Student Visas

February 24, 2017

The subject of student visas aggravates me as much as illegal immigration (although we’re finally getting some great news on that front).

Why?  “What’s the problem with student visas?” you might ask.  For most, the topic probably conjures up images of foreign exchange students coming to the U.S. to experience life here and return home to spread the news about what a great place the U.S. is and to help spread our value system around the world.  Or maybe you envision students coming here for an education that can be put to work back home in some underdeveloped country, helping to raise living standards there.  But the reality of the situation is nothing like this.  The student visa program boils down to money.  It’s a system designed to suck trade dollars back into the U.S. economy and to prop up inflated tuitions.

Let’s begin with some data.  Here are the statistics for non-immigrant visas issued from 2011 through 2015.  (The data for 2016 is not yet available.)  Student visas are primarily “F” visas.  “M” visas are for vocational students.  Taken together, they totaled nearly 700,000 in 2015.  These are “non-immigrant” visas, but don’t be fooled.  A large percentage of these students receive immigrant visas (leading to permanent status) almost automatically upon graduation.

Where do these students come from?  About 280,000 came from mainland China.  75,000 came from India.  28,000 came from Saudi Arabia.  27,000 came from South Korea.  17,600 came from Vietnam.  An equal number came from Mexico.  17,000 came from Japan.  The rest are spread across the remaining nations of the world.  The significance of this list will be discussed later.

To get an idea of what the student visa program is really about, take a look at this web site, which provides information for foreign students for how to apply:

What it boils down to is this:  you have to explain why you want to study in the U.S. and, more importantly, you have to prove that you can pay for it.  There’s no student loan program here, at least not through U.S. agencies.  If you can get scholarship money from your native country, fine, but regardless of how you get the cash, you have to be able to pay your way.  You must also declare your intent to return to your home country when you’re finished with your studies.  But that’s a formality, one easily skirted when you actually get your degree.

In 2015, over 677,000 “F” visas were issued.  223,000 applicants were refused.  In other words, about three quarters of all applicants are accepted.

Now, let’s take a look at some interesting findings about the student visa program published in a study by the Brookings Institution in 2012.  Here’s the link:

“From 2008 to 2012, 85 percent of foreign students pursuing a bachelor’s degree or above attended colleges and universities in 118 metro areas that collectively accounted for 73 percent of U.S. higher education students. They contributed approximately $21.8 billion in tuition and $12.8 billion in other spending—representing a major services export—to those metropolitan economies over the five-year period.”

Got that?  They paid full tuition and living expenses, bringing over $33 billion into the economy.  And that was through 2012.  In 2015, when 25% more visas were issued than in 2012, that figure rises to over $42 billion.

Two-thirds of foreign students pursuing a bachelor’s or higher degree are in science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM) or business, management and marketing fields, versus 48 percent of students in the United States.

Remember how tech companies claim that they depend heavily on immigrants to provide the advanced skills that they need?

Forty-five (45) percent of foreign student graduates extend their visas to work in the same metropolitan area as their college or university.

In other words, these students then go on to become the H1-B visa workers that the tech industry (and many others) claim that they need.  So the “non-immigrant” nature of student visas, and the declaration of intent to return to their home country, is truly a joke.  Here’s further evidence that student visas are used as the pipeline for H1-B visas:

These companies who claim that they’re dependent on immigrants for the skills they need are trying to pull the wool over your eyes.  What they need are STEM graduates and they get them from American universities.  They like the fact that foreign students contribute to a glut of labor that helps to keep their payroll costs suppressed.  When Apple claims that, if immigrants aren’t allowed to travel freely to work in the U.S., then they might need to relocate to where they can have easier access to immigrant labor, that’s a “crock” and they know it.  Go ahead, Apple, move to Yemen or  Iran or Libya or one of those other countries, and let’s see how successful you can be there.  What you really need are the STEM graduates of American universities.  You won’t find them in those other places.  But what you will find are poverty, illiteracy and oppressive governments.  But you say you can do better there.  So prove it.  Just leave.  Go ahead.  Go.

