Senator Lankford Is Confused About the Trade Deficit

Dean Baker

Dean Baker Co-Director, Author, Center for Economic and Policy Research

Yep, the senator from Oklahoma says it is good in a Washington Post column. Most of Senator Lankford's confusions are pretty standard, but he does come up with an original one.

"For starters, a powerful economy such as ours often runs a trade deficit because of the immense buying power of its people. Mexico’s average net per capita income is roughly $13,000, while the average U.S. household brings in more than $41,000 each year. Americans have a far greater capacity to buy goods than do consumers in Mexico. It should come as no surprise that we do exactly that."

Okay, we have a trade deficit simply because we are a rich country. I suppose someone forgot to tell Germany that it is a rich country since it has a massive trade surplus of more than 8 percent of GDP (roughly $1.6 trillion in the U.S. economy.)

He then tells us that our imports frrom Mexico will help it to grow and eventually make Mexico a better market for U.S. products. While this is true, Mexico's economy has actually grown less rapidly on a per person basis than the U.S. since NAFTA went into effect in 1994. While NAFTA may not be the cause of weak growth in Mexico, it apparently has not prevented the two economies from diverging further.

Then we get some of the standard confusion pushed by denialists:

"Foreign investment also tilts the trade-balance calculation. Because we have the world’s largest economy and the strongest currency, more money comes into the United States than goes out. This surplus of investment adds to our trade deficit, even though this foreign cash stimulus is a positive for our economy.

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The Data Defying The Job-Killing Robot Myth

Dean Baker

Dean Baker Co-Director, Author, Center for Economic and Policy Research

It’s rare that a day goes by when there is not some major story of workers losing jobs to self-driving cars and trucks or robots stocking supermarket store shelves or dishing out fast food hamburgers. The specifics may differ, but the story is the same: New technology will lead to mass unemployment. The frequency of these stories is truly striking for the simple reason that it’s so obviously not true.

The story of mass displacement of workers by robots is a story of rapid productivity growth. Robots are supposed to be doing the work formerly done by people. This means that we should be seeing far more output for each hour of human labor. This is something we can easily check, since the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) puts out data on productivity growth every quarter.

Rather than going through the roof as the robot story would imply, productivity growth has fallen through the floor. It’s averaged just 1.2 percent annually in the last 10 years and 0.6 percent in the last five years. By comparison, productivity growth averaged 3.0 percent in both the decade from 1995 to 2005 and the long Golden Age from 1947 to 1973.

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Mulvaney’s MAGAnomics Mix of Groundhog Day and Flat Out Lies

Dean Baker

Dean Baker Co-Director, Author, Center for Economic and Policy Research

Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney had a Wall Street Journal column highlighting the benefits of “MAGAnomics.” The piece can best be described as a combination of Groundhog Day and outright lies.

In terms of Groundhog Day, we have actually tried MAGAnomics twice before and it didn’t work. We had huge cuts in taxes and regulation under both President Reagan and George W. Bush. In neither case, was there any huge uptick in growth and investment. In fact, the Bush years were striking for the weak growth in the economy and especially the labor market. We saw what was at the time the longest period without net job growth since the Great Depression. And of course, his policy of giving finance free rein gave us the housing bubble and the Great Recession.

The story of the 1980s was somewhat better but hardly follows the MAGAnomics script. The economy did bounce back in 1983, following a steep recession in 1981–1982. That is generally what economies do following steep recessions that were not caused by collapsed asset bubbles. Furthermore, the bounceback was based on increased consumption, not investment as the MAGAnomics folks claim. In fact, investment in the late 1980s fell to extraordinarily low levels. It is also worth pointing out that following both tax cuts, the deficit exploded, just as conventional economics predicts.

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Trump Voters Need Good Economic Policy, Not Empathy

Dean Baker

Dean Baker Co-Director, Author, Center for Economic and Policy Research

There has been a strange debate among many liberals and progressives since the election as to whether they should have empathy for the people who voted for Donald Trump. After all, Trump is a pretty reprehensible character who has pledged to do some pretty awful things in the White House. Is there a reason that people should have empathy for the voters who put him there?

