Why Population Density Drives America’s Trade Imbalance

November 21, 2019

The Problem:

In my last few posts, we’ve seen a powerful correlation between America’s trade imbalances and the population density of its trading partners.  But how does that work?  It seems odd – something that seems highly unlikely to be a factor.  And you’ve likely never heard of it before.  What you have heard about are a host of other “factors,” things like low wages, trade barriers, intellectual property theft, lax labor and environmental standards, just to name a few.  All of them seem like more plausible explanations for trade imbalances than something like “population density.”

The reason population density has such a powerful effect on trade is what it does to the per capita consumption of products.  Beyond a certain critical population density, over-crowding begins to rapidly erode people’s need for and ability to use (or “consume”) virtually every product you can think of, with the exception of food.  At first glance, you might think that’s a good thing.  Everyone lives more efficiently, reducing their environmental footprint and their demand for natural resources.  However, the real problem is that per capita employment is tied directly to per capita consumption.  Every product not bought is another worker that is out of work.  As population density continues to grow beyond that critical level, an economy is rapidly transformed from one that is self-sufficient and enjoys full employment to one with a labor force that is bloated out of proportion to its market, making it dependent on other nations to sop up its excess labor or, put another way, making it dependent on manufacturing products for export to rescue it from what would otherwise be an unemployment crisis.

Let’s consider an example.  The dwelling space of the average citizen of Japan, a nation ten times as densely populated as the U.S., is less than one third that of the average American.  It’s not hard to imagine why.  In such crowded conditions, it’s only natural that people will find it impractical to live in single-family homes in the suburbs and will instead opt for smaller apartments.  Now think of all the products that go into the construction of dwellings – lumber, concrete, steel, drywall, wiring, plumbing, carpeting – literally thousands of products.  And think of furnishings and appliances.  A person living in a dwelling that is less than one third the size of another consumes less than a third of all of those products compared to someone living in less crowded conditions.  And what about the products used to maintain the lawns and gardens of single-family homes?  Consumption of those products doesn’t just reduce – it vanishes altogether.

Consequently, per capita employment in those industries involved in building, furnishing and maintaining dwellings in Japan is less than a third of that in America.  So what are all of those unemployed Japanese to do?  Will they be put to work building cars for domestic consumption?  Hardly.  As you can imagine, the per capita consumption of vehicles by people living in such crowded conditions is impacted dramatically as most opt for mass transit.  So emaciated is the Japanese auto market that even Japanese automakers have trouble selling cars there.  So now add to the workers who aren’t employed in the home industry those workers who also aren’t employed building cars for their domestic market.

And so it goes with virtually every product you can think of.  Japan is an island nation surrounded by water.  Yet their per capita consumption of products for the boating industry is virtually zero compared to other nations, simply because it’s so crowded.  There’s only so much marina space to go around.  Put a town of 100 families next to a marina with 100 slips and it’s likely that every single family will own a boat with a motor and fishing gear.  Put a city of a million families next to that same marina and, though the marina is still full, on a “per capita” basis boat ownership has effectively fallen to zero.

Japan’s only hope for employing its badly under-utilized labor force is to use them to manufacture products for export.  This is exactly why America’s second largest trade deficit in manufactured goods is with Japan.  It’s not so much that we buy too much stuff from Japan.  The problem is that Japan buys so little from us in return.  It’s not that they don’t want to.  They can’t.  Their market is so emaciated by over-crowding that they can’t even consume their own domestic production.  Why would they buy more from us?  The same is true of nearly every major U.S. trading “partner” that is badly over-crowded.  Attempting to trade freely – without tariffs or other barriers – is tantamount to economic suicide.  It’s virtually certain to yield a huge trade deficit.

Why have I never heard of this before?

Few, aside from those who follow this blog or have read my book, have ever heard of this before.  Even if you have a degree in economics, you’ve never heard of it.  In fact, you were likely taught the opposite.  If you studied economics, at some point you were surely introduced to the late-18th century economist Malthus, and were warned to never give any credence to any theories that revolved around over-population, lest you be derided as a “Malthusian,” which would surely doom your career as an economist.

