When The Real World Confronts Trade Theories, The Real World Wins

I had a conversation over the weekend about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). She’s for it, because “more trade is always good.”

TPP covers a whole lot more than what we would think of as “trade.” Regardless, let’s look here at the idea that expanding trade is always good.

Trade Is Good

Trade is good. We all at the very least trade our time for our pay. We might make or grow or draw or write something that we sell (trade) for money. Trade is basic.

But how we trade always makes a difference. If we trade our time and get paid too little, is that a good thing because it was a “trade”? Obviously the way trade gets done – the rules/policies that are in place – makes all the difference. So the question to consider is whether our current international trade policies as applied under our current economic order a good thing or a bad thing for We the People of the United States.

Cross-Border Trade

“Increasing cross-border trade” sounds like a worthy goal. But if you close a factory in the U.S., move the machines and jobs to a low-wage country, then bring the goods back here to sell in the same stores, you have just “increased cross-border trade.” How should we look at this?

The people now making the goods are paid much less, the investors who own the factory are pocketing much more. Sounds bad, unless you’re one of those owners.

Economists will tell you this is good because fewer of the resources of your economy are being expended to obtain whatever that factory was producing. Those resources can now be applied elsewhere by the investors, toward more productive investment. Sounds good.

Theoretically those American workers will now be freed up to do more productive work, potentially at a better pay rate. Sounds good.

But the way our current economic order works, those resources (the difference between what the American workers were paid and the lower costs of making the stuff somewhere else) are more often applied to the offshore tax-haven accounts of the elite investors than toward “more productive” investments. Sounds bad.

And the way our current system is working, without this new investment those workers remain unemployed, competing with the rest of the people in the workforce, which drives down everyone’s wages except for a few at the top. The reality is that if people laid off due to trade find new jobs, it is at a lower rate of pay. Sounds bad.

Economic theory confronts the reality of America’s current economic order and falls short. The elites use rigged “trade” deals to knock down labor costs. Instead of applying the gains toward investment in our economic future and higher wages for America’s workforce, they apply it to their bank accounts.

Comparative Advantage

The idea of comparative advantage says that countries (regions, etc.) should do what they are good at and trade with others for the things the others do better. Some countries are good at growing bananas and they can trade them for things they can’t grow or make.

But what counts as a comparative advantage?

A few years ago The New York Times took a look at the shift of manufacturing (and associated jobs) from the U.S. to China, in the report “How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work.” The report is known for the Steve Jobs quote, talking to President Obama, saying, “Those jobs aren’t coming back.”

The reason Jobs said those jobs are not coming back was that in China the workers sleep in dormitories, 12 to a room, and can be rousted out of bed at any hour to complete “rush” jobs. They can be made to stand all day, work with dangerous chemicals, are paid very little, cannot organize unions, cannot even vote for a government that would make their lives better.

In other words, China offers a “comparative advantage.” That advantage is that they are not a democracy, workers have no rights and no voice. China is very “business-friendly.” So why would a company like Apple use American workers when they can use workers kept in these conditions?

Our democracy is a comparative disadvantage in world trade. Sounds bad.

Again economic theory confronts the reality of America’s current economic order and falls short. America had factories, China offered low-wage workers and the opportunity to freely pollute. Elites moved the factories to China. Elites use “trade” to attack democracy, turning government of, by and for We the People into a comparative disadvantage in world markets.

Click to see a video of Ian Fletcher talking at, of all places, the Heritage Foundation about his book, “Free Trade Doesn’t Work.” At 21:06 to 25:47 minutes he takes a very good look at the idea of comparative advantage in the real world. In sum:
1) Absence of externalities is not a competitive advantage. The pollution is still there, the workers are still exploited.
2) Capital mobility means you are allocating your capital outside of your own economy.
3) Comparative statistics look at a snapshot, a fixed point in time. If China doesn’t already have a factory making X it is not comparative advantage to go open one there. It is not the best move today if the other country is not already producing the thing for less.

Economies Of Scale

When trade is “opened up” across a border it doesn’t mean that new customers suddenly appear, anxious to buy goods and services produced by America’s small businesses. It’s not like there were no producers and suppliers on the other side of that trade border. The goods and services of an economy were likely already being supplied by someone.