There’s a mind-numbing amount of information in these links.  Let’s boil it all down:

  • Immigrants currently fill 1.2 million of the seats available in American universities.  That’s a significant percentage of the seats available.
  • Approximately three quarters of foreign students who apply are accepted.  Compare that to the acceptance rate for American students at most prominent universities, where only 10% or fewer attain admission.
  • Why the preference for foreign students?  Because they pay full tuition, propping up the ridiculous rate of tuition increases.
  • Foreign students are given preference over American students because of their ability to pay.  This effectively shuts American students out, especially from STEM curricula.
  • The influx of foreign students actually counts as an export of services.  Can you believe that?  It’s one of the tricks used by the government to draw trade dollars back into the U.S. economy and to keep our trade data from looking even worse than it does.
  • University sports teams have also gotten in on the act, now recruiting foreign students through the “student” visa program, denying athletic scholarships to deserving American athletes.  When it comes time for the Olympics, those athletes, trained in America, compete for their home countries, leaving the American teams thin.
  • Almost half of foreign students then go on to work in America, shutting American students out of those jobs as well.
  • The student visa program feeds into the H1-B visa program, which then begins to feed many of the other immigrant categories such as immediate relatives and family-sponsored preferences.

OK, remember the above list of countries that send the most students?  Did you notice anything about that list?  Did you notice that it includes the countries with whom America has the biggest trade deficits?  That should give you a clue as to where these foreign students are getting the money they need for tuition.  Their parents are getting rich on manufacturing for export to the United States.  What this means is that, in addition to taking your job, they then use your money to pay for their kids to come over here and take your kids’ jobs too!  Can this scheme possibly get any more outrageous?

If you’re an American student who hasn’t been able to get accepted into the school or program of your choice, the student visa program is probably the main reason.  If you’re a recent graduate and find yourself now saddled with crushing student loan debt, you can blame the student visa program for propping up ridiculous tuition rates.  And if you now find yourself struggling to find a job, you can once again blame the student visa program.

The student visa program is an outrage perpetrated on unsuspecting parents and students, depriving them of opportunities to help America out of its trade-created cash crisis, to help greedy universities prop up inflated tuition rates and to help corporations suppress wages with a labor glut.  It has to stop.  No foreign student should be admitted until every last American kid who wants a college education has gotten a seat in a university.  President Trump … please … take a close look at the student visa program and rein it in.

Week 1 Done

January 28, 2017

The world is slowly awakening to a new reality.  It has profoundly changed.  And that may be an understatement.

Throughout the campaign, Trump’s “populist” rhetoric was dismissed by many – especially by those who stood to lose the most if globalization were dismantled – as exactly that, a play for votes or posturing designed to win concessions in the highly unlikely event that he would actually be elected president.  After all, this is the author of The Art of the Deal, a book about his tactics for winning in the business world.  He’s just  staking out his opening position.  Right?

During the transition, however, he doubled down on his rhetoric and stacked the cabinet mostly with people aligned with his positions.  The world grew a little more nervous.

Then came inauguration day and, I have to admit, that even I was taken aback by his speech.  It was as though he picked up a rhetorical two-by-four and began swinging at everyone who’d had a role in America’s trade mess and economic decline, and any who doubted his intentions or who stood in his way.

Now his first week in office is history, and what a week it was.  TPP (the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal) is dead.  NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Deal) is as good as dead.  The wall on the southern border will be built.  Tariffs on Mexican imports will pay for it.  Immigration from many Middle Eastern countries has been brought to a halt.  And, in stark contrast to Obama’s visit to Mexico in the early days of presidency to discuss renegotiating NAFTA, a humiliating experience that yielded only more Mexican tariffs on American goods, Trump has put Mexico on notice.  If you can’t accept the new reality of American tariffs on Mexican imports and an all-out effort to halt illegal immigration from your country, then too bad – we have nothing to talk about.

Some seem to get it.  Some American companies have begun hedging their bets with announcements of plans to invest in American manufacturing.  Still, the world is largely in a state of denial.  Markets around the world continue to rally on optimism over the aspects of the Trump agenda that it likes – corporate tax breaks and infrastructure spending – while shrugging off the possibility that Trump means business about imposing tariffs on imports.