In 1798, Thomas Robert Malthus published his essay titled “Essay on Population” in which he warned that a growing population would outstrip our ability to meet the need for food, effectively dooming mankind to a fate of “misery and vice.”  This led to the field of economics being dubbed “the dismal science,” something that really rankled other economists.  Yet, the idea gained some traction until, that is, as years passed and improvements in farming productivity exceeded the requirements of a growing population.  The other sciences mocked the field of economics unmercifully, proclaiming that mankind is ingenious enough to overcome any and all obstacles to growth.  Economists acquiesced and vowed to never, ever again give any consideration to any concerns about overpopulation.

And so it is today that economists have a huge blind spot when it comes to the subject of population growth.  You can’t discover something that you’re not even willing to look at.  It’s not unlike the medieval Catholic Church labeling Galileo a heretic for theorizing that the earth revolved around the sun instead of vice versa.  Where would we be today if the study of astronomy ended at that point?  Where would we be if Newton was mocked for his theory of gravity and the field of physics ended at that point?  That’s what economists have done.  They’ve turned their backs on what is arguably the most dominant variable in economics.

What does this mean for trade policy?

In the wake of the Great Depression, soon followed by World War II, economists disingenuously laid blame for what had transpired on U.S. tariffs and, eager to put to the test the theory of free trade, promised that it would put an end to such wars and depressions.  So, in 1947, the U.S. signed the Global Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, taking the first step to implement the concept of free trade on a global basis.  Within three decades, the trade surplus the U.S. had enjoyed was wiped out.  In 2018, the U.S. ran its 44th consecutive annual trade deficit which, by the way, set a record in 2018 and continues to worsen.

The problem is that the concept of free trade doesn’t take into consideration the role of population density in making over-crowded nations absolutely dependent on running trade surpluses in manufactured goods, and simultaneously sapping the life from the manufacturing sector of other nations.  No amount of trade negotiations can correct this imbalance.  No nation that is dependent on manufacturing for export would ever agree to anything that would slow their exports and it’s impossible for them to increase their imports because, after all, it’s their emaciated market that has caused the trade imbalance in the first place.  The only way to restore a balance of trade is to force the issue through the use of either tariffs or import quotas.  Any trade policy that doesn’t employ those tactics when trading with badly over-crowded nations is doomed to failure and puts our overall economy at risk.

Since World War II, other presidents have tinkered with tariffs in those rare instances when the World Trade Organization has green-lighted their use to correct for some other nations’ trade transgressions.  But President Trump is the first president in seven decades to implement a significant tariff program aimed at reducing our trade imbalance with China.  But much, much more needs to be done.  There are many other nations whose trade imbalances on a per capita basis are much worse, nations like Germany, Japan, Mexico, Ireland, South Korea, Taiwan and a host of others.  While many are allies, none of them are “allies” when it comes to trade.  All are eager to sustain and even grow their trade imbalances at the expense of American workers and families.  All want the U.S. economy to bear the cost for their overpopulation.  None want to face their own problems.  The U.S. needs to put an end to pointless – even counterproductive – trade negotiations, and do the things that are within our power to force the restoration of a balance of trade.

 


Population Density Effect on Trade Imbalance Intensified in 2018

November 18, 2019

In previous posts, we’ve noted the apparent role of population density at both ends of the spectrum of our trade imbalances – the top deficits and surpluses in manufactured goods.  Now let’s look at the world as a whole.  Let’s include all 165 nations in the study and let’s divide those nations equally around the median population density (which is 192 people per square mile), such that there are 82 nations with densities above the median and 83 nations below the median.  Look at this chart:  Deficits Above & Below Median Pop Density.

With the half of nations with population densities above the median we had a deficit of $815 billion in manufactured goods in 2018.  With the other half of nations we had a deficit of only $0.5 billion (the first deficit with that group of nations since 2005).  $815 billion vs. $0.5 billion.  Same number of nations.  How much more obvious can it be that population density is, by far and away, the single biggest force in driving trade imbalances?  How much more evidence do you need?

