Save Trade

I have written about the importance of trade to our standard of living many times because it seems to be under attack. The graph below, which reflects Angus Maddison’s data showing a massive increase in income throughout the world over the last two centuries and which is reproduced, courtesy of Human Progress, provides a dramatic visual depiction of the impact of Trade.

Once households were able to trade what they produced for what they needed, the increase in their output as they specialized in what they were best at was truly staggering. But it is not surprising when you reflect on how limiting it would be if you had to be self sufficient in everything.

Following the disastrous imposition of high tariffs by the U.S. in 1930 (Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act) to save American jobs and the great depression and world war that followed, representatives of all 44 Allied nations came together under U.S. leadership at Bretton Woods in 1944 anticipating the end of World War II. They established the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and what is now the World Trade Organization (WTO) in order to establish, protect, and further a liberal international economic order (i.e., to protect and promote free markets globally).  Trade again flourished, as it had previously at the end of the nineteenth century, leading a resumption of dramatic growth in wealth and income across the globe.

The United States was the natural (indispensable) leader in promoting this liberal order for several reasons. By the end of WWII the U.S. was the largest economy in the world. And while the size of the United States and the guarantee of free trade within its boarders provided in the U.S. Constitution assured substantial trade within the U.S., opening the rest of the world to trade was very beneficial to all countries (win-win). The Boeing Company, for example, sells more of its planes abroad than domestically because the world market is larger than the U.S. market. So the U.S. is the natural leader because it is the largest trader. But more than that, most other countries respect the commitment of the U.S. to the rule of law and a level playing field for commerce. Thus they gladly accept our leadership.

The world is far from the ideal level playing field for trade but is much closer to that model than it was at the end of WWII. The WTO (the successor of the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs – GATT) and regional and bilateral trade agreements keep moving us closer and closer to such a world. It is a very desirable goal for the United States and for the rest of the world (look at the above graph again). As with technical progress and the increasing productivity it brings, some capital and labor (workers) will need to move to new activities and we need to insure that displaced workers do not suffer in the process (we seem to care less about the displaced capitalists assuming, I guess, that they can take care of themselves).

While it is still early, President-elect Trump seems uncommitted to the U.S. leadership of our increasingly liberal (freer) international economic order. In fact, he is threatening to throw it away by unilaterally imposing tariffs on imports and behaving like a bully internationally. We need to recall the terrible consequences of the Smoot-Hawley tariffs and resist any moves in that direction.

It is true that following WWII the U.S. often gave favorable terms to Europe (the Marshall Plan) and less developed countries in order to promote their reconstruction and development (“Trade not Aid” we used to say). The world’s economies are now growing into better balance and the U.S. is no longer as dominant as it once was. The international rules of the game (trade agreements) can and should seek a better balance of mutual benefits. But we would be making a very serious mistake to give up our leadership of the world order and abandon our commitment to free and fair global commerce.

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About wcoats

Dr. Warren L. Coats specializes in advising central banks on monetary policy, and in the development of their capacity to formulate and implement monetary policy. He is retired from the International Monetary Fund, where, as Assistant Director of the Monetary and Financial Systems Department, he led missions to over twenty countries. Before then, he served as Visiting Economist to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, and to the World Bank, and was Assistant Prof of Economics at the Univ. of Virginia from 1970-75. Most recently he was Senior Monetary Policy Advisor to the Central Bank of Iraq; an IMF consultant to the central banks of Afghanistan, Kenya and Zimbabwe; and a Deloitte/USAID advisor to the Government of South Sudan. He is currently a member of the Editorial Board of the Cayman Financial Review and until the end of 2013 was a member of the IMF program team for Afghanistan. His most recent book is entitled "One Currency for Bosnia: Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina."
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