The world is made up of only two economies, really.  One is the economy of the more sparsely populated countries, able to gainfully employ their workers, which is dominated by the United States.  The other is the rest of the world, badly overpopulated and heavily dependent on manufacturing for export to the aforementioned countries – again, most notably, the United States.  Tariffs on imports into the U.S. will  totally alter the host-parasite relationship that exists between the two.  Those who continue to blindly invest in the economies of the latter may be making a serious mistake.

Americans have finally gotten fed up with playing the role of enabler to ever-worsening overpopulation, using immigration as a relief valve and trade to prop it up.  Trump has hastened the day when the rest of the world must face the consequences on their own.

Are Americans really ready for what’s to come?

November 16, 2016

Some have described the election of Donald Trump as a “political earthquake.”  That doesn’t begin to describe it.  A more fitting analogy would be the asteroid that struck the earth millions of years ago, wiping out the dinosaurs and most other living species.  The world was forever changed.

Sure, the sun came up the morning after Trump’s election and normal life resumed.  People living off the grid would never know that anything had happened. But fasten your seat belts, folks.  You haven’t felt it yet, but the blast wave from that asteroid strike is on its way.  If Trump implements the trade policy he promised during the campaign, we’re in for a very rough ride.  I’m afraid that few people really comprehend what’s coming.

Don’t get me wrong.  It needs to be done.  If Trump doesn’t do it, America will continue to be sucked into the vortex of the poverty-sharing scheme of globalization until we have nothing left.  Incomes will continue to decline.  Health care and college educations will become even less affordable.  Forget any dreams of a secure retirement.  Infrastructure will crumble further while the national debt soars.

So it has to be done, but entire economies – big ones – have been built on manufacturing for export to the U.S.  Globalization won’t go down without a fight.  It’ll begin with sniping from every corner of a vast network of globalization cheer-leaders that support their special interests, including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, national leaders, CEOs of global corporations, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its local chapters, and economists who can’t come to grips with the notion that everything they’ve learned, taught and fought for was wrong.  Based on past experience with presidents over the past several decades, it’s hard to imagine one that could withstand such withering criticism.

But that’s nothing compared to what will follow.  It seems that Mexico is the first one that Trump has in his cross-hairs.  They may try retaliatory trade sanctions, like big tariffs on food exports.  But they don’t have the wherewithal to present real problems.  China, however – who the Trump administration will turn its sights on next – is another story.  They’ll try retaliatory trade sanctions first but, when you’re the nation with the huge trade surplus, it’s impossible for China to win a trade war.  The thing that Chinese leaders fear the most is not the U.S., but civil unrest among its own people.  Big tariffs on Chinese exports to the U.S. would shift the now-booming Chinese economy into reverse.  Conceivably, it could collapse their economy.

The Chinese people have become conditioned to feel entitled to a booming economy and to preying on the U.S. market.  They’ll be angry as hell and will demand action from their government.  Rioting may break out.  In its death throes and desperate to placate their demands, the Chinese regime may turn to military action.  It’s impossible to predict how something like that might unfold.

There are those already saying that tariffs against Mexico can’t work – that forcing the manufacturing of American cars and parts back into the U.S. will only make them uncompetitive with other auto imports.  And they are right.  In order to succeed, Trump will need to expand the use of tariffs to include other countries like Japan, South Korea, Germany and others.  Now we’ll have more unhappy campers who may be willing to form a new alliance against the U.S.  Are Americans prepared for this?

And are they prepared for some gut-wrenching changes in our own economy?  It’s true that tariffs will drive up prices for U.S. consumers and, in many cases, there are no American manufacturers ready to fill the void.  It’s going to take some time to design, build and start up new plants.  Will Americans have the patience to endure a burst of inflation and very likely a recession until wages catch up and offset the higher cost of goods, or have we become too spoiled for that?

I wonder if even the most strident Trump supporters have anticipated these ramifications and whether they’re willing to endure the pain.  It’s easy to say “make American great again” but making it happen is going to be a long and very difficult process.    It’s going to take a virtual war-footing mentality among Americans.

And what about Trump?  Will he be a strong enough leader to maintain the support of the people through all of this?  Based on what we’ve seen from Trump, we can expect that, when foreign leaders lash out at him, he’ll hit back just as hard.  No one should doubt his ability to win.  It’s the American people I’m more worried about.  Will they be ready to jump ship at the first sign of adversity, or are they tough enough to stand by Trump and see this through?


