Donald Trump says trade wars are ‘good, and easy to win.’ He’s flat-out wrong

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Publication Date: 
March 2, 2018

In a tweet Friday, President Trump said that trade wars were “good, and easy to win.”

Trump’s argument is causing turmoil on stock markets. It is also based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how trade works. Here’s what you need to know.

Trade has benefits — even when you are running a trade deficit

Trump’s claims are a reversion to the “mercantilist” thinking that used to characterize arguments about trade centuries ago. Under this logic, trade was a zero-sum game. If I were a ruler, and my country bought more from your country than vice versa, this suggested that my country was losing and yours was winning. As the classical economist David Ricardo pointed out two centuries ago, this argument wasn’t really true. Ricardo’s simple model of “comparative advantage” has been replaced by more sophisticated models, but the basic argument remains straightforward. Different countries are able to produce particular goods more or less efficiently. The more free trade there is, the easier it will be to take advantage of these efficiencies in a kind of international division of labor.

This is what President Trump doesn’t understand. He seems to think that a big deficit means that other countries are winning and America is losing. Hence, he argues that it makes sense for the United States not to trade with countries with which it is running big trade deficits.

Trump's announcement of a 25 percent tariff on steel imports could greatly affect products that you may not know depend on it, like Reddi-wip.(Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)

However, this would involve America cutting off its nose to spite its face. By withdrawing from trade with those countries, America would no longer be able to reap the benefits of trade’s efficiencies. Consumers would pay higher prices for goods. Furthermore, many American manufacturers would probably be hurt, too. Manufacturing these days often involves global supply chains, in which manufacturers source basic inputs or components from overseas suppliers. Blocking trade with some countries would disrupt these supply chains, causing enormous trouble and possible job losses.

Trade is still political

This does not mean that trade benefits everybody. When trade increases, some domestic industries and some social groups win, while others lose. This point sometimes gets lost in public debate. As Robert Driskill points out, economists have a tendency to gloss over the fact that actual free trade agreements involve winners and losers. Economists often scorn their opponents as Luddites  but the original Luddites had a point. They were weavers working in a free market system whose livelihood was destroyed by economic innovation. The sophisticated case for free trade involves compensation paid by the winners to the losers, as some economists have come to recognize.For example, the United States used to have a much bigger domestic steel industry, which employed workers with good wages and pensions. As international trade increased, U.S. firms that use steel benefited from cheaper suppliers. However, domestic steel producers found it hard to compete, and many of them went out of business. U.S. steel workers found themselves losing jobs, and many of them saw their pensions evaporate into thin air.

Read the full piece at The Washington Post