Trump’s Awful Tariff Plans Will Hurt America

He plans a 35% tariff on goods manufactured by American firms abroad:

This is less coherent economic doctrine and more puffed-up pseudo-alpha male posturing. Unfortunately, given that the man is about to become President, it will also be executive policy. Things, in other words, are about to get an awful lot more expensive for the American consumer.

Because it will be the consumer who pays the price to subsidize American manufacturing. As this excellent rundown by Taos Turner and Paul Kiernan of The Wall Street Journal explains, that is what happens when countries engage in naked protectionism via import tariffs:

As U.S. President-elect Donald Trump contemplates tariffs and other limits on trade, he might consider the results of such protectionist measures in two economies on the other end of the hemisphere, in Argentina and Brazil.

For decades, South America’s two largest economies have tried to shield their workers from global trade, largely through high tariffs and regulations that promote domestic production over imports. The World Bank ranks Argentina and Brazil among the world’s most closed big economies.

In Brazil, locally made products are enshrined in the constitution. Gadget-loving Argentines often use the black market or go to Miami to buy iPhones, which were barred for years because Apple wouldn’t produce them in Argentina.

These protectionist policies have created tens of thousands of well-paid factory jobs and may have helped avoid factory layoffs like those that rattled Midwestern U.S. states like Michigan. But they have come at a huge cost to consumers, who now pay higher prices, and to taxpayers, who underwrite the subsidies. Taken together, these measures essentially transfer wealth from society at large to a smaller group of workers.

These policies have not transformed Argentina or Brazil into industrial powerhouses. Far from it. These two countries—sitting in 36th and 54th place in the world—lag way behind the United States in terms of manufacturing value added per capita.

In other words, the consumer pays massive tariff costs for the high quality foreign-made goods they want—things like, for example, iPhones, Japanese and German cars, etc—to subsidize unproductive and non-competitive domestic operations. And those subsidized operations don’t do much in terms of adding economic value. That’s because they’re not internationally competitive. Protectionism weakens a country’s domestic industry by shielding it from market competition. A choice between a cheaper but inferior subsidized domestic good, and an artificially more expensive foreign good of higher quality is a choice between the worst of both worlds.

Today, this kind of protectionism may not even do much to create subsidized jobs. Companies may well take up Trump on his offer and manufacture domestically. But that doesn’t mean jobs will come roaring back. Robotics, A.I., and automation are advancing to an extent where automated factories can churn out huge volumes without employing many people.

This would be a worst-of-both-worlds scenario. Domestic production may increase without an attendant increase in industrial employment. International goods will become inordinately expensive, hitting the American consumer—and every American is an American consumer—hard in the pocketbook.

It’s just the kind of policy you’d expect if the President was an ignorant, overconfident blowhard who spent his hours trolling on Twitter, rather than listening to economics experts, or intelligence briefings.

Beyond Good And Evil


It is tiring to hear voters complain about having to stump for a lesser evil.

The whole notion of purity in life — but especially in politics — is Manichean at best, and sophomoric at worst. Every choice in life and politics is a shade of grey. Pretending that any political candidate is anything other than a mesh of good and ill — much of it unintentional — is facile. Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein and Gary Johnson are shades of grey. Policies that appear to be unadulteratedly pure and progressive can have negative consequences for many people. Ban fracking? Lose jobs, reduce economic activity. Never intervene militarily in a foreign country again? Fail to prevent another Rwanda or Nazi Germany. Turn away from free trade agreements such as NAFTA and TPP? Lose cheap imports, reduce economic activity globally, and risk expensive and damaging trade wars.  Overturn Citizens United? Quieten wealthy campaigners you agree with, as well as those you disagree with.

That’s not to say that those policies would not also have some positive effects, too, for some people. The reality is that the outcome of these supposedly pure and progressive policies is a patchwork quilt of good and ill, just as it is for any policies. Politics is an art of trying to counterbalance to maximize the positives against the negatives. This is tough. And politicians are trying to do it in foresight, not hindsight, which makes it much harder.

