Gains from Trade

I’ve been pondering a bunch of recent posts about international trade by Keith Burgess-Jackson. The posts (dated from March 11, 2009, to June 8, 2009) are at KBJ’s eponymous blog. In the posts, KBJ attacks international trade (or some of it), because (in his view) it affects certain aspects of life in the United States.

I’ve read and re-read the various posts, trying to make sense of them. But I have been unable to do so so because, at every turn, I am confronted by flawed logic and unfounded assertions. I’m left in awe at the chutzpah of a tenured associate professor of philosophy (with a law degree, to boot) who commits the kinds of errors for which (I hope) he would chastise his students.

Anyway, to begin at the beginning, there’s this (March 11):

Free trade has been, and will continue to be, a disaster for this country.

A “disaster for this country” would be an event (or a related set or sequence of events) that inflicts unmitigated harm on great masses of Americans. The Great Depression was a “disaster for this country,” as was 9/11. How is “free trade” a “disaster for this country” when, thanks to the lowering of barriers to trade, but not their abandonment (thus “free trade”), millions of Americans now own better automobiles, electronic gadgets, and other goodies than they had access to before “free trade.” Not only that, but they have been able to purchase those goodies to which they had access before “free trade” at lower real prices than in the days before “free trade.” On top of that, millions of Americans make a better living than than they did before “free trade” because of their employment in industries that became stronger or rose up because of “free trade.”

Okay, so KBJ issues a qualified version on March 12:

Dr John J. Ray, my polymathic friend Down Under, replies to my post about free trade. I should clarify my stance. I’m not saying there should be no trade. That would be crazy. I’m saying that we Americans should protect certain of our industries, such as steel and automobiles. Yes, there is a price to be paid for these protectionist measures, but I, like Pat Buchanan, deem it a price worth paying.

Having recognized that “free trade” may be good for many Americans, KBJ now wants to protect certain industries. But why? KBJ doesn’t say. And I’m at a loss to guess the answer. After all, if we protect an industry we are, in effect, subsidizing those who earn a living in that industry, from the loftiest chairman of the board to the lowliest floor sweeper. Why should Americans be forced, for example, to subsidize people who work for GM and Chrysler when “Japanese” auto makers employ Americans who also make cars?  Even if GM and Chrysler were to go out of business, there would still be an American auto industry — one whose “Big Three” would be Ford, Toyota, and Honda. I’m not so sure about Ford, but Toyota, Honda, and other “Japanese” makes have proved more than adequate to the task of delivering well-made autos at reasonable prices.

I would make the same argument even if “Japanese” cars truly were Japanese, from topsail to keel and stem to stern. Even then, it would not be entirely a question of favoring certain Japanese at the expense of certain Americans. It would also be a question of favoring certain Americans (those employed by auto companies of any stripe) over other Americans (those who would prefer Japanese autos for various reasons, not least of which is value for the dollar). KBJ seems to acknowledge as much in a post of March 16, where he gives a bit more ground:

Free trade is efficient, in the sense that it increases (or even maximizes) aggregate material welfare. The key words are “aggregate” and “material.” As for the first of these words, free trade produces losers as well as gainers. The gainers could compensate the losers, but they are not made to do so. I’m concerned about the losers. In other words, I care about justice (how the pie is distributed) as well as efficiency (how big the pie is). As for the second word, there is more to life than material welfare. Free trade has bad effects on valuable nonmaterial things, such as community, culture, tradition, and family. As a conservative, I care very much about these things.

There’s more of the same on March 17:

Here is a video that explains how free trade increases (or even maximizes) aggregate material welfare. Notice that there is no mention of two things that matter to conservatives: (1) how the increase is distributed; and (2) how free trade affects nonmaterial welfare.

KBJ focuses on American losers, but there are many, many American gainers from free trade, as discussed above. Are their communities, cultures, traditions, and families of no import to KBJ? It would seem so. On what basis does he prefer some Americans to others? Or, to put it more crudely, who died and left KBJ, Pat Buchanan, and their ilk in charge of defending the Rust Belt?

And why should we care whether autos and steel are made in the U.S.? Is it a matter of national pride? What price pride? Whatever the price, it seems that KBJ, Pat Buchanan, and their ilk are willing for millions of Americans to pay it.