Ford Moving to Mexico; Trump Says He’ll Stop It

September 15, 2016

The above link will take you to an interview conducted by CNN’s Poppy Harlow with Mark Fields, Ford CEO.  If you have the patience to watch it all the way through, it will be immediately followed by further discussion of Trump’s plans to raise tariffs and bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S.

Trump has long predicted that Ford would be announcing its move to Mexico.  Fields responds that they are only moving its small car production – the Focus and the C-Max (both made at Ford’s Dearborn, MI plant) -to Mexico.  Other models will continue to be made in the U.S.

Ford actually sells six car models:  Fiesta, Focus, C-max, Fusion, Mustang and Taurus.  The Fiesta and the Fusion are already built in Mexico.  Ford’s announcement about the Focus and C-max leaves only two of its six car models that are still made in the U.S. – Mustang and Taurus.  The former is built at its Flat Rock, MI plant and the Taurus is built in Chicago.  Most of its SUVs and trucks are built in the U.S.  There’s a good reason for this.  The U.S. continues to maintain a 25% tariff on all imported light trucks.

The Transit Connect is an interesting exception.  Until 2013, Ford imported the Transit Connect, a vehicle it markets as a commercial van/truck, from Turkey, trimmed out as a passenger van.  It then strips out the passenger interior, removes the windows, and replaces them with metal panels, converting it into a commercial vehicle.  It did all of this to escape paying the 25% import tariff.  In 2013, the U.S. ordered Ford to stop this practice.  Ford still does it, but now it pays the tariff.  It “eats” the cost of the tariff.  It doesn’t pass it on to the consumer.

If elected, Trump has vowed to essentially tear up most trade deals – particularly NAFTA, and will raise tariffs to force companies to re-establish their manufacturing operations in the U.S.  In the case of Mexico, he has suggested a 35% tariff.  During the linked interview, Ms. Harlow asked Mark Shields directly whether he would still move manufacturing to Mexico if that were to happen.  Shields side-stepped the question.  But the answer is obvious.  Of course Ford would not move more production to Mexico if that were to happen.  Quite the opposite.  Production of the Fiesta and Fusion would also return.

Late in the interview, Shields cited the huge savings in labor costs for the move to Mexico, saying that it needed to be done to remain competitive in that segment of the market.  Ms. Harlow failed to follow up with the obvious question:  “So you’ll be reducing the price of the Focus once production has moved to Mexico?”  I would have loved to see him squirm and see the smirk run away from his face when he replied that the price wouldn’t change a bit.

Has any company ever cut the price of any product once its production was moved overseas?  Of course not.  They pocket the extra profit.  Which brings us to one of the arguments employed by economists (and cited in the 2nd CNN segment which starts immediately after the Mark Shields interview) that prices will rise and consumers will be forced to pay the tariffs, hurting the economy and cutting deeply into consumer spending.

That’s absolute nonsense.  Consumers don’t pay the tariffs.  The importing companies pay the tariffs.  Whether or not they elect to pass that extra cost along to the consumer is entirely up to them.  As we saw above with the Transit Connect, Ford doesn’t pass it along.  Sure, that would cut deeply into profits.  By far, the smarter alternative is to move manufacturing back to the U.S.

During the course of the interview, Ms. Harlow repeats a myth about tariffs and their role in the Great Depression.  “… the last time a big tariff was instituted in the United States back during the Great Depression, all the economists agree that it made the Great Depression worse.”  I’ve said it many times but it bears repeating here:  that’s factually false and is absolute nonsense.  First of all, no new, big tariff was implemented during the Great Depression.  The Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930 was a very slight tweaking of the  Fordney-McCumber Tariff Act of 1922, raising tariffs overall from 38.5% to 41.4%.  Following enactment of Fordney-McCumber, the economy boomed during the “roaring ’20s.”

By the time Smoot-Hawley was enacted, the Great Depression had already been underway for a year.  During the Great Depression, America’s balance of trade declined by less than $1 billion while GDP fell by $33 billion.  To blame tariffs for the Great Depression is ludicrous.  But that didn’t stop economists from doing it, eager to make a case for their new, untested theory about “free” trade.

