Trump and the Trade Deficit

When Trump or his supporters mention the trade deficit as a problem, they are treated as ignoramuses. It is assumed that they don’t understand that there are gains from trade and that the idea that countries producing goods or service in which they have a comparative advantage making everyone better off is too complicated for them to understand.

But people complaining about the trade deficit have obviously heard this argument many times before. To harp on this basic point as if they don’t understand it is extremely counterproductive. Some of their favored policies to fix the problems may have too many unintended consequences but they are right to point at our trade deficit as a symptom of significant problems.

In 2015, the current account balance, which includes the balance of trade, net income and cash transfers, was -2.7% of GDP. We are not very close to potential crisis levels. So why are people who understand gains from trade still so worried about trade deficits?

For one, comparative advantages are not stable ratios in the long run. When those who worry about trade deficits look at manufacturing going overseas, they don’t just see a company taking advantage of low priced labor. They see technical knowhow being given to future competitors. The Chinese factory next week is going to lower prices for US consumers and expand profit margins of a US company at the expense of a few workers in the US. A few years later, the foreman leaves and sets up a competitor and starts undercutting the US company’s prices when they sell to the rest of the world. What used to be a comparative advantage for the US vis-à-vis the rest of the world is now one for China.

From a global perspective, everyone is still better off. Chinese workers are rising from poverty and European consumers get even cheaper goods than when they were buying them from the United States. But from a nationalist perspective, America loses. Reducing certain types of technology transfer is not a crazy goal, it’s what needs to be done at some level to keep the United States richer than the rest of the world. There are good and bad ways to reduce the transfer of technology. The best policies to police technology transfer are very complicated as companies have global supply chains and many types of technological expertise are not going to be easy to attain or reattain. And perhaps more difficult for politicians to navigate, there are always rent seeking corporations who would like to charge domestic consumers higher prices in the name of protecting American competitiveness.  

Even many of those in the anti-Trump camp understand the need to prevent technology transfer intuitively when it is framed differently. Many are still lobbying for ways to remove immigration barriers for talented students trained by our world class colleges. Sending those college graduates back to their country of origin transfers technology the same way that moving production overseas does. What’s obvious is that protecting our technological edge is a policy that can make Americans better off when applied properly.

Another aspect of the trade deficit is that it indicates that America is not as efficient as we would like. If companies were less restrained by regulatory hurdles, it’s very possible that the United States would be the low-cost leader in far more categories and exporting far more goods and services than it does now. If the EPA was less stringent it’s obvious that we would be importing fewer commodities because we’d be producing more. And if it happens that whole industries are being threatened in the United States, looking to streamline the regulatory and compliance costs could solve the issue more effectively than implementing tariffs against the new low cost competitors. There are real political tradeoffs when it comes to policies that create our trade deficit, the policy disagreements aren’t about whether there are gains from trade.

Trade deficits aren’t just about production; they are also about consumption. Increasing debt levels, both personal and governmental, allow for consumption in excess of production. US citizens are living better now, but it’s at the expense of a run up in debt and potentially their future quality of life. If economic growth is healthy then kicking the can down the road makes sense, let those richer people of the future deal with the problem. But that’s a big if for many people living in communities who are not finding the same opportunities as their parents in the global market thanks to consistent technology transfers abroad and the increasing cost of doing business in the United States.

Many economists will point out that the United States is a safe haven where people around the world park their money, and that’s a good thing that helps create our trade deficit and current account deficit. But just look at Switzerland, also a widely acknowledged safe haven. They have a trade surplus and current account surplus of around 10% of GDP. It’s nice that everyone wants to invest in the United States, but it would be better if US citizens had even more wealth to invest in the rest of the world.

The trade deficit is a symptom of many underlying problems. There is basically no way that a blanket policy of tariffs to brute force the deficit into a surplus will make things better. But if many of the inefficiencies and problems of the United States economy were fixed the deficit would go away. The trade deficit is representative of real problems and there are things that politicians should be doing to address them.