out of China to avoid the tariffs. Trump should have applied the tariffs to these other countries as well, leaving companies no alternative but to bring their manufacturing back to America.

Note that most of the nations on this list are actually quite wealthy, high-wage nations, on a par with the U.S. (Ireland and Switzerland are even wealthier.) This casts doubt on economists’ claim that low wages are the driving force behind trade deficits. So if low wages don’t drive trade imbalances, what does? The list includes nations both very large and very small, and nations from Europe, Asia and Central America. Is there something that these nations have in common – something that should be factored into our trade policy to return us to a balance of trade?

Indeed there is. Look at the population density of the nations on this list and note that all but one (Sweden) are more densely populated than the United States, which has a population density of 94 people per square mile. Most are far more densely populated. The average population density of the nations on this list is six times greater than the U.S. There clearly seems to be a relationship between population density and balance of trade. But why? What is it that makes people who live in more crowded conditions poor trade partners for the United States?

We need to look at this more deeply. We need to factor out other variables, like the sheer size of nations, which puts China at the top of this list with a deficit three times bigger than the next nation on the list – Mexico – which is only one tenth the size of China in terms of population. In my next post, we’ll sort the nations of the world by population density and see how their balance of trade with the U.S. stacks up.


Biden “inherits” record trade deficit. Will he do anything about it?

February 8, 2021

The trade data released by the Commerce Department last week marked another sad milestone in America’s economic decline. The December balance of trade in manufactured goods set another new record -$87.3 billion – beating the previous record set only one month earlier. That’s an annualized deficit of $1.05 trillion and represents a loss of approximately fourteen million high-paying manufacturing jobs.

2020, the final year of Trump’s presidency, was by far the worst on record in terms of the trade deficit. In the title of this post, the word “inherits” is in quotation marks because while he now takes over that deficit from Trump, the truth is that Biden has played a key role in creating and exacerbating the deficit his entire adult life as a champion of globalist policies. He joined the U.S. senate in 1973. In 1975, America sadly experienced its final trade surplus, and has run an ever-growing deficit for the past forty-four years. He didn’t just “inherit” this problem. He played a key role in creating it, and it’s impossible to over-estimate the devastation done to our economy and to working Americans.

What will he do about it? Not a damn thing. His corporate benefactors, seeing more potential for profit growth in overseas markets than in the mature U.S. economy, have been paying him for decades to facilitate the transfer of America’s wealth and the export of American manufacturing jobs. He pays lip service to revitalizing American manufacturing, but that’s all it is.

Impeach Trump for inciting the Capitol building riot? Perhaps Biden should be impeached for his lifetime of work fomenting the unrest in this country that created the fertile ground for Trump’s rhetoric to take root.


Time to Leave the World Trade Organization

September 16, 2020

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trade-china-wto/wto-finds-washington-broke-trade-rules-by-putting-tariffs-on-china-ruling-angers-u-s-idUSKBN2662FG

As reported in the above-linked article, the World Trade Organization has announced its finding that the U.S. broke its rules when it imposed tariffs on Chinese imports two years ago.

The timing of this announcement is curious.  Of course the U.S. broke the rules.  Everyone knew it at the time.  Trump didn’t care.  It was the only way to make any progress on halting the explosion in the trade deficit with China.  So why wait until now?  Is it because Trump faces re-election in less than two months, running against a candidate who played a big role in the advancement of the globalism that the WTO enforces?

The WTO is the enforcer of the ill-conceived trade scheme hatched in the wake of World War II to bring the world together by employing the unproven concept of “free” trade.  Decades later, the results are in and “free” trade is now a proven failure.  Instead of lifting all economies of the world and bringing the world together through an inter-dependency, the WTO has destabilized the world by establishing a host-parasite relationship between reasonably-populated nations, like the U.S., and the others – like China, so badly overpopulated that they are totally dependent on manufacturing for export and feeding off of America’s market.  The WTO is directly responsible for building up a totalitarian communist regime bent on dominating the rest of the world.

It’s time to put an end to this.  Trump can do it by simply withdrawing from the WTO, a move that would quickly lead to its collapse.  Let’s return to truly free trade, where every nation is free to set its own rules in its own best self-interest.


Trump’s Efforts on Trade a Spectacular Failure

September 9, 2020

I can’t tell you how disheartening it was to sift through the latest trade data, for the month of July, released by the Commerce Department late last week.  There’s just no getting around the fact that the administration’s efforts to cut the trade deficit and bring manufacturing back to the U.S. have failed.  “Failure” would be the word to describe results that haven’t shown any improvement.  But America’s trade picture has deteriorated so badly that the scope of the failure can only be described as “spectacular.”