In the CNN piece following the Mark Shields interview, CNN reports on dire warnings by economists that Mr. Trump’s tariffs would have disastrous consequences for the economy, cutting GDP by up to $1 trillion and would result in the loss of 4 million jobs.  Such claims are really puzzling, given the fact that economists know very well that a trade deficit is actually a subtraction in the calculation of GDP.  It’s impossible that bringing back manufacturing would do anything other than boost GDP dramatically.  Merely balancing trade in manufactured goods would be an $800 billion boost to the economy.  That would be a 4% jump in GDP which, not coincidentally, is what Trump has targeted for economic growth.  Any further surplus in trade in manufactured goods would boost the economy even more.  And instead of cutting 4 million jobs, it would actually create approximately 10 million jobs.

Free trade advocates claim that manufacturing jobs don’t matter any more, that most manufacturing is automated and there are few jobs there to be had.  If that’s true, then why do so many badly overpopulated nations with huge, bloated work forces cling so desperately to the manufacturing that they do for the American consumer?  Certainly, automation has improved productivity in manufacturing, but not nearly to the extent that free traders would have you believe.  Consider the production of the supposedly high-tech cell phones like the i-phone.  Their manufacture is about as low tech as you can get – thousands of people assemble the circuit boards by hand in China.

During one of the CNN segments, the reporter comments that “cars aren’t really built from scratch any more.  They’re assembled.  Those plants in Mexico will be assembling them from American-made parts.”  As if the process of assembly requires no effort, and as if cars haven’t been built that way since Henry Ford invented the assembly line.  I can tell you from personal experience, having toured the Dearborn plant where Ford builds the Focus, that it takes a lot of workers to make an assembly plant “tick.”  Watching a stack of sheet metal being turned into a finished automobile in less than 24 hours is truly awe-inspiring.  Having toured both auto assembly plants and electronics manufacturing, I can tell you that an auto assembly plant is far more “high-tech” than electronics production.

Trump’s plans to use tariffs to return manufacturing back to the U.S. is exactly what the American economy needs – and is exactly the thing that globalists fear the most.

America’s Worst Trading Partners in 2015

May 19, 2016

It’s time for my annual ranking and analysis of America’s best and worst trading partners for 2015.  No surprise, it was another dismal year for American manufacturers, racking up the 40th consecutive year of trade deficits and setting a new record in the process – a deficit of $648 billion.  That surpasses last year’s record deficit by a whopping $109 billion.

Since the surpluses of trade with our best trade partners is overwhelmingly swamped by the deficits with our worst partners, let’s begin there.  This year I’m going to first present the list in the most basic terms – a list ranked in order of the sheer size of the deficits. Check out this list of America’s twenty worst trade partners in terms of our deficit in manufactured products:  Top 20 Deficits, 2015.

The nations at the top of this list should come as no surprise to anyone.  Trade with China dwarfs them all with a deficit of $367.5 billion – more than four times larger than our second largest deficit with Japan.  That’s not surprising when you realize that China has ten times as many people as Japan.  China actually accounts for about one fifth of the entire world’s population.  The following are some other key observations about this list:

  • Look at the population density of these nations.  The average population density is 737 people per square mile.  That’s eight times the density of the United States.  With only one exception – Sweden – every nation on this list is more densely populated than the U.S.  Most are much, much more densely populated.
  • Eight of these nations are wealthy European nations.
  • Over the past ten years, our trade deficit has worsened with 17 of these nations.  Most have worsened dramatically.  The nation with whom our balance of trade has improved the most (that is, with whom the deficit has declined the most in the past ten years) is Sweden – the only nation on the list less densely populated than the U.S.
  • Our trade deficit with Japan has actually declined by 18% over the past ten years.  Why?  Simple.  South Korea is “eating their lunch.”  Imports of South Korean cars – Hyundais and Kias, along with imports of South Korean appliances like those made by LG, Samsung and others – has cut into Japan’s market share.  Remember when President Obama signed a new trade deal with South Korea in 2012, proclaiming it a “big win for American workers?”  In three short years our trade deficit with South Korea jumped 50%.
  • Our fastest growing trade deficit is with Vietnam, growing by 440% in the last ten years.  Some may point to the fact that at $6100 per person, Vietnam has the lowest purchasing power parity of any nation on this list – only slightly better than India – and that this is the reason for the explosive growth in our trade deficit with them.  However, our second-fastest growing trade deficit is with Switzerland, a nation that is actually more wealthy (with higher wages) than the U.S.  What Vietnam and Switzerland do have in common is a high population density.  It’s the one thing that (nearly) all of these diverse nations have in common.