The pursuit of purity and perfection in politics is a delusional pursuit, and a showcase for naïveté. Every choice in politics is about trying to identify and pursue the lesser evil (or, in other words, the greater good). It was forever thus. Hillary Clinton makes no bones about being a pragmatist, and a shade of grey. Yes, the Clinton Foundation accepted money from  countries with questionable human rights records. Yes, she voted for the Iraq war (a decision she accepted in hindsight was wrong and apologized for).  Yes, she voted for the bank bailouts. All of these choices have had mixed effects, a combination of good and ill.

I admire her pragmatism, and her rejection of puritanism. She’s no High Sparrow. (Nor is she Mussolini, another ardent political purist). And I like that about her.

Political Correctness And The Extreme Fragmentation Of Society In Modernity

One of the defining cultural events of the 2016 election season so far has been the overwhelming rejection of the notion of political correctness expressed in the Republican selection of Donald Trump as presidential nominee. Here is Trump expounding his view on political correctness:


What is the political correctness that the Trump supporters are rejecting?

Trump-supporting website gives the following definition:

In his novel 1984, George Orwell imagined a future world where speech was greatly restricted.

He called that the language that the totalitarian state in his novel created “Newspeak”, and it bears a striking resemblance to the political correctness that we see in America right now.

According to Wikipedia, Newspeak is “a reduced language created by the totalitarian state as a tool to limit free thought, and concepts that pose a threat to the regime such as freedom, self-expression, individuality, peace, etc. Any form of thought alternative to the party’s construct is classified as ‘thoughtcrime.’”

Infowars then lists 19 examples, from “The Missouri State Fair… permanently bann[ing] a rodeo clown from performing because he wore an Obama mask” to “a Florida police officer” losing his job for calling Trayvon Martin a “thug”, to “the governor of California signing a bill to allow transgendered students to use whatever bathroom and gym facilities they would like”.

The overriding concern expressed by the Trumpians appears to be that liberals are trying to enforce their worldview through the use of language. They are trying, in other words, to promote their own worldview through making it difficult to dissent from the “politically correct” version of reality.

I disagree that political correctness is an entirely or even largely liberal phenomenon. To be blunt and upfront with my thesis, this is because what is politically correct is a matter of subjective opinion. We each — as human beings — have our own notion of what is the politically correct way to frame an argument or think about a situation or system. So that which is “politically correct” for one person or group of people is absolutely politically incorrect for another person or group of people. In other words, every side of the argument has its own “politically correct” version of reality.

For example, advocates of transgender rights and particularly the notion that it is possible for a person to be born transgender would likely be outraged at the notion that Caitlyn Jenner was born as a male, and so is still a man in spite of transitioning to living as a woman. The notion that Caitlyn Jenner is a man is politically (and factually) incorrect to this first group. And by contrast, advocates of rigid and unchangeable gender roles would likely be outraged by the notion that Caitlyn Jenner is now a woman, and can use the women’s bathroom. The notion that Caitlyn Jenner is a woman is politically (and factually) incorrect to this second group.

I even disagree that political correctness is a new phenomenon. What was McCarthyism, if not a hardcore form of right-wing political correctness? What was the Bush Administration renaming French Fries as Freedom Fries as protest over the French government’s refusal to participate in the Iraq war if not trying to use language to police reality?

Of course, it is completely possible for someone to believe that X is true and respectfully disagree with the opposing view that X is not true, and vice versa.

But that is hardly the direction that the country is headed. Many metrics show that Americans are becoming more and more politically polarized, as this chart via Pew illustrates:


Perhaps what people really mean when they say they are frustrated with political correctness is that they are frustrated with just how disengaged they are from the other side.

With that in mind, what the selection of Donald Trump represents is not so much a rejection of political correctness as a scorched-earth rejection of the other side’s version of reality. In other words, the polarization is becoming more extreme and both sides’ versions of what is “politically correct” are becoming more distinct and noticeable.