More?  “That’s not a fair comparison,” you might say.  “The half of nations that are more densely populated have a lot more people than the other half.  There needs to be the same number of people included in each group.”  OK, fair enough.  Let’s divide the world in half by population.  Half of the world’s population lives in more densely populated conditions, and half lives in less densely populated conditions.  In order to divide the world that way, however, the dividing line falls on China.  Not surprising since that country has one fifth of the world’s population.  So to make the populations of the two halves equal, almost 40% of China’s population – a nation with a population density four times that of the U.S. – must be included with the half of people living in “less densely populated” conditions.  Nevertheless, if we do that, and if we allocate 40% of our trade deficit with China to the less densely populated half, the result is that we still have a trade deficit (in manufactured goods) of $557 billion with the half of people living in more densely populated conditions and a trade deficit of $259 billion with the less densely populated half of the world’s population.  The trade imbalance is still more than double with the more densely populated half.

If we include all of China in the more densely populated half of people, then the split of people is 4.15 billion vs. 3 billion.  If we do that, the deficit with the more densely populated “half” of people is $730 billion vs. $86 billion for the less densely populated “half” – 8-1/2 time bigger.

I would argue that an even better comparison is to divide the world in half by land area:  the half of the world that is more densely populated vs. the half that is less densely populated.  If we factor out Antarctica and the United States (because we are evaluating our trade partners), the world’s land surface area is 47.3 million square miles.  If we divide that in half by population density, we find that 6.66 of the 7.15 billion people occupy the more densely-populated half of the world’s surface area while the other half of the world holds only 0.49 billion people.  With that more densely-populated half of the word we have a trade deficit in manufactured goods of $923 billion and a trade surplus of $107 billion with the less densely populated half.  That’s a difference of over one trillion dollars in trade with the more densely populated half of the world vs. the less densely populated half.

Finally, let’s look at one more split – probably the most relevant:  the nations more densely populated than the U.S. vs. the less densely populated nations.  The U.S. has a population density of approximately 92 people per square mile.  114 of our trading partners are more densely populated and 41 are less densely populated.  With those more densely populated we have a trade deficit in manufactured goods of $934 billion vs. a surplus of $119 billion with those less densely populated.  Again, that’s a difference of over one trillion dollars!

Clearly, any trade policy that doesn’t take population density into account is virtually guaranteed to yield absolutely horrible results, yet that’s exactly what the U.S. does.  It completely ignores population density and attempts to trade freely with everyone regardless of population density.  And in a few decades it’s transformed the U.S. from the world’s preeminent industrial power and the wealthiest nation on earth into a virtual skid row bum, plunging us into $20 trillion of debt.

But why is population density such a factor?  I could write a book on the subject.  Actually I already did.  It’s what this blog is all about.  But I’ll summarize it for you in the next post.  Stay tuned!


California Admits Failure in its Carbon Reduction Efforts

February 5, 2019

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-climatechange-california-insight/a-climate-problem-even-california-cant-fix-tailpipe-pollution-idUSKCN1PQ4MJ

Once in a while I divert my focus from the economic impact of population growth to highlight other impacts, like environmental.  This is one of those times, as the report in the above-linked article is so significant that I can’t let it pass without comment.  The state of California is admitting that its decades-long drive to reduce auto exhaust emissions is a complete failure.

For three decades, California has led the fight to control tailpipe pollution, with countless policies promoting cleaner gasoline, carpooling, public transportation and its signature strategy – the electric vehicle.  Californians now buy more than half of all EVs sold in the United States, and the state’s auto-pollution policies have provided a model being adopted around the world.

Indeed, California’s focus on reducing carbon emissions has been a model for the rest of the world.  In fact, such carbon reduction is the model upon which the Paris Climate Accord, whose stated goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to a level at which sustainable development can continue, is based.  The result?

Tailpipe pollution here is going up, not down, despite billions of dollars spent by one of the most environmentally progressive governments on earth.

“The strategies that we’ve used up until now just haven’t been effective,” Mary Nichols, the head of the California Air Resources Board, told Reuters.

How is this possible – that such measures are having no effect?  The answer is quite simple, and it’s a point I’ve tried to drive home repeatedly.  The planet doesn’t give a damn how much you reduce your carbon emissions.  All it cares about is the total amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.  Population growth is negating any gains in per capita carbon emissions.  What difference does it make if everyone reduces their personal emissions by 50%, let’s say, if the population doubles?  Not one damn bit.