Acme Widget, based in the American town of Plainville, is not suddenly going to get orders from small towns all across the new trading partner Tradonia. Tradonia already has suppliers of widgets. Those suppliers will just as easily come sell their widgets in Plainville.

Economists will say that “opening up” trade across a border increases competition, which benefits consumers. But this is not how it actually works. What has really opened up is a larger playing field with more opportunities for big companies on both sides of trade borders to dominate a larger market than the one they had been dominating, with a resulting decrease in aggregate employment.

In our current economic order big companies have advantages because of their size, and unfortunately rules are made based on which companies are ready to shell out the cash to influence how the rules for competition and domination of industries are made. Larger companies dominate and remove smaller competitors. One or two of these companies will get most of the business in both countries and become very large; the others will be gone. Due to economies of scale the overall widget manufacturing employment will decrease. The new monopolies and near-monopolies will then have the ability to charge what they want.

Once again economic theory confronts the reality of America’s current economic order and falls short. Opening up trade borders is more likely to bring further consolidation of giant companies, not more competition.

Reality Wins

These are just a few examples of the problems of academic trade and economic theory confronted with the realities of what actually happens in actual countries.

Another economic theory says that trade will balance as a result of currency adjustments. Supposedly when a country is running a surplus its currency rate will increase and things made in those countries will cost more, so purchases will shift back to the country that had a deficit. But in the real world, the United State competes with real countries that don’t play this way. Our country has an enormous, humongous trade deficit and has run continual trade deficits every single year since the late 1970s when “free markets” and “free trade” ideology came to dominate. This is because we follow an economic theory ideology, and other countries look at reality and adjust. So they win.

Reality trumps economic theories and ideologies – Every. Single. Time.

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This post originally appeared at Campaign for America’s Future (CAF) at their Blog for OurFuture. I am a Fellow with CAF. Sign up here for the CAF daily summary and/or for the Progress Breakfast.

Tobacco “Carve-Out” Dispute Tells Us What We Need To Know About TPP

Administration officials are desperately trying to wrap-up Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations in the next few days or so. If they can get it done right now, it enables a timeline for pushing it through Congress by the end of the year — before the public can rally opposition, and before the Presidential campaign season could bring heightened attention to the deal.

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Right-Wing Shutdown of Ex-Im Bank Already Threatening to Kill Jobs

Conservatives deride using government to help American companies export their goods as “picking winners and losers,” even when the winners are American exporters and workers.

So Republicans have closed the Export-Import (Ex-Im) Bank, hopefully temporarily. The Ex-Im Bank provides financing guarantees to customers of American exporters if they cannot obtain financing elsewhere. This helps American companies make the sale.

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Did Obama Administration Downplay Malaysia Slavery To Grease Trade Deal?

“Pope Francis says when the economy controls politics both lose … When economics takes over we tolerate anything for the sake of the dollar.”
– Sister Simone Campbell

Cheap labor is the whole point of our corporate-rigged, NAFTA-style trade agreements. Companies get to move jobs, factories, even entire industries out of the U.S. to countries where people are exploited, the environment is not protected and “costs” like human safety are kept low.

But even so … tolerating slavery? Flat-out slavery? Really? Unfortunately, it looks like that’s what is happening with fast-track trade promotion authority, The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Obama administration.

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Export-Import Bank Shut Down, China Gets The Business Instead

Republicans have shut down the Export-Import (Ex-Im) Bank as of midnight, July 1. They are touting it as a blow against “corporate welfare” and “crony capitalism.” But who are the real winners here?

It’s certainly not us workers.

Last year the bank helped finance almost $30 billion worth of U.S. exports — things made here, by workers employed here. Germany, Japan, China and many other countries have similar agencies. Now they will be picking up that business. Our trade deficit will increase. Jobs, wages and factories will move elsewhere.

Export Assistance

The United States does not have an economic/industrial policy that supports American manufacturing. Meanwhile, other countries support their industries. As a result, the U.S. has an enormous, humongous trade deficit, trading American assets for foreign-made commodities. We lose jobs, factories, companies, and entire industries to countries that understand the long-term benefits to their economies of national investment in key, strategic industries. On the other hand, a few people here get enormously wealthy from selling off our net worth in the short term. So, there’s that.

