Friday, December 17, 2010

Economics for the Neoconservative

Over at Andrew Wilkow's forum (God, help us all) I tried to engage in a discussion about the "Buy American" movement with a woman who believes we'd be better off doing just that. When I inquired about her excuse for agreeing with Obama on this matter (thought that might give her pause) she replied:

my excuse is that i want America to the best. I see that happening only when we buy things we can produce on our own first. I'd like to not have to buy anything made elsewhere. screw em all. Americans should be growing our own produce, making our own cogs, etc,,,i didnt bother to open your links,,,i dont care about your opinion all that much,,meh

The links she was referring to were to the Wikipedia entry for "comparative advantage" and an editorial on the CATO website ripping apart Obama's "Buy American" initiative. Apparently she didn't have the time to be bothered by "words and stuff." Nevertheless I pressed on with a response that I thought was generally simple enough to explain to anyone why buying American or pushing people to buy American isn't always the best thing for Americans. This is part of my response:

Maybe you don't care about my opinion much for whatever reason. I can't do anything about that. But have you ever tried digging into an economic text-book; or even Hazlitt's Economics in One Lesson that Wilkow throws homage to on occasion? I'm not asking that facetiously - because this really isn't a matter of my personal opinion; it's about basic economics.

It's hard to dissect exactly what someone means when they say, "I want America to be the best." In this context I would take it to mean either you want Americans to be the most productive or the most well-off...and in either case, trying to keep trade within our own borders would hamper each of those ideals. Even though people are talking about countries like China closing the cap, Americans are BY FAR the most productive people on the planet (thanks to our excess of capital). We could make the simple products we buy from other countries (clothes, food, electronics) if we wanted. But comparative advantage tells us that even if we are better at making cheap things than other people, we are still better off doing the most productive thing we're capable of instead, and then buying the less exotic or labor demanding products from other countries.

If you try to push American labor into markets that no longer have good returns (as per our productive capacity), you will actually be lowering our GDP and subsequently our standard of living. If you try to set up trade barriers to artificially stifle the free market and protect the wages of people who engage in such labor, you will certainly make those people better off, but you will (in the process) hurt every other American who sees the price of cheap staples inflate. This is the economic problem that protectionists (who are predominantly liberal BTW) have to face.

When someone like, say, Obama politically wrangles over the idea of China flooding the market with cheap tires, what most people see is US manufacturers of tires being hurt (which is true). What they don't see are the millions of Americans who would be able to better afford tires, and would then have more discretionary income to spend on other products (which may be American-made).

If you're still scratching your head, sometimes it's better to break things down on a micro-level with simple analogies. If you think America would be better off (in whatever terms you mean) by just trading with other Americans (whenever possible) then reduce the problem. Would Virginians be better off if they only traded with Virginians? Would people in Richmond be better off if they only traded with people from Richmond? Would a household be better off only trading their services with other people in that household?

It's true that the more you limit your trading partners, the more "employed" you will be - largely because with a smaller network of trade people will find themselves doing things they're less productive doing. In an open market, I may find that I'm good at programming...and I might contract those services out to people in others states or countries for a pretty penny. If I limit trade to within my household, all of a sudden there's a smaller pool of people to produce the things I need (clothes, food, etc.), and possibly no one in that household is particularly skilled at producing any of these things. This is lower productivity - more labor being spent to produce what I consume. All of a sudden you find yourself living on a subsistence level a la the year 1,500 (AD).

You can extrapolate that (to a more or lesser degree) with restricting your trade (self-imposed or not) to/at any level. It's the "fetish of full employment" (Hazlitt term). People are so concerned with people from their particular country being employed that they blind themselves to how their ideal might actually end up hurting more people. A protectionist would implore that we still buy American cars as opposed to cheaper foreign cars (to protect American auto-workers of course). But extrapolate that out a little more.

If one morning millions of brand new vehicles started washing up on our shores it would cripple American auto-workers - but would Americans really be better off by turning down free cars, pushing them back into the sea? Was the production of farming equipment that eventually unemployed 80% of Americans a boon or a death knell? Would you implore Americans then to not use such machinery, to keep 90% of us gainfully employed picking fruits and vegetables all year round?

I would hope that you would think twice before you push for something like that (particularly if you have a significant care for your fellow countrymen). It doesn't matter whether it's a machine or inferior foreign labor - if we can get something using less of our labor, that is a good thing for us. It may temporarily hurt a specific interest group, but as long as there is something we demand, there is always an avenue for labor - it's simply a matter of time. All the liberal/collectivist protectionist aims at stifling trade or technological progress in the name of saving jobs does nothing but keep those Americans you care about so much about poorer.

I'm predicting her response will be classically bad...but we shall see.

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