That failure has less to do with energy or environmental policies and more with decades-old urban planning decisions that made California – and especially Los Angeles – a haven for sprawling development of single-family homes and long commutes, according to state officials.

Note the word “development.”  It’s the same word you find in the stated mission of the Paris Climate Accord – sustainable “development.”  It’s a code word for population growth.  “Sprawling development” doesn’t happen without it.  “Sustainable development” doesn’t happen without it.  In fact, “sustainable development” has been the biggest cause of climate change and those who continue to promote it are scamming you into supporting their real agenda – profit growth for global corporations.

The fact is that there is no solution to climate change or any of the other myriad negative consequences of population growth that doesn’t BEGIN with a focus on stablizing the human population.  That’s not to say that we shoudn’t also focus on minimizing our emissions of all kinds – not just greenhouse gases but gaseous, liquid and solid emissions of all kinds.  Nor is “sustainable development” a solution to poverty.  It’s actually making it worse, with over-crowding driving down per capita consumption and, with it, employment.

Of course, there’s no overt mention of “population growth” in this article – just “sprawling development.”  So don’t be surprised if the scam continues, but with a new, additional focus on trying to drive people together into tiny apartments in high-rise housing.  Yeah, that’ll work.  That’s a future we can all really look forward to.

 

 


Fund the Border Wall Now!

December 29, 2018

You would think that the shooting death of Newman, CA police officer Singh – shot to death by a drunken illegal alien who was subsequently hidden from police by his illegal family members and friends while they planned his escape to Mexico – would be the last straw in the long-running debate over border security.  How many more people need to be victimized?  I’m not talking about just murders.  There’s the gang violence, Mexican drug cartels and countless other lesser ways in which Americans are victimized by the general indifference toward the rule of law that illegal immigration fosters.  Driving without licenses or insurance, taking jobs from Americans while being paid in cash and paying no taxes, living off the government dole.  The list could go on.

My own family has been victimized.  While living in Houston years ago, our sons’ car was struck by a vehicle that was sent flying through the intersection, having been rear-ended by a car full of Hispanics.  The car had no brakes, the driver had no license and was uninsured.   After rushing to the scene, I asked the police officer whether they were in the country illegally.  The response?  “We’re not allowed to ask that question.”  I couldn’t believe it and was thoroughly disgusted.  Beyond that, our sons had difficulty finding summer jobs.  You’d think it would be easy, given the number of fast-food restaurants in the area.  The excuse they heard repeatedly was that they needed Spanish-speaking applicants who could communicate with the rest of the workers who, in many cases (it was no secret), were working illegally.

Earlier this month, Congress passed an agriculture bill in the amount of $867 billion that no doubt had its share of “pork.”  All Trump is asking for is $5 billion to start the construction of a wall aimed at stemming the tide of illegal immigration.  All of a sudden, Democrats are balking at such wasteful spending.  You’ve got to be kidding me!  $5 billion is less than 0.2% of the federal budget – chump change compared to the costs of dealing with the effects of illegal immigration.

I shouldn’t single out Democrats.  Republicans are just as guilty of turning a blind eye to illegal immigration for decades.  Both parties are bought and paid for by corporate interests who want to stoke growth in the economy with population growth, legal or otherwise, regardless of the long-term damage done, and want to suppress wages with the cheap labor that illegal immigration provides.

I hope Trump stands firm.  Keep the government shut down permanently if that’s what it takes.  It’s time to do something meaningful to secure the border.  I’m sick of this.  Let your congressman know that you’re sick of it too.


Why is hate on the rise?

October 31, 2018

In the wake of the mail bombs sent to Democratic critics of Trump and the deadly mass shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh, many are raising alarm about what seems to be a dramatic increase in hate crimes and speech.  I was thinking about this and these lyrics came to mind:

“… The whole world is festering with unhappy souls.
The French hate the Germans, the Germans hate the Poles.
Italians hate Yugoslavs, South Africans hate the Dutch,
And I don’t like anybody very much.

… They’re rioting in Africa.
There’s strife in Iran.
What nature doesn’t do to us
will be done by our fellow man.”