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Enormous, Humongous May Trade Deficit Slows Economy

The U.S. Census Bureau reported Tuesday that the May goods and services trade deficit was an enormous, humongous $40.9 billion, up a bit from an enormous, humongous $40.7 billion in April.

Our enormous, humongous trade deficit is a measure of how many jobs, factories, companies and industries we are losing to our pro-Wall Street trade policies. A trade deficit drains our economy of wealth, jobs and future economic opportunity.

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Now We Build A Fair Trade Movement

Fast track trade authority passed last week. So many of us fought so hard but The Money won again – this time. What do we do now?

We take this awareness and energy into the fight against the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). And then, win or lose, we build a fair trade movement that will eventually rewrite all of our trade agreements and policies so that they work for We the People instead of just a few people.

Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats

On the one hand, Wall Street and the big corporations again pushed through a rigged process called “fast track” that keeps us and our Congress from “meddling” with corporate-written agreements setting down the “rules for trade in the 21st century.” And those rules are, of course, going to be very good for the plutocrats who write them and very bad for the rest of us. Fast track seriously greases the skids to get TPP and other trade deals through so it will be a very tough fight.

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Wall Street And Big Corporations Got What They Wanted – This Time

Fast track passes. Our Congress – the supposed representatives of We the People – voted to cut themselves and us out of the process of deciding what “the rules” for doing business “in the 21st Century” will be.

How do the plutocrats and oligarchs and their giant multinational corporations get what they want when a pesky democracy is in their way? They push that pesky democracy out of their way.

Because of fast track, when the secret Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and any other secretly negotiated “trade” agreements are completed Congress must vote in a hurry with only limited debate, cannot make any amendments no matter what is in the agreement, and they can’t be filibustered. Nothing else coming before our Congress gets that kind of skid-greasing, only corporate-written “trade” agreements – and it doesn’t matter how far the contents go beyond actual “trade.”

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Will TPP Kill The Post Office?

Corporations are notorious for sneaking things into laws and regulations before the public can find out and rally to stop it. And we know from the conservative Supreme Court arguments against the Affordable Care Act that even what amounts to a typo can be used to change the obvious meaning and intent of a law.

These are reasons we need to see the text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership before Congress votes to preapprove it with fast track trade promotion authority (TPA). They are pushing what is literally a pig in a poke on us. We the People need to open that bag and have a good, long look inside before fast track buys the TPP pig in our name.

Negotiated in secret by corporate representatives, it is probable that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is loaded with things the big corporations have snuck in. We already know from leaks that TPP contains provisions allowing companies to sue our government in “corporate courts” if they feel a law or regulation is cutting into their profits. What else is in there?

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All Hands On Deck: House Fast Track Vote Could Come This Week

ALL HANDS ON DECK. This is not a drill. The vote in the House of Representatives on fast track trade authority, preapproving the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) before the public finds out what is in it, is coming up very soon. It is even possible it could happen later this week. The Senate has already passed fast track; if the House passes this it goes to President Obama and he will sign it. That will make TPP a done deal.

Fast track is a weird procedure, invented by President Richard Nixon, whereby Congress sets aside the normal procedures for considering, debating and voting on a bill – but only for so-called “trade” agreements. Under fast track Congress agrees to rush the agreement through with little debate, agrees not to make any amendments, and not to filibuster it. (How else could they get approval for deals that allow companies to ship jobs and factories out of the country to places where workers and the environment are not protected?)

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Trade Deficit At Root Of Negative Economic Growth Report

The Bureau of Economic Analysis reported today that the gross domestic product (GDP) fell at an annual rate of 0.7 percent in the first quarter of 2015. Much of the reason is our trade deficit.

The Bureau of Economic Analysis reported today that the gross domestic product (GDP) fell at an annual rate of 0.7 percent in the first quarter of 2015.

Our enormous, humongous trade deficit is literally draining our economy. The trade deficit is because we import things we used to make here and sell there, but we allowed companies to move the factories and jobs there in order to force wages down here. This makes a few plutocrats vastly wealthy but it is killing jobs, wages, factories and our middle class.

Trade Deficit Subtracted 2 Percent From Growth

The White House issued an analysis by Jason Furman, Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, explaining this was because of “harsh winter weather, tepid foreign demand, and consumers saving the windfall from lower oil prices.” The statement largely (and correctly) blamed “net exports.”