This all, of course, is an outgrowth of the pluralism of modernity. American society has become increasingly pluralistic as it has become increasingly diverse and tolerant of alternative lifestyles.

This is entirely unsurprising. With more freedom and liberty comes divergence. People are variable and heterogeneous. They are not all motivated by the same things and in pursuit of the same goals. Giving people freedom to pursue their own goals and interests inevitably leads to pluralism, if not to full-blown polarization.

This is why Trump’s policies are necessarily authoritarian. In order to beat back the pluralism of modernity, Trump advocates authoritarian policies that reduce liberty with the design of building a more cohesive society. Banning Muslims from entering the U.S. decreases diversity and pluralism. Deporting undocumented migrants decreases diversity and pluralism. Building a wall at the border is an instrument of reducing diversity and pluralism. And the show of naked authoritarianism itself makes society fearful. The most successful totalitarian states are the ones — such as North Korea — where a sheepish public polices itself.

Trump, of course, would point out that these measures were the norm throughout most of American history and that the status quo is some kind of freakish digression. But to boil it down to its core essence, “Making American Great Again” is about turning back multiculturalism toward monoculture. It is, ultimately, about enforcing an idea — that a more cohesive and less diverse society is a good thing — on everyone else.

Of course, when you have two groups whose understanding of the world fundamentally disagrees, it is very hard to achieve unity and stability. Lots of wars have been fought over this very kind of thing. The notion of a culture war is actually quite prescient as cultural warfare is exactly what is occurring between the Trumpians and the liberals.

I doubt that either side will be victorious. The fragmentation of the world that has led to these divergences is probably not the result of a liberal conspiracy or liberal control of government. It is much more likely to be a result of technology. Why? Well, consider the way that technology is fragmenting the media. It is much easier to live in a local monoculture when your main source of global news is a town notice board, or two radio channels, or four TV channels, or even fifty cable channels, than it is when your main source of global news is the huge and varied and exponentiating internet. As technology continues to fragment communication and the spread of ideas, people will continue to pursue their own individual interests with the effect of further cultural divergence. Virtual reality will be a very important technology in developing this, as it will begin to let us not only listen to our own FOX News/MSNBC echo chambers, but live in virtual worlds to suit our own tastes. We are heading toward a world where we can build our own echo chambers and shut off anything we find offensive or unpleasant.

In other words, if you think that cultural fragmentation is bad now — or that the Trump supporters are suggesting extreme measures in order to reimpose a degree of cultural hegemony — you ain’t seen nothing yet. The decentralization of warfare through the adaptation of drone technology and things like 3-D printed guns and bullets means that many skirmishes will likely be fought over this stuff again.

The Economics of Building That Wall


Photo by: Matt Clark.

First things first: the U.S. already has a border wall with Mexico. This is a widely-documented fact, illustrated in detail by National Geographic. If Trump supporters had bothered to do so much as a Google search, they would realize that — whatever one might think of undocumented migration — it isn’t going to be stopped by a border wall. A border wall already exists, and undocumented migration continues.

But what about replacing the current border wall with a bigger one? Surely that will stop migrants from coming across the border? Well, not really. Israel has some pretty high and deep barriers with Gaza, and that hasn’t prevented Gazan militants from burrowing under them and getting in. What is going to stop Mexicans — including and perhaps especially the extremely well-financed drug gangs who surely could gain access to advanced tunnelling equipment — from doing the same thing?

So building a wall to prevent undocumented migration is really dodgy from a practical perspective.

From an economic perspective, it’s much worse than that. Getting Mexico to pay for it by confiscating it from money sent to Mexico by Mexicans in America — as Trump contends he can — would simply incentivize the use of internationalized and decentralized technologies such as Bitcoin, which could evade Trump’s confiscations. And with an estimated cost of $15 to $25 billion, that has a very high opportunity cost, regardless of who pays for it. That’s more than a dozen hospitals. Or a house for every homeless person in America. Heck, NASA could build two bases on the moon for the cost of Trump’s fantasy wall.