Those lyrics are taken from a song titled “Merry Minuet,” released by the Kingston Trio in 1959.  Six decades have passed since then.  In spite of the strides we’ve made in being more tolerant of people who are different from us in terms of race, creed and sexual orientation, it does seem as though hate is more prevalent than ever before.  Maybe it is; maybe it isn’t.

The millenial generation now blames Trump and like-minded boomers for the rise in hate.  In 1959, the boomers were blaming their parents.  Hate and the primeval instincts that fuel it, like fear, distrust, envy, greed, and our territorial instincts, have always been with us.  Those instincts are critical to our survival.  One who wanders down a dark alley, oblivious to potential danger, ends up dead.  One who does so with an appropriate degree of fear and distrust is more likely to survive.

When driven to irrational extremes, however -as they can be when fed by false information, those instincts may cause us to unjustifiably hate others.  I and my fellow Christians believe that Christ came into this world to teach us to rein in our demons, to love our neighbor and to forgive those who wrong us.  Often, it’s not easy.  I see a couple of factors, beyond the political, that are making it much harder.

Number one is “social” media.  Not until the past few years have those beset with irrational fears and hatred had such a place to turn to for reinforcement, where their fears and suspicions could be stoked by gross propaganda designed to pull them in and exploit them.  There’s another factor, however, that few recognize – that high population densities are breeding grounds for hatred.  You can see it everywhere you look.  It’s not hard to understand.  Those who live in close quarters are more easily irritated by those around them.  Throw in obvious differences like race and creed and you have an explosive mixture.  “Good fences make good neighbors,” as the saying goes.  The point is that we can all more easily coexist when we have some separation.

I like to use what I call the “monkeys in a cage” effect as an analogy.  Build an enormous, beautiful cage – perhaps acres in size – with flowing streams and trees full of fruit and nuts.  Now put a monkey in the cage.  Will he be happy?  No, he’ll be lonely.  Put in another monkey.  Are they happy?  They’re happier, but still long for more companionship, being very social animals.  So put in some more.  And then more.  At some point, some monkeys will be driven out of the group, where they’ll move to the opposite side of the cage and form their own group.  Now put in more monkeys, and more and more.  At some point, the monkeys will turn on each other and you’ll return to the cage in the morning to find many of them dead, casualties of an enormous fight that broke out overnight.

Any child whoever had an aquarium or terrarium understands that their bowl  or cage will only support just so many fish or animals, in spite of their best efforts to keep them fed.  And so it is with us.  Our country and our planet is twice as densely populated as it was fifty years ago, and is many times more densely populated that it was just a century ago.  While mankind may be clever enough to overcome many obstacles to never-ending population growth, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that there are also many factors that are escalating beyond our ability to control them.  Rising hatred, fed by worsening over-crowding is one that shouldn’t be ignored.

 


The Federal Reserve Thinks Unemployment Is Too Low!

September 13, 2018

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-fed-rosengren/fed-says-it-whipped-u-s-unemployment-maybe-too-well-idUSKCN1LT0F0

As reported in the above-linked Reuters article, Boston Fed bank president Eric Rosengren worries that the Federal Reserve has been “too successful” is lowering unemployment.  He explains:

“The recurrent pattern (of recessions) was one where the tightening of monetary policy was expected to slow the economy down gently…to full employment,” Rosengren and three Boston Fed co-authors noted. But “Once the unemployment rate starts to rise by a relatively modest amount, dynamics take hold that tend to push the economy into a recession.”

The Fed considers an unemployment rate of 4.5% to represent “full employment.”  The current rate of unemployment, as reported by the Labor Department on Friday, is 3.9%.  So the Fed worries that there’s no place for the unemployment rate to go but up, and even a small rise could start a recessionary downward spiral in the economy.

This is ridiculous for two reasons:

  1.  The Fed ignores its own role in choking off the economy and precipitating recessions by constantly tightening monetary policy (i.e., raising interest rates) as unemployment drops, and
  2.   The Fed has bought into bogus employment figures propagated by the Labor Department in an effort to stabilize confidence in economic policy in the wake of the Great Recession.

