October 5, 2010

Free Trade Does Not Cost Too Much

Mike Guzy, who currently writes for the St. Louis Beacon and formerly wrote for the Post-Dispatch, is a very talented writer. A column he wrote probably 10 years ago for the Post defending the use of the death penalty remains one of the best treatments of that topic I’ve ever read. But today in the Beacon, he gets his economics wrong. How wrong? Let’s just say it took only a few seconds of research to find two economists who are frequently at odds with each other both disagreeing with his point.

What is his point? That cheap imports are causing unemployment in our current recession, and the proper solution is to raise tariffs on imported goods. From his article:

The only conceivable way to revitalize the American middle class — the little engine of consumption that pulls the global economy — is to impose labor tariffs on imported goods, making their cost comparable to those manufactured here.

Let us now quote famous men and women writing about the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, which did almost exactly what Guzy calls for, and is near-universally derided as one of the worst pieces of legislation ever passed by Congress. Here is Great Depression historian and economist Amity Shlaes:

This lack of concern resembles many Americans’ disregard for the effects of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, signed into law by Hoover in June 1930. Republicans told themselves that the tariff couldn’t hurt much since trade was a small part of the U.S. economy at that point.

But that view overlooked the signal that markets were sending. Long ago Jude Wanniski noticed that the progress of the Smoot-Hawley legislation tracked declines in the stock market. More recently Scott Sumner, a professor of economics at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts, has argued that the tariff reduced investment all over the world, and therefore produced deflation.

Shlaes’ great book, The Forgotten Man, goes into much more detail about the harm of the tariff.

And now we turn to Paul Krugman for his views on the Smoot-Hawley Tariff:

Just to be clear, I don’t think the Smoot-Hawley tariff was a good thing — it was a really bad thing. Nasty protectionism! Bad Smoot-Hawley! Bad! Bad! Bad!

Krugman is clear that although he doesn’t think protectionism and the tariff caused the Great Depression, it was nonetheless a terrible idea.

When legislation makes the goods that we import, and voluntarily choose to purchase, more expensive, it limits our choices and our freedoms, and increases our costs of living. It also immediately harms the enormous number of Americans who depend on trade, shipping, and related industries for their employment, and results in retaliation by other trading partners that would limit our exports. Instituting higher tariffs for protectionist purposes is always a net loss for our economy.

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