Maybe it’s a question of national defense — the bogeyman that is so often conjured in relation to our supposed dependence on foreign oil. Just as those “Arabs” might cut off our oil (though to do so would be to risk our wrath and their wealth), perhaps the Russians, Chinese, or Hottentots will someday amass so much military power that they can cut off all our imports, leaving us poor and powerless — inasmuch as we would no longer possess an industrial base to mobilize for war.

So, maybe their reasoning goes like this: America would be (has been?) deprived of significant chunks of its industrial base by the migration of manufacturing overseas (ignoring the fact that auto-making has migrated mainly from one part of the U.S to other parts of the U.S., while the U.S. remains the number 3 steel-making country in the world). And if our industrial base disappears, we won’t be able to mobilize for a prolonged war — one that would require more military stuff than our puny (hah!) industrial base would be capable of emitting. But our industrial base isn’t disappearing, it’s just becoming smaller in relation to our service sector and far less labor-intensive (i.e., more labor-productive) than it used to be (thus the “loss” of manufacturing jobs over time). See, for example, these Federal Reserve graphs of U.S. industrial capacity and production from the mid-1960s to the present. (The main page is here.) In spite of dips related to recessions, the trends are upward.

Getting back to the question of defense, we already have much larger conventional forces and stockpiles of parts and munitions in relation to the forces and stockpiles of our potential enemies than was the case before we entered WWII. If that demanding war is the benchmark for preparedness, then we have plenty of time to convert existing industrial facilities to war production, and to build new war-production facilities. In any event, you would think that the prospect of a major conventional war would become evident in ample time for mobilization, despite the periodic decimation of our intelligence services.

If unpreparedness for a major conventional war is the bogeyman that haunts the dreams of KBJ and company, their real fear can’t be the loss of our industrial base because of “free trade,” inasmuch as we haven’t lost our industrial base and show no signs of doing so. No, their real fear must be the caliber of our political leaders. Sell-outs will sell us out even when we have strong defenses and the wherewithal to build and maintain those defenses, as we have learned in the decades since the Vietnam War, which devastated our resolve to deal with military problems militarily. Those decades were punctuated only briefly by Reagan’s defense buildup, Bush I’s mistakenly truncated Gulf War, and Bush II’s hamstrung war in Iraq. We are now preparing for future wars (not!) and fighting current ones (while retreating) on terms dictated by an obstructive Congress (one of whose members was our new, Chamberlainesque president), an over-reaching Supreme Court, and other Leftists (to call them American Leftists would be an insult to America). But none of that has anything to do with “free trade.”

Returning to the issue at hand, KBJ seems to ignore the fundamental fact of life that human beings try to better their lot in ways that often, and inescapably, result in change. Human beings do want economic progress, and they have proved that they are willing, at times, to pay for in in “nonmaterial ways,” that is, by allowing it do affect “community, culture, tradition, and family.”

But that fact has never kept sentimentalists from decrying the loss of the “good old days.” KBJ’s tune is an old one, a version of which goes “How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they seen Paree?”

Perhaps (in KBJ’s view) it was a mistake for early man to have discovered fire-making, which undoubtedly led to new communal alignments, cultural totems, traditions, and even familial relationships. Methinks, in short, that KBJ has been swept away by a kind of self-indulgent romanticism for a past that was not as good as we remember it. (I’ve been there and done that, too.)

If “nonmaterial things” are so important, one wonders why KBJ ever left Michigan. And if he left Michigan for good reasons, as I’m sure he did, why is it bad for others to leave Michigan for the promise of warmth and employment? If “nonmaterial things” are so important, college attendance between ages 18 and 22 ought to be outlawed, for that is where (college) and when (18 to 22 years of age) large portions of the populace lose their attachment to “community, culture, tradition, and family.”

Anyway, how is it that economic dislocation — gradual as it is when an industry shifts its locus from one region to another — devastates “community, culture, tradition, and family”? If there has been any devastation of “community, culture, tradition, and family” in the Rust Belt — where auto- and steel-making once were dominant industries — it has been going on for decades, due to the combined influences of higher education; mobility (as the young seek greener pastures and the old seek warmer climes); the rise of impersonal entertainment and forms of communication (in lieu of family togetherness); and the natural breakdown of old-country cultures and traditions, as generation succeeds generation.

Shifting gears: On March 19, KBJ says this:

Those of you who consider yourselves conservative but support free trade might want to reconsider. The editorial board of the New York Times supports free trade. So does Barack Obama. So do the Clintons. So does Paul Krugman.