In his inauguration address, Trump observed:

…  rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation …

Earlier in the address, regarding situations like that noted above, he proclaimed:

… That all changes – starting right here, and right now …

The July trade data comes 3-1/2 years into his administration – plenty of time to implement changes and to see the effects.  It’s hard to find any silver lining.  Consider:

  1. The trade deficit in manufactured goods in July soared to $80.4 billion, a new record that completely blows away the record set under the Obama administration ($63.3 billion in March, 2015).  Check out this chart:  Manf’d Goods Balance of Trade.
  2. During the 2016 campaign, Trump vowed to quickly tear up the NAFTA deal and replace it with a much better deal.  Most of his term has been wasted negotiating the new “USMCA” trade deal that replaces it.  It finally went into effect on July 1st of this year, but the terms have been known for a long time, so you’d expect that manufacturers would have been busy implementing plans to get in compliance.  The results?  In July, the trade deficit with Mexico soared to $10. 6 billion.  When Trump took office in January, 2017 it was $3.8 billion.  Since then it has nearly tripled.
  3. When Trump took office, the deficit with China was $31.4 billion.  In July of this year it was $31.6 billion.  After Trump took office, the deficit with China continued to grow until, finally fed up with China’s promises to buy more American products, Trump imposed 25% tariffs on half of all Chinese products.  Almost immediately, the deficit with China began to shrink dramatically.  However, all momentum was lost with the signing of the “Phase 1” deal with China, when the U.S. agreed to halt plans to impose tariffs on the remainder of China’s products in exchange for Chinese promises to dramatically increase their purchases of American goods.  The results were predictable; China reneged on the deal.  They haven’t even measured up to the 2017 baseline that was used as a starting point.  Here’s the data, updated through July:  Phase 1 China Trade Deal 2020 YTD.  What has Trump done in response?  Nothing.  He continues to insist it’s a good deal, in much the same way that Obama stuck by his trade deal with South Korea while our deficit with them exploded.
  4. What progress was made in at least stagnating the deficit with China didn’t translate into any benefit to American workers.  Instead, it contributed to the tripling of the debt with Mexico and also ballooned the debt with Vietnam.  When Trump took office, the trade deficit with Vietnam, an economic back-water, was $3.3 billion per month.  In July of this year it was more than doubled to $6.8 billion per month.  Why?  Because no tariffs were applied to anyone other than China.  The tariffs motivated manufacturers to begin moving out of China, but there was no disincentive to simply move to secondary suppliers in Mexico, Vietnam and other places.

Some might say that such conclusions are unfair in the midst of the pandemic.  Not so.  The effect of the pandemic has been to cut economic activity to a depression-like level, and the effect of an economic slow-down has always been to shrink the trade deficit, not grow it.  That makes the enormous deficit in manufactured goods in July even more troubling.

Speaking of the pandemic, at least people are beginning to realize that being dependent on foreign suppliers for critical goods like ventilators and face masks is a threat to national security.  It’d be nice if that realization extended to other products that would just as easily be cut off during war time.  Better yet, wouldn’t it be nice if people realized that an economy that needs to stand on agriculture, construction, manufacturing and services is hollowed out and unstable if one of those legs is gone?

I don’t doubt Trump’s desire to truly “make America great again” by bringing back our manufacturing sector.  But he sees himself as a “deal-maker” and believes he can deal his way out of the trade deficit.  That’s where the problem lies.  For America, at least, there’s no such thing as a good trade deal.  I defy anyone to identify a single trade deal that has ever left America with anything but a growing trade deficit.

And forget about “free trade.”  That centuries-old concept is about as relevant to today’s trade environment as theories about a flat earth and how the sun rotates around it.  Today, trade is war – a war for increasingly scarce jobs in an ever more over-populated world.  Unlike America, the rest of the world understand this.  They know that what they really need is access to America’s market so that they can keep their bloated populations employed manufacturing goods for export.  Americans don’t have a clue.  They think it’s about lower price and more choice.

Had Trump simply applied tariffs everywhere where America was suffering a big trade deficit in manufactured goods, manufacturers would have come running back like refugees fleeing a war.  Instead of improving incrementally, our economy would have exploded.  Manufacturers would have eagerly snapped up any workers who lost their jobs to closures of restaurants, bars, gyms, movie theaters, etc. during the pandemic.  Trump’s re-election would be a foregone conclusion.  Instead, he’s going to be lucky to win.  Forget about the pandemic.  It’s his failure to make progress on truly making America great again that has left him vulnerable.