From the White House analysis: “A decline in the trade balance was another major contributor, partially reflecting the continued drag on U.S. exports from the slowdown in foreign growth. Indeed, net exports subtracted nearly 2 full percentage points from quarterly GDP growth.”

“Decline in the trade balance,” “tepid foreign demand” and “net exports” are other ways of saying our “trade” policies have caused an enormous, humongous trade deficit that sends away jobs, factories and our ability to maintain a middle class. A negative “net export” balance means we import more than we export, which means we have a trade deficit. We have had a trade deficit every year since the neoliberal “free trade” and “free market” ideology ascended in the late 1970s. But you won’t find the words “import” or “trade deficit” anywhere in the statement.

Now that we know what “net exports” really means, here it is again: “net exports subtracted nearly 2 full percentage points from quarterly GDP growth.” The trade deficit subtracted almost 2 percentage points from the quarter’s growth.

Close Factories Here And Move Them There = Trade Deficit

We have a trade deficit because we make “trade” deals with countries that sell to us without buying from us and then we don’t do anything to fix it. A lot of this “trade” deficit is because companies here close factories in the U.S. that made goods to sell in our retail outlets and move them to countries with little democracy, resulting in low wages and few pollution regulations. They send the goods back here to sell in the same outlets. Our “trade” deals let them do this with no cost or penalty. The executives and investors then pocket the difference in wages and cost of controlling pollution for themselves. This is why the plutocrat class that now controls our government supports these so-called “trade” deals. (It’s also why these “trade” deals have to be kept secret until Congress preapproves them with Fast Track.)

The Wall Street Journal’s At A Glance blog explains how the trade deficit cut into growth:

Trade was the biggest drag on top-line GDP figures in the opening months of the year. U.S. exports of goods fell by the most since the first quarter of 2009–the midst of the recession–while overall imports climbed. The widening deficit subtracted 1.9 percentage points from economic growth. A stronger dollar has tamped down overseas demand for U.S.-made goods while making foreign products cheaper to import. Meanwhile, congestion at West Coast ports constrained trade earlier in the year.

In “Yes, Trade Deficits Do Indeed Matter for Jobs,” Josh Bivens explains (in economese) at the Economic Policy Institute how the trade deficit is creating jobs, but not here – especially in manufacturing. He blames the trade deficit largely on currency manipulation by our so-called “trading partners”:

Trade deficits occurring when the U.S. economy is stuck below full employment and at the zero lower bound (ZLB) on short-term interest rates are a drag on economic growth and overall employment, period. And this describes the U.S. economy today, so a reduction in the trade deficit in the next couple of years spurred by a reversal of trading partners’ currency management would boost growth and jobs.

[. . .] if the trade deficit was reduced in coming years by ending widespread currency management by our trading partners, the United States would see a pick-up in output and employment growth.

[. . .] Yes, the relationship between trade deficits and jobs can be nuanced, but it’s really not that hard. In today’s U.S. economy, trade deficit reductions engineered by ending currency management would boost U.S. output and employment, and trade deficit reductions will (all else equal) always and everywhere boost manufacturing employment.

This Is The Result Of Intentional Policy Choices

From the recent post, “Enormous, Humongous March Trade Deficit Creating Jobs Elsewhere“:

This didn’t just suddenly happen. Globalization is not some kind of inevitable natural process of history that has caught up with us. This was and is the result of intentional policy choices, designed to force deindustrialization, break unions, drive down wages and benefits and increase inequality as that pay differential is pocketed by a few. This is the result of the “free market, free trade” ideology that rose up in the late 70s. Free trade policy was and is designed to give a few plutocrats and their giant corporations — “the 1 percent” — increased power over governments.

We have a trade deficit (negative “net exports”) because we import more than we export. A lot of this is imports of things that used to be made here by people who used to be paid here. Congress lets this go on because it makes a few plutocrats vastly wealthy – at the expense of the rest of us.

The trade deficit is eating our economy, closing factories, killing jobs, forcing wages down. But the White House isn’t allowed to say that because they want fast track trade authority to pass next week.

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This post originally appeared at Campaign for America’s Future (CAF) at their Blog for OurFuture. I am a Fellow with CAF. Sign up here for the CAF daily summary and/or for the Progress Breakfast.