KBJ’s (risible) implication seems to be this: Something can’t be good if your political enemies think it’s good; or, you can’t really be a conservative if you agree with certain scurrilous liberals on a particular issue. By such reasoning, I wonder that KBJ can be against “free trade” when its opponents include Leftists:

I’m with Dennis Kucinich on free trade. (March 24)

On March 25, KBJ merely rehashes earlier posts:

There is no mention in this New York Times story of why people are losing their jobs. Can you say “free trade”? Jobs are being outsourced to China and other parts of the world, where labor is cheap. What good are cheap goods if you don’t have a job? Free trade will be the death of the West. A hundred years from now, if the West survives that long, people will look back at this time as the time of idiocy.

There’s more of the same old stuff on March 26, along with a couple of new assertions:

The editorial board of the New York Times is adamantly opposed to “protectionism.” In other words, it adamantly supports free trade. Note the reason given. The board—which is composed of cosmopolitans—is concerned about poor people in other countries. Free trade raises the standard of living for nonAmericans at the expense of Americans, many of whom are suffering terribly as a result of lost jobs, which adversely affects not just them but their families and communities. Free trade is a worldwide leveler of wealth. This is why conservatives (as opposed to libertarians) oppose free trade. In their view, Americans come first. Cosmopolitan progressives and libertarians support free trade, albeit for different reasons. The former support it because it redistributes wealth from rich nations to poor nations. The latter support it because they worship individual liberty. Free trade has been a boon to wealthy American entrepreneurs, who now have a worldwide pool of cheap labor. It has devastated working-class and middle-class Americans.

The notion that “[‘free trade’] redistributes wealth from rich nations to poor nations” is completely devoid of logical and empirical content. “Free trade” works because there are gains to all participants. If that weren’t the case, Americans wouldn’t buy foreign goods and foreigners wouldn’t buy American goods. Moreover, “free trade” has been a boon to American consumers and workers (though not always the workers KBJ seems to be worried about). To the extent that “wealthy American entrepreneurs” have gained from “free trade,” it’s because they’ve risked their capital to create jobs (in the U.S. and overseas) that have helped people (in the U.S. and overseas) attain higher standards of living. The “worldwide pool of cheap labor” is, in fact, a worldwide pool of willing labor, which earns what it does in accordance with the willingness of Americans (and others) to buy its products.

Finally, on June 8, KBJ says:

Europeans are starting to see the folly of free trade.

Actually, if you read the article, you’ll find that it portrays Europeans as wrong-headedly provincial — just like KBJ and company.

I may have left out a post or two, but I hope that, by now, you get the idea. “Free trade” helps Americans — perhaps not always the Rust-Belt Americans KBJ seems to be fixated on.

It might surprise KBJ to know that everyone’s income can grow, and grow faster, because of trade — not in spite of it. Foreigners earn more now than they used to, in part, because they are employed in more productive pursuits than they were before “globalization.”  The more foreigners earn, the more American-produced products they buy. Many of those same foreigners also help to underwrite our government’s deficits, thus reducing Americans’ taxes.

If “free trade” is such a bad thing, I wonder if KBJ buys anything that’s not made in Texas, where he lives. Trade between the States, after all, is about as “free” as it gets (except when government bans something, of course). Suppose Texas were to be annexed suddenly by Mexico. Would KBJ immediately boycott everything that’s made in the remaining 49 States? Would it have suddently become unclean?

Opposition to “free trade” — of the kind voiced by KBJ and company — is pure, unadulterated, mindless yahooism. It has no more validity than rooting for, say, the University of Texas Longhorns just because you live in Austin (as I do). People who have not the slightest connection with UT can be seen wearing burnt orange (UT’s colors for those of you who are blissfully unaware) and celebrating drunkenly after UT victories. It just makes me want to puke. And so does anti-international trade yahooism, which is like rooting for union-dominated firms like GM and Chrysler, which we are now subsidizing to the nth degree. (I’ll bet that makes KBJ puke.)

Putting an end to “free trade” would make Americans poorer, not richer. And I doubt that it would do anything to halt the natural evolution of “community, culture, tradition, and family” away from the forms sentimentalized by KBJ and toward entirely new but not necessarily inferior forms.

The biggest threat to “community, culture, tradition, and family” lies in the non-evolutionary imposition of new social norms bythe Left. That’s where the ire of KBJ and company should be directed.