The forgotten secrets of free trade justify Trump’s tariffs

Summary:  Trump’s tariffs threatens a trade war that might destroy the global trading regime that has helped the world become so prosperous. His opponents cite the famous conclusions of David Ricardo about free trade – while forgetting what he said.

Trump Trade Policy


  1. The wonders of free trade.
  2. The ugly math of free trade.
  3. Slowly the news spreads.
  4. Problem recognition is the first step.
  5. Let’s share the pain of free trade.
  6. Conclusions.
  7. For more information.

(1)  The wonders of free trade

The free flow of capital, jobs, and trade was a pillar of the post-WWII geopolitical regime. Economists and the foreign policy establishment assure us that this globalization is an unqualified good thing – a “win-win” for all parties. That is, of course, absurd. Globalization in its current form has clearly become problematic for America. It has weakened us in important ways during the past 3 decades. Especially since the decision in 2001 to admit China to the World Trade Organization.

Fast forward to the present. For four years we have run a deficit in the trade of goods and services of 3% of GDP. Starting in October the deficit began to grow alarmingly.

“For the first two months of the year, the deficit was $114.3 billion, 23% wider than a year earlier. Imports were up $44 billion, or 9.1%, for the first two months of the year from a year earlier. Exports grew 5.9%, or $22 billion, in the first two months of the year from a year earlier.” {From WSJ.}

Political support for free trade has eroded.  Now Trump shakes the global trade system, adopting ineffective measures that might start a trade war