Many people will look at this list and quickly conclude that, when it comes to our trade deficit, the problem is China and so that’s where we should focus.  Somehow, some way, they’re obviously not playing fair with us.  They’re manipulating their currency, they’re ignoring workers’ rights.  They’re trashing the environment.  And so on.  So let’s get tough with China.

The problem is that China can legitimately complain that of course our deficit with them is big, simply because they are a big nation.  Person-for-person, our trade deficit with Japan is worse.  OK, so in an effort to be fair, let’s broaden our efforts to include Japan.  “Not so fast!” the Japanese will complain.  “What about Germany?  Their surplus with you is nearly as large and they have only half as many people as we do!”

The point is that in determining the root cause of these enormous deficits in order to formulate an effective trade policy, we need to factor out of the equation the sheer size of these nations.  Let’s determine who are really our worst trade partners on a person-for-person basis.  So here’s a list of our worst trade partners in terms of the per capita trade deficits:  Top 20 Per Capita Deficits, 2015.

Now we can see what a mistake it would be to simply conclude that China is the problem.  In per capita terms, they barely make the list of the top twenty worst deficits.  In fact, there are now ten European nations on this list and, in per capita terms, our trade deficit in manufactured products is worse with all ten of them than it is with China.  Here are some more key observations about this list:

  • Once again, all but two of the nations on this list – Sweden and Finland – are more densely populated than the U.S.  Most are far more densely populated.  Only three have population densities less than the median population density of the world, which is 184 people per square mile.  One – Ireland – is right on the median.  The other 80% of the nations on this list are much more densely populated.
  • Most of these are wealthy nations, with an average purchasing power parity of $44,370 per person.  In fact, the top of the list is dominated by the wealthiest.  Clearly, the argument that low wages cause trade deficits doesn’t hold water.  If anything, the cause and effect is exactly the opposite.  Running large trade surpluses makes nations wealthier.
  • There is one nation on this list that is a net oil exporter – Mexico.  I point this out because oil is priced in U.S. dollars, and every dollar spent on oil produced by foreign countries must be repatriated to the U.S., since that is ultimately the only place where they are legal tender.  Those dollars are repatriated in several ways, primarily through the purchase of American bonds or through the purchase of American goods.  The latter tends to make net oil exporters strong buyers of American products, which usually means that the U.S. enjoys a surplus of trade in manufactured products with such nations.  But not Mexico.  What this means is that the large trade deficit in manufactured goods that we have with Mexico is actually even worse than it appears.  For a nation whose population density is one of the lowest on the list – less than twice that of the U.S. – it means that something beyond population density – such as some unfair trade practice – is at work here.  Ditto for Ireland, which has fashioned itself into a tax haven for manufacturers, virtually bankrupting itself during the “Great Recession” of a few years ago.

If you are seeing such data for the first time, it may be a little early, based on this data alone, to conclude that population density is the driving force behind trade imbalances.  More proof is needed.  If such a relationship exists, then we should see exactly the opposite at the other end of the spectrum.  We should see a list of America’s best trade partners – those with whom we have trade surpluses – loaded with nations with low population densities.  We’ll take a look at that list in my next post.

If you’re already acquainted, however, with the relationship between population density and trade imbalances, which I explored thoroughly in Five Short Blasts, then this data is just further proof that population density is, in fact, the driving force behind these trade imbalances.  Such deficits are inescapable when applying free trade theory, which fails to account for large disparities in population density, to such nations.  It will only get worse with each passing year, exactly as we have seen.


Carrier’s Move to Mexico

February 19, 2016

Earlier this week, the Carrier Corporation announced that it would be closing its plants in Indiana and moving production to Mexico.  Carrier said that the move was necessary in order to “remain competitive.”  The move garnered more attention than usual, thanks to an employee who captured the announcement on video along with workers’ angry reaction, and thanks to Republican candidate Donald Trump pouncing on the story to illustrate the need for his plan to implement tariffs in order to bring back manufacturing jobs from places like Mexico, China and Japan.

