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Why Americans are right to rethink free trade

September 14, 2017

The events of the past year have clearly shown that many Americans, whether Democrats or Republicans, have finally rebelled against “free trade.”

[Ralph Gomory | August 14, 2017 | PBS News]

It is high time.

There is an enormous gap between free trade as it is taught in textbooks and advocated by those who benefit from it, and free trade as it is actually practiced in today’s world. Textbooks still unabashedly teach the virtues of free trade, but their arguments assume a world of pure market forces. But the American people don’t live in a world that is anything like that. The American people live in a world where increasingly capable foreign industries, subsidized by their home governments, are destroying significant parts of our economy. They live in a world where obvious currency manipulation goes unpunished and foreign state-controlled enterprises, not needing to operate at a profit, can underprice any company that does.

In this real world, Americans get cheap Asian goods at low prices, but pay a high price in lost jobs, low wages and in transferring leading technologies to our competitors. Both careful analysis and actual experience show this to be a downward path for America.

But the American people are catching on. They are increasingly aware that their world is very different from the benign free trade world portrayed to them. And in the world they actually live in, it takes more than Economics 101 to deal with what is going on.

China did not get to where it is today by allowing natural economic forces to decide industry outcomes. Reality is much closer to the exact opposite. The Chinese government chooses an industry and then puts in place the subsidies, special tax rates and technology transfer agreements needed to obtain dominance in that industry.

Textbooks maintain that something called “comparative advantage” shows that it doesn’t matter if we lose one industry after another to our trading partners. We will, they assert, be better off just concentrating on the industries that are left. But that is not so. Even in the dream world of pure market forces, comparative advantage is not enough to assure prosperity. And in the mercantilist world that we actually live in, it is even less relevant.

“Mercantilism” is an old term, and it describes an old practice. It means that your trading partner uses the full powers of its government to advance its industries. Mercantilism, in its modern form, often exploits the fact that the sole goal of our great American corporations today is to be as profitable as possible. A modern mercantilist country can provide subsidies and/or cheap labor that make it more profitable for American corporations to manufacture in Asia than in the U.S. and often to do their research and development there as well. These corporations then import these outsourced goods back into America.

Mercantilism has its impacts. The improved profits of outsourcing go to shareholders, who are predominantly the wealthy, and to top management. But American workers don’t benefit. Instead, they lose their jobs. This increases inequality.

By importing what we used to make here, America now imports far more than it exports. We pay for the difference in dollars. Our annual trade deficit with China alone is hundreds of billions of dollars each year. The accumulation of these trade deficits have provided the Chinese government with more than $3 trillion in U.S. dollars. With $3 trillion available to spend in the U.S., China is now buying up U.S. firms at an unprecedented rate. They are buying small innovative companies as well as large, established corporations. We should think about what it will mean for the firms that are still U.S. owned to have to compete around the world with former U.S. firms that now have Chinese government support and may or may not need to make a profit.

We should also think about what it will mean here at home about the independence of our country if firms controlled by a foreign government use their almost endless government funds to participate on a really large scale in corporate lobbying. These firms will have the freedom to make these efforts not only to advance their profitability, but also to advance the goals of a foreign government.

All this does not have to happen. There is much that we can actually do. Some is reasonably well understood; some is not. Balancing trade to stop the continuing outflow of productive employment in sectors like manufacturing can be done if the will to do it is there.

It is much more difficult to counter the danger posed by the immense sum, roughly $3 trillion, already in the hands of the Chinese government. The actions needed here are only now being seriously explored. In its 2016 annual report to Congress, the China Commission of the U.S. Congress (U.S. China Economic and Security Review Commission) called for a halt to the purchase of U.S. companies by Chinese state-owned enterprises and for a major expansion in the role of CFIUS, the federal government’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S.

These efforts will not go forward unless there is widespread sentiment for change based on understanding what the impact of free trade on our country really is.

The American people are telling us what that impact is. We should listen. They have it right.


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  • I am curious. Does anyone actually read this website? I am a regular visitor to American Thinker, Instapundit, and Townhall. The articles posted there draw dozens to hundreds of comments from very intelligent people. Professor Gomory has offered us an excellent, insightful article, which explains — very well — what is happening to our country. How can it be that myself, and one or two others, are the only people posting comments here? There was a time when the comments section was more vigorous. Has CPA managed to kill off, or drive away, the people who have robust opinions on these matters? Is CPA really a thing? Is CPA worth bothering with. I would welcome a harsh response if anyone actually cares.
  • Our greedy, incompetent government has sold us out — to Communist China. Our government is made up of individuals who promise us the moon and stars until they get elected, then they only care about themselves, and keeping their cushy jobs in Washington, DC.

    Warren Buffett proposed a very workable process to balance trade back in 2003. Google “Balanced Trade” for the whole story. There was a half-hearted effort in Congress to implement Buffett’s suggestion, but it died in committee, because Congress — our government — didn’t care about us then, and they don’t care about us now.

    Communist China is a criminal enterprise. We should not be doing business with China at all, (Cuba anyone?) much less be allowing China to steal our technology, our intellectual property, and our jobs. China is draining our wealth, not for the benefit if its citizens, but to build up its military, and to enrich the honchos of the Chinese Communist Party. This will not end well for our grandchildren. They will curse us for allowing this to happen to them.

    If you are interested, check out “Death by China,” by Peter Navarro (yes, that Peter Navarro) and Greg Autry. This excellent book has been made into a documentary, available free on Youtube. Here is a link to the trailer for “Death by China.” Check it out. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p9pXRSzFcKg