Fast Track Hits House Next Week; Clinton Must Speak Up

The House is expected to vote on fast track trade promotion authority as soon as next week. If it passes, the corporate-negotiated Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a done deal — even though it is still secret. Why is presidential candidate Hillary Clinton still silent on this?

The Money Wants TPP — The People Do Not

TPP is the most important economic issue facing the Congress between now and the election — because it could happen, and because if it does the results will be terrible for working people. The game will be further rigged in favor of the 1 percent and against the rest of us. It will increase corporate power over governments — and us.

The Money wants TPP, because it will be very, very good for them. The people do not want fast track/TPP because it means increased corporate power, fewer jobs, more pressure, and lower pay.

A corporate/plutocrat-bought Congress is being told by The Money — Wall Street, the giant corporations and the plutocrats — to pass it, and for some incomprehensible reason President Obama will sign it. Street-level activists are fighting tooth and nail to get the word out and rally opposition. This is now. This is urgent. This is the focus.

This is an either/or. There is one side, and there is the other side. This is us vs. them. This is The Money vs. We the People. There is no in-between on this one, no waiting it out, no holding back, and no fence-sitting. It is one or the other. Not choosing a side on this is really just choosing the wrong side.

Clinton Still Silent On Fast Track

Here’s the thing: Fast track essentially pre-approves TPP. Fast track comes up for a vote as soon as next week. If fast track passes, TPP is a done deal. Where is Clinton on this?

Hillary Clinton is the leading Democratic candidate for president. A lot of activists are looking for reasons to enthusiastically support Clinton’s candidacy. She has taken great, progressive positions on immigration and other issues. But it is still early; opinions are not yet hardened. Things can change.

So far Clinton is trying to stay on the fence about fast track and TPP:

“There are questions being raised by the current agreement. I don’t know what the final provisions are yet,” she said. “I want to judge the final agreement. I have been for trade agreements, I have been against trade agreements.”

But fast track preapproves that “final agreement.” The vote on fast track in the House could be as soon as next week. After next week, TPP could be a done deal. Clinton owes it to the public to show up and lead on this. She especially owes it to the activists. They are fighting in the streets over this. They would appreciate some help. They will remember who was there with them — and who wasn’t.

Political Calculation vs. The Right Thing

Clinton’s advisors are calculating that this whole controversy will fade away after fast track’s passage makes TPP a done deal. They are trying to get her past this without taking a stand that risks putting off either side. They are betting that with time people will forget and get over it.

But to the activists on the street, this is the big one — just like the Iraq War vote was. People will remember, because people who know about it are fighting in the streets today, doing everything they can to stop this. And those people will say that taking no position is the same as being for it, because it is allowing it to happen, without laying down in front of the moving fast-track train.

Some people care about the issues, not the horse race. They care about substance, not image. Not everyone cares, to be sure, or is even paying attention yet. But in the long run the positions are what will matter, not the day’s calculated image. This is because the results of this will not fade away; they will matter to people’s lives.

For example, Nike wants TPP because it lowers the tariff on shoes imported from Vietnam and Malaysia. But when this forces New Balance to shut down their U.S. manufacturing, that will be in the news, people will feel it, and they will look back and say “Where was Clinton?”

The Iraq War vote looked like the pragmatic political position to take, but that political calculation came with a cost in the long run because the consequences of that vote mattered to people’s lives. Doing the right thing comes with a reward in the end.

Sitting back and hoping important issues just go away won’t cut it this time. You can’t make it just go away. Better yet, the way to make it just go away is to grab it by the horns and move it in the right direction.

Looking For A Champion Who Pushes For Transformative Change

People are impatient for a real champion. This is not a time to be safe, sit back, read polls, and wait out controversy. The economy simply is not working for most of us, and people know it. People see that the game is rigged and want proposals for transformative change.

There is no question that TPP is on the wrong side of this, and will result in even more hardship for the very people Clinton says she is campaigning to help. Fast Track preapproves TPP and the vote is coming up very, very soon.

Staying on the fence on this one is a mistake. By staying on the fence she risks being remembered as “No-Position Clinton” on the issue that matters most.

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This post originally appeared at Campaign for America’s Future (CAF) at their Blog for OurFuture. I am a Fellow with CAF. Sign up here for the CAF daily summary and/or for the Progress Breakfast.