Don’t interpret this post as an endorsement of Biden.  It’s reported in the news today that Trump has criticized Biden as a “globalist.”  He’s not wrong.  But it’s not just Biden.  Until Trump came along, every politician, Democrat and Republican alike, were and still are globalists.  I’d vote for Biden in a heartbeat if he vowed to use tariffs to restore a balance of trade, but he won’t.  Though the results under Trump have been disappointing, things could and would be much worse under virtually anyone else, at least until more American politicians are willing to engage in the trade war that they don’t even acknowledge today.

 

 

 

 


U.S. Fails to Enforce “Phase 1” China Trade Deal

August 27, 2020

https://www.fidelity.com/news/article/top-news/202008242045RTRSNEWSCOMBINED_KBN25L023-OUSBS_1

As reported in the above-linked article, with six months of results from the “Phase 1” trade deal with China now in, the U.S. has “rolled over” for China yet again, ignoring the Chinese snub of the deal.  The picture that accompanies the article, showing the flag of Red China flying above that of the U.S., is appropriate.  Red China dominates the U.S. in trade because it dominates the U.S. in terms of its willingness to stand up for itself.

In spite of the fact that China has not made one inch of progress toward meeting the goals of the deal – in fact, it’s not even measuring up to the 2017 baseline for purchasing American goods – the U.S. Trade Representative’s office had this to say following a phone discussion with Chinese trade leaders:

“Both sides see progress and are committed to taking the steps necessary to ensure the success of the agreement,”

Red China has won again.  It’s tactic of making trade deals and then completely ignoring them, knowing that the U.S. never follows through on anything, has worked again, just as it has for decades.  The Chinese are once again rolling in the aisles with laughter.

Is Trump on board with this?  Is this a move calculated to avoid roiling the markets just ahead of the election?  Is he saving a tough response, like imposing the new tariffs that this deal delayed, until just ahead of the election, calculating that it will win him votes before anyone even takes notice of a market decline?

I don’t know, but I do know that the lack of progress in cutting the trade deficit and bringing back American manufacturing jobs is a major reason behind the decline in enthusiasm for his re-election.  Revitalizing the manufacturing sector of the economy is the key ingredient needed to “Make America Great Again” and it’s difficult to see any progress at all on that front.


Verdict is in: “Phase 1” Trade Deal with China is a total failure.

August 6, 2020

Trade data for the month of June was released by the Department of Commerce yesterday, so we now have a full six months of results of the “Phase 1” trade deal with China.  As I predicted when the deal was signed in January, the deal is a total failure.

You may have heard stories in the news, as I did, about how the Chinese were beginning to make progress on catching up to the goals established by this deal.  I had my doubts, so I was anxious to see the real data.  Here it is, year-to-date through June:  Phase 1 China Trade Deal 2020 YTD.

The deal established goals for the Chinese import of American goods in four categories, using 2017 trade results as a baseline:  manufactured goods, energy goods (like oil, gas, coal, etc.), agriculture goods, and total goods.  The goal was for them to increase their imports substantially in 2020, and then even more in 2021.  In the spreadsheet, I broke down those goals into monthly goals, ramping them up at a rate that would meet those goals by the end of the year.

Through May, the results were abysmal.  They failed to meet the goal in any category of product.  In fact, only their import of energy products even exceeded the 2017 baseline.  You’d think that if China were anxious to meet the goals in order to avoid further threatened tariffs, they’d at least make some good faith effort that they could point to as progress.  So what happened in June?  Their imports actually declined in every category.  They didn’t even meet the 2017 baseline in a single category.

A good faith effort to show progress?  The June results are exactly the opposite.  They are a slap in the face.  The Chinese are taunting the Trump administration – betting that they’ll be too distracted with other events to take action.

It’s time to put an end to this stupid trade deal and follow through with the threatened 25% across-the-board tariffs on all Chinese exports to the U.S.  Trump was elected, in large part, to make real progress in cutting America’s trade deficit and bringing manufacturing back to the U.S.  Aside from tariffs on half of Chinese exports and a new trade deal to replace NAFTA, little has been accomplished.  All momentum on the trade front was killed when Trump signed the “Phase 1” deal with China.  Three-and-a-half years have been frittered away.  His supporters are getting disillusioned by the lack of progress.  If Trump loses the election, it will be due in large part to his failure to fix our trade mess.

There’s no more time to waste.  It’s time to declare this deal a failure and impose the tariffs that were put on hold.  In addition, it’s time for Trump to get serious with other Asian nations and the European Union as well.  Slap all of them with tariffs and start making real progress in bringing our manufacturing jobs back.


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.