The above-linked Reuters article makes it easy to understand the rationale behind Carrier’s move.  The Indiana workers are paid an average of $20.00 per hour, while workers in Mexico will be paid $3.00 an hour.  A savings of $17.00 spread over 2,100 workers is a total labor cost savings of about $71 million.

If you’ve been a follower of this blog, you know that the research I’ve done each year into America’s trade results has found that there’s absolutely no correlation between wages and our balance of trade.  For every example of a nation with whom we have a large trade deficit in manufactured goods where wages are low, as is the case with Mexico, I can offer an example where just the opposite is the case.  If low wages cause trade imbalances, how do you explain our trade deficits (which are even larger in per capita terms) with high-wage nations like Japan, Germany, France, Taiwan, Italy, Switzerland and a host of others?  The one thing that all of these nations do have in common is high population densities.

But I have to admit that Mexico does seem to be one glaring exception.  Carrier is just the latest in an almost countless stream of manufacturers that have shifted production to Mexico.  Mexico’s population density is about double that of the United States – enough to be a serious driving force for a significant trade imbalance – but much lower than the population densities of some other nations like those mentioned above.  If I plot population density vs. trade imbalance, Mexico falls pretty much in line with what their population density would predict, but a bit high.

Here’s the thing that puzzles me about Mexico.  They’re actually not that poor of a country.  Wages shouldn’t be that low.  With a purchasing power parity (PPP) of about $18,500 per capita – about one third that of the U.S. – wages in Mexico should be about one third that of Americans.  The wages that Carrier pays its manufacturing workers – about $20.00 per hour – is pretty typical in the states.  So Mexican manufacturing workers should be making about one third of that, or close to $7 an hour.  And, given the rate at which manufacturing jobs have shifted to Mexico, wages there should be rising fast like they have in China and other countries that have a booming manufacturing sector.  Instead, they’re stuck at a measly $3 an hour.

The CIA’s World Fact Book has this to say about Mexico’s economy:  “… growth is predicted to remain below potential given … a large informal sector employing over half of the work force, weak rule of law, and corruption.”  In other words, over half of Mexican workers are “off the books,” beyond the reach of labor laws and standards.  And you have to believe that there is corruption involved in suppressing wages.  Whether or not American companies are complicit in such an effort is a matter of conjecture.  Add all of this up and you have a country that is a virtual slave labor state.  Mexico is America’s plantation of the 21st century.

Again, whether or not American companies are involved in suppressing wages in Mexico is unknown (to me, at least).  Let’s give Carrier the benefit of the doubt.  While everyone is angry at Carrier for making this move, that anger is misplaced.  They’re only doing what makes sense from a business perspective.  Any other business owner would probably do the same.  The real culprit here is the American federal government who, through its misguided blind faith in “free” trade policy, has encouraged this situation.  Our trade agreement with Mexico should be torn up and replaced with one that employs tariffs to assure a balance of trade.  Like his predecessors, Obama hasn’t had the backbone to take this on.  Let’s hope our next president does.

America’s Worst Trading Partners

January 12, 2016

I have finally finished tabulating the trade data for each country for 2014.  (2015 data won’t be released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis until sometime in March.)  What took me so long?  This is no small task.  Since the BEA doesn’t track “manufactured products” as a category, I have to take the data for hundreds of product codes for each of 165 nations and subtract out the categories of raw materials in order to arrive at a figure for manufactured products.  I maintain a massive spreadsheet for each nation and then compile the results for all on an even bigger spreadsheet.

Anyway, the results are in and over the next couple of weeks or so, beginning with this post, we’ll break down and analyze the results.  I like to begin by listing America’s 20 worst per capita trade deficits in manufactured goods.  In essence, this is a list of America’s 20 worst trade partners.  These trade deficits are expressed in per capita terms in order to put the citizens of all nations on an equal footing.  For example, our trade deficit with China, when expressed in dollars, dwarfs that of every other nation because they represent one fifth of the world’s entire population.  But when it comes to trade, borders are meaningless and China could just as easily be 100 smaller nations instead of one.  It would have no effect on our total trade deficit whether we draw a line on a map around 1.3 billion people, or draw 100 lines around clusters of 13 million people each.  Expressing the deficits in per capita terms eliminates the sheer size of nations as a factor.