But all this is assuming that a wall that could successfully shut out undocumented migrants would benefit the U.S. The truth is that it wouldn’t. The reality is that shutting people out of your economy deprives it of skills and talent and labour. 100 people can produce more than 99. 1000 people can produce more than 999. When a Mexican crosses the border, they bring with them potential productivity, whether or not they are carrying papers. Shut that out, and you slow down the economy.

When people can move freely, they can find the niche where they are most efficient. Everybody is different. Everyone is in possession of unique and differing talents, and everyone’s most productive niche in the global economy differs. Mexicans stream across the border because there are niches in the U.S. economy where they can be more productive than in Mexico. Many Americans go abroad to work, too, as they find economic opportunities abroad. Denying people the right to freely move to find their most productive niche in the global economy is simply self-defeating, in economic terms. It forces people to become less productive than they otherwise could be.

Trump offers false hope to the victims of globalization. Yes, very many U.S. jobs have migrated overseas because overseas labour can do things cheaply and efficiently. Those jobs aren’t magically going to come back because a blonde buffoon is in the White House wasting resources by building walls on the Mexican border. The real hope for American victims of job migration is retraining and education and investment in new cutting-edge industries where America can gain a competitive advantage, so that people can find a new niche in the global economy.

Obama is right to be worried about income inequality — it’s gotten a lot worse under his watch

Americans today are very worried about income inequality.

A Gallup poll this month found that 67 percent of Americans are unhappy with the distribution of income and wealth in the U.S. The disappointment goes across party lines — 54 percent of Republicans are dissatisfied, as well as 70 percent of Independents and 75 percent of Democrats:

And a growing number of people are worried that they can no longer get ahead simply by working hard, suggesting that inequality is becoming more entrenched.


Is China’s economy headed for a crash?

In his assessment of the global economy’s performance 2013, legendary financier George Soros warned of dangers in the Chinese economy:

The major uncertainty facing the world today is not the euro but the future direction of China. The growth model responsible for its rapid rise has run out of steam.

That model depended on financial repression of the household sector, in order to drive the growth of exports and investments. As a result, the household sector has now shrunk to 35 percent of GDP, and its forced savings are no longer sufficient to finance the current growth model. This has led to an exponential rise in the use of various forms of debt financing.

There are some eerie resemblances with the financial conditions that prevailed in the U.S. in the years preceding the crash of 2008. [Project Syndicate]

That, as William Pesek notes, is a rather ominous conclusion. So is China due a crash?


Who should the SEC punish next for the Madoff scandal? Itself.

J.P. Morgan Chase is nearing a settlement with federal regulators over the bank’s ties to convicted fraudster Bernie Madoff, reports The New York Times. The deal would involve penalties of up to $2 billion dollars and a rare criminal action. The government intends to use the money to compensate Madoff’s victims.

For two decades before his arrest, Madoff had banked with J.P. Morgan — and apparently laundered up to $76 billion through the bank. Employees at the bank had raised concerns about Madoff’s business. In 2006, a J.P. Morgan employee wrote after studying some of Mr. Madoff’s trading records that “I do have a few concerns and questions,” and expressed worry that Madoff would not disclose exactly which trades he had made. Madoff’s company turned out to be an elaborate ponzi scheme that stole an estimated $18 billion from clients; it collapsed in 2008.

Is it fair to blame J.P. Morgan for the activities of Madoff? Do banks have a responsibility to know if their clients are involved in criminal activities? I think so — banks should have strong checks and balances to prevent fraud and money laundering, because if they don’t then criminals like Madoff can get away with it for years and years. According to Robert Lenzner of Forbes, “J.P. Morgan never reported to the Treasury or the Federal Reserve a huge cache of checks going back and forth for seven years between Madoff’s Investment Account 703 and Bank Customer Number One, belonging to real estate developer Norman Levy, who died in 2005.”

By agreeing to pay the fine and the government’s rebuke, J.P. Morgan is admitting a failure of oversight. But it’s not as if J.P. Morgan is the only one to blame. Others on Wall Street had expressed concern about Madoff’s business much earlier.