Whatever answer you pick to that question, there is another set of questions that should be simpler for progressives to answer. What are the right economic policies to be pursuing for the working class? This is a question of designing policies that may help people who voted for Trump, but will also help tens of millions of people, largely people of color, who did not vote for Trump. Progressive economic policy has to place the interests of ordinary workers, and those unable to work, at the top of the agenda.

One item that should be laid out at the beginning of this discussion is that government policy, and specifically its trade policy, did in fact screw millions of workers and their families in the last decade. It is very fashionable to pretend the massive loss in manufacturing jobs was due to automation -- the natural march of technology, not trade. That is a lie.

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Financial Transactions Taxes: Job Killing Robots for the Wall Street Hedge Fund Crew

Dean Baker

Dean Baker Co-Director, Author, Center for Economic and Policy Research

Last week, Representative Peter DeFazio reintroduced his financial transactions tax (FTT) proposal. The bill would impose a tax 0.03 percent on trades of stock, bonds, options, and other derivative instruments. (That's 3 cents on $100 of trades.) This can be thought of as the equivalent of a sales tax imposed on financial transactions, which are now largely untaxed.

According to the Joint Tax Committee, this tax would raise roughly $400 billion over a 10-year budget horizon. This translates into 0.2 percent of GDP. That would cover about 60 percent of the annual food stamp budget.

The tax would also dampen speculative trading on Wall Street. Many trades that involve flipping assets in a matter of minutes or even seconds would become unprofitable with even this small tax. This could make financial markets more stable.

But the really neat aspect of this tax is that it all comes out of the hide of Wall Street, rather than ordinary investors. Considerable research shows that trading volume declines roughly in proportion to the increase in trading costs.

This means that if the DeFazio proposal would raise trading costs by one-third, then trading volume would fall by roughly one-third. Investors will pay one third more on each trade, but they will carry out one-third fewer trades. This means their total cost of trading with the tax will be no larger than it was without the tax. (The Tax Policy Center of the Urban Institute and the Brooking Institution actually assumed that trading volume fall by 25 percent more than the percentage increase in trading costs, meaning that total trading costs would fall as a result of the tax.)

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Reaching Out To The Working Class

Dean Baker

Dean Baker Co-Director, Author, Center for Economic and Policy Research

In the months following the election there has been a strange debate about whether Democrats should try to recapture the white working class voters who supported Donald Trump. Those arguing against reaching out have said that there is no reason to try to appeal to voters who supported a racist, xenophobic, and misogynist candidate.

While no one should have empathy for the hatred expressed by Donald Trump and many of his supporters, there is a separate policy issue. The question is whether progressives should look to support policies that help the working class.

Note that I said “working class,” not “white working class.” It’s true that many white manufacturing workers have been hit badly by changes in the economy over the last four decades, most notably the rise in the trade deficit and the decline in unionization. But millions of African American working class workers were also hit by these same trends, as were working class Hispanics, although fewer Hispanics were working in factories three decades ago.

Workers without college degrees have been losers in the last three decades regardless of their race or ethnic background. This is a simple and important point, but one that is widely misunderstood.

In recent months there actually have been severalpieces in major news outlets arguing the opposite: that somehow white workers are unique in losing out over this period. These analyses, that ostensibly showed that African Americans and Hispanics had done better in the labor market than whites, either failed to control for the aging of the population or relied on picking a single month of highly erratic data rather than a longer time period. Any honest account shows that workers without college degrees have faced a weak labor market and stagnant wages over the last four decades.

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The Trouble With Trade: People Understand It

Dean Baker

Dean Baker Co-Director, Author, Center for Economic and Policy Research

Ever since Donald Trump was elected there has been a huge backlash among elite-types against those blaming trade for their problems. Major news outlets have been filled with misleading and dishonest stories claiming that the real cause of manufacturing job loss has been automation and that people are stupid to worry about trade.

In fact, people are exactly right to be concerned about the impact of our trade policies on their living standards. It is the fact that people are right that is worrying our elites. Trade is just one of the areas in which politicians of both parties have promoted policies to redistribute income upward. It just happens to be the area in which the impact is most recognizable and therefore people have mounted an effective resistance.