If you’re new to this web site, you probably expect to see this list populated with poor nations.  You’d be wrong and, by the end of this post, you’ll understand why.  So let’s take a look at the list for 2014:  Top 20 Deficits, 2014.  Some observations are in order:

  1. The key take-away from this list is that 18 of these 20 nations are more densely populated than the U.S.  Most are much more densely populated.  The average population density of this list is 539 people per square mile.  This compares with the U.S. population density of about 87 people per square mile.  This average is up from the average population density of 504 people per square mile on the 2013 list.
  2. Instead of poor, low wage nations, this list is populated by rather wealthy, high wage nations.  The average purchasing power parity (PPP) of the nations on this list is $40,700 per person, up from $35,330 in 2013.  Only one nation on this list has a PPP of less than $10,000 – Vietnam, at $5700 per person.  Only three other nations have a PPP of less than $20,000 – Costa Rica, Mexico and China.  By comparison, U.S. PPP was $54,400 in 2014.
  3. Though our trade deficit with China has exploded since they were first granted “Most Favored Nation” status in 2000, their position on this list has barely budged since I published Five Short Blasts in 2007.  They were 19th on the list in 2006 and have risen only one point to 18th in 2014.  That’s because our trade deficit with nearly all of these nations has grown just as rapidly.  To illustrate this, I’ve included a column on the chart that shows the percent change in our balance of trade with each nation over the past ten years.  Our deficit with China has grown by 82%.  But the results with some other nations have been even worse.  In 2006, Costa Rica didn’t even appear on this list.  In fact, in 2005, we had a trade surplus with Costa Rica.  That has now reversed into a large trade deficit, big enough to move them to number 8 on this list.  The same is true for Vietnam.  In 2005 they were nowhere close to being on this list but, in the past ten years, our deficit with Vietnam has worsened by almost 500%.  Our deficit with Switzerland has worsened by over 200% in the last ten years, moving them to 2nd on the list.  It’s worth noting here that Switzerland is the one nation on the list that is even wealthier than the U.S.  But the one thing all of these nations have in common is a high population density.
  4. In case you’re tempted to conclude that Costa Rica, Vietnam, Mexico and China are on this list because of low wages (low PPP), consider this.  In the past ten years, their PPPs have risen by 41%, 136%, 50% and 184% respectively.  If wages are a factor in trade imbalances, then such rapidly rising wages should tend to slow or even reverse our trade deficit with these nations.  Instead, each is accelerating.
  5. It’s also worth noting here than one of the only two nations on the list less densely populated than the U.S. – Sweden – is slowly sliding off of this list.  Our trade deficit with Sweden has actually improved by 44% over the past ten years – the only such improvement on this list.  As a result, they’ve slid from no. 2 on the list in 2006 to no. 12 in 2014.
  6. Another nation that has slid noticeably on this list is Japan.  They were no. 4 on the list in 2006, sliding to no. 10 in 2014.  Why?  Other nations, most notably South Korea and Germany (who have each risen on the list), have cannibalized their auto exports.  This explains why Japan’s economy has been mired in recession for years.

In 2014, the U.S. suffered a total trade deficit in manufactured goods of $539.9 billion.  The trade deficit in manufactured goods with just the twenty nations on this list was $728.3 billion.  In other words, these twenty nations account for our entire trade deficit in manufactured goods, and then some.  It should be clear to anyone that it’s the large disparity in population density between the U.S. and these nations that drives our trade deficit.  It’s just as clear that low wages play no role whatsoever.  Any trade policy that fails to take into account the role of population density in driving trade imbalances is doomed to failure, just as U.S. trade policy has been for decades.

Those who blame trade imbalances on low wages either don’t understand trade or are simply lying.  So too are those who blame currency valuations – something we’ll examine later.  And those who tell you that we simply need to be more competitive are playing you for fools.  The only way to restore a balance of trade is by applying tariffs to counteract the effect of population density.

Not enough proof?  Stay tuned.  In my next post we’ll take a look at the opposite end of the spectrum – America’s twenty best trade partners – and see if population density is a factor there too.