Token Bump in Exports to China in May Falls Far Short of “Phase 1 Trade Deal” Goals

July 4, 2020

Trade data released by the Commerce Department on Thursday for the month of May reveals that China bumped up its imports from the U.S. slightly, but still fell far short of the goals of the “Phase 1 Trade Deal” signed with the U.S. in January.  Here’s the data (source:  USA Trade Online):  Phase 1 China Trade Deal 2020 YTD.

This deal sets goals for Chinese imports of American goods for four different categories of products:  manufactured products, energy products, agriculture products, and total products, using 2017 Chinese imports of these products as the baseline for increases.  Through May, we’re now five months into this deal.  That’s 20 opportunities to meet the monthly goal for each category of product.  So far, China has not met one single goal.  In fact, in May, for the first time, China exceeded the 2017 baseline for one category of product.  They imported $1.249 billion in energy products vs. the 2017 baseline of $0.758 billion, but still fell short of the goal for May of $1.943 billion.

Year-to-date, China is behind its commitments by the following amounts:

  • manufactured products – 25.7% below goal
  • energy products – 69.6% below goal
  • agriculture products – 60.6% below goal
  • total goods – 35.9% below goal

This is pathetic.  At this point, one can only conclude that, rather than trying to live up to the deal and boost its purchases of American goods, China is actually making a concerted effort to reduce its purchases.

In October of 2018, the monthly trade deficit with China hit a record of $43 billion.  In May of this year, that deficit was down to $27 billion.  But the “Phase 1 Trade Deal” gets no credit for that decrease.  In December of 2019 – the last month before the deal was signed, the deficit with China was $24.8 billion.  All of the drop in the trade deficit with China is thanks to the 25% tariffs that are in effect for half of all Chinese imports.  The “Phase 1 Trade Deal” has had absolutely no impact on further reducing that deficit.

A huge part of the “Make America Great Again” promise was to reduce the trade deficit and bring manufacturing jobs back home.  There has been virtually no progress.  In May, the deficit in manufactured goods fell just $1 billion shy of the record deficit of $75.8 billion set in December, 2018.  Trump has squandered his term with making fruitless deals.  The deficit with Mexico is worse than ever, hitting a record in March.  The progress made in reducing the deficit with China (through the implementation of tariffs) was offset by increases in other countries, most notably Vietnam and Mexico, and that progress ground to a halt with the signing of the “Phase 1 Trade Deal.”  There’s been absolutely zero progress in reducing the deficit with the EU.  To date, there hasn’t even been an attempt.

Trump needs to kill the “Phase 1” deal now and extend the tariffs across the board to all Chinese products to demonstrate that he’s still committed to the “MAGA” promise if he’s to have any hope of being re-elected.  Far too much time has been wasted, but it’s not too late.


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.


China Fails to Meet “Phase 1 Trade Deal” Goals Again in April

June 5, 2020

As I predicted at the outset, the “Phase 1” trade deal with China, formalized by President Trump and Chinese dictator Xi in early January, is proving to be a total waste of time in the push toward achieving a balance of trade with China.  Once again in April, as it has done every month so far, China has not only failed to live up to its promises to increase imports of American goods, it hasn’t even met the baseline of matching its 2017 imports of U.S. goods.  Here’s the table I created to track their progress, updated through April (the most recent data available):  Phase 1 China Trade Deal 2020 YTD.  Their imports were up very slightly in April, but are still well short of even the 2017 baseline.

What are working well are the tariffs on Chinese imports which Trump was smart enough to leave in place until China demonstrated its sincerity in abiding by the “Phase 1” trade deal.  Imports from China remain approximately 40% below their 2018 level.  Through the first third of 2020, the trade deficit with China is on track to fall to its lowest level in ten years.  Had Trump not implemented the “Phase 1” deal and instead had enacted across-the-board tariffs on all Chinese imports, as he was on the verge of doing before signing the deal, we may very well have been on track to wipe out the deficit with China altogether.

Trade deals don’t work.  Tariffs do.  We have no control over exports because we have no control over what other countries are willing to buy from us.  But tariffs give us total control over imports – what we buy from them.  Trade policy should be the simplest policy that any president deals with, yet every one of them makes it as complicated as possible.  We make the same mistakes over and over and American workers pay the price.  It makes me sick.


America’s Worst Trade Partners in 2019

May 11, 2020

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

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

The list is noteworthy for other reasons.

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

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

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

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


China Reneging on Phase 1 Trade Deal

May 7, 2020

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

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

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

 


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

May 1, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 


America’s Worst Trade Deficits in 2019

April 19, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

April 6, 2020

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

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

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

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

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


Emerging Lessons from The Covid-19 Pandemic

March 31, 2020

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

Globalism and Global Supply Chains:

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Spare Capacity:

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

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

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

The Risks of Dense Populations:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Secure Borders:

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

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

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

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

 

 

 


No More Trade Deals, No More WTO

February 29, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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