The story with trade is simple. When a manufacturing worker in the U.S. is placed in direct competition with a worker in Mexico, China, or some other developing country, who earns one-tenth of their pay, it puts downward pressure on their wages. Either their jobs go away or they are forced to take substantial pay cuts to keep their job.

This competition has cost a huge number of manufacturing jobs in this century. It has also put downward pressure directly on the wages of manufacturing workers and indirectly on the wages of less-educated workers more generally, as displaced manufacturing workers sought jobs in other sectors.

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Truthiness On Trade

Dean Baker

Dean Baker Co-Director, Author, Center for Economic and Policy Research

With the official death of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the likely renegotiation of NAFTA, the proponents of these deals are doubling down in their defense of the current course of U.S. trade policy. While there are serious arguments that can be made in defense of these policies, advocates are instead seeking to deny basic reality.

These trade policy proponents are trying to deny that these policies have hurt large segments of the workforce and are claiming that the people, who believe that they were hurt by trade, are simply misinformed. The proponent’s story is that the real cause of job loss was the impersonal force of technology, not a trade policy that deliberately placed U.S. manufacturing workers in direct competition with low paid workers in the developing world.

Fortunately this is a case where the facts are clear. The people who think they were hurt by trade are right. It is the people who blame technology who are misinformed or worse.

The obvious error in the technology or automation story is that automation is not anything new. We have been seeing increases in productivity in manufacturing forever; it is not something that just happened in the last two decades. In fact, the most rapid period of technological change was in the quarter century from 1947 to 1973, not the last two decades.

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Painful Nonsense on Trade

Dean Baker

Dean Baker Co-Director, Author, Center for Economic and Policy Research

It really is amazing how much effort elite types expend denying that trade has cost us manufacturing jobs. The latest entry is from Robert Samuelson who tells us that it isn't true that manufacturing jobs have been lost to trade. Samuelson's main source on this is Brad DeLong, who is actually a very good economist and surely knows better.

Samuelson tells readers:

"Contrary to popular opinion, trade is not a major cause of job loss. It’s true that U.S. manufacturing has suffered a dramatic long-term employment erosion, sliding from roughly one-third of nonfarm jobs in 1950 to a quarter of jobs in the early 1970s to a little less than 9 percent now, according to economist J. Bradford DeLong of the University of California at Berkeley in an essay posted on Vox. But the main cause is automation."

The cheap trick here is going back to 1950. Yes, we have lost lots of manufacturing jobs to automation and over a 70 year period that does swamp the impact of the jobs lost due to trade, but this is really a dishonest way to present the issue. Manufacturing was declining as a share of total employment even in the 1950s and 1960s, but the pace was modest enough and we were creating enough jobs in other sectors that the job loss still allowed for real wage growth in both manufacturing and the economy as a whole.

 

What is at issue is the rate of decline, not the fact that manufacturing employment is dropping. The graph below shows the number of manufacturing jobs in the economy since 1970.

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Yes Folks, Trade Does Affect Manufacturing Employment

Dean Baker

Dean Baker Co-Director, Author, Center for Economic and Policy Research

You need not be a fan of Donald Trump to say that trade has had a big impact on manufacturing jobs, you really just need to be someone in the reality-based community. Unfortunately, a lot of people who should, and probably do, know better are insisting that trade is not a big deal. The story is that we lost the jobs due to productivity growth, not trade.

There are three points worth making here. The first is a simple logical one, we have a trade deficit of around $500 billion a year, a bit less than 3.0 percent of GDP. This is basically all due to a deficit in manufactured goods (we have a surplus on services). Does anyone believe that the extra imports associated with the trade deficit are not associated with jobs? Can $500 billion worth of manufactured goods be produced without hiring people? (This matters much more in a context where we face secular stagnation, meaning there is not enough overall demand in the economy.)

The second point is that our trade deficit has not always been this large. Our deficits had been around 1.0 percent of GDP through most of the period from the late 1970s until the East Asian crisis in 1997. Following the crisis, the value of the dollar soared and the trade deficit did also. It eventually peaked at almost 6.0 percent of GDP in 2005–2006. (I should be giving the non-oil deficit, but I'm too lazy to look that up just now.)

Anyhow, this explosion in the trade deficit coincided with a sharp decline in manufacturing employment.

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