Regarding point 2 above, consider the following:

  • In November of 2007, just before the collapse of Lehman Bros. triggered the Great Recession, 48.4% of the U.S. population was employed and the unemployment rate stood at 4.7%.
  • As of August of 2018, the U.S. population has grown by 25.6 million people.  But, according to the Labor Department, the work force has grown by only 7.9 million workers, and the nation’s employment level has grown by only 8.9 million workers.  And in August of this year, only 47.4% of the population was employed.  Yet, thanks to the unnaturally low rate of growth in the labor force reported by the Labor Department, instead of rising, official unemployment has fallen to 3.9%
  • An honest accounting of the labor force that grows proportionately with population growth would produce a current  unemployment rate of 6.8% – nowhere close to “full employment.”
  • In spite of the decline in unemployment, wages have barely risen, confounding economic experts.  They haven’t risen because unemployment is still quite high – not anywhere close to being low enough to put upward pressure on wages.

Even the definition of “full employment” used by the Fed – 4.5% – is subject to debate.  If that level is “full employment,” how do you explain that some states and some countries routinely operate well below that level?  During World War II, unemployment fell to approximately 1% in the U.S.

The Federal Reserve is making a big mistake with its program of hiking interest rates just because the economy is doing better.  President Trump has been right to criticize its policies.  How can he “Make America Great Again” when the Fed’s policy is to “Let America Get Just a Little Bit Better – But Not Much?”


Low Wages Don’t Cause Trade Deficits!

July 31, 2018

Now that we’ve established (in previous recent posts) that it’s disparities in population density between the U.S. and its trading partners that causes our enormous trade deficit, let’s take a closer look at what role low wages might play.  Judging by the data we saw in the lists of America’s best and worst trade partners, there appeared to be little difference in the “purchasing power parity,”  or “PPP,” between the lists, suggesting that low wages (which track PPP) play no role.

Let’s begin by looking at America’s balance of trade with the twenty poorest nations in the world.  Here’s the list:  20 Poorest Nations.  First of all, you’ll notice that this list is dominated by poor African nations, with a few others like North Korea and Afghanistan thrown in.  The U.S. actually has a small trade surplus of just over a million dollars (an almost perfect balance of trade) with this group.  If low wages cause trade deficits, why doesn’t the U.S. have a huge trade deficit with this group of nations?  In the interest of fairness, I should point out that all foreign aid is booked as exports from the U.S., and the nations on this list are nearly all heavy recipients of U.S. foreign aid.

Let’s move on.  At the other end of the scale we have the twenty richest nations.  Since U.S. PPP is about $50,000, the U.S. would fall somewhere in the middle of this list.  So wages shouldn’t be much of a factor with this group.  Look at the list:  20 Richest Nations.  As you can see, we have a small trade deficit of $9 billion with this group of nations – virtually insignificant when compared to our total trade deficit in manufactured goods of $724 billion.

What we need to do is divide all of the world’s nations in half according to PPP and compare our balance of trade with the poorest half of nations to the richest half.  If we do that, the results are pretty startling.  With the poorest half of nations, the U.S. has a trade deficit in manufactured goods of $60.7 billion.  But with the richest half of nations, the deficit explodes to $663.5 billion!

How can we explain that?  First of all, to be honest, even the richest half of nations is made up almost entirely of nations that are poorer than the U.S.  Only about a dozen nations are richer than the U.S.  So one could argue that the low wage theory still holds.  Not true.  If it did, then it should be the poorest half of nations that we have the biggest trade deficit with, not the opposite.

The real explanation is that there is a relationship between trade and wages, but the cause and effect are quite the opposite of the “low wage theory.”  Low wages don’t cause trade deficits.  Instead, large trade surpluses like China, Germany and Japan have with the U.S., cause higher wages.  Manufacturing for export sops up excess labor supply and drives wages higher.

When the U.S. trades with poor but sparsely populated nations, they become wealthier but soon run out of labor.  Their now-wealthier populace becomes good customers for American products and trade levels off in a state of balance, more or less.

But when the U.S. trades with poor, badly overpopulated nations, wages rise but their overcrowded conditions leave them unable to consume products at anywhere near the rate needed to become customers for imported products.  Their oversupply of labor persists and a trade deficit with such a nation grows steadily worse.

America’s trade imbalance can never be resolved as long as it pursues policies that don’t target the real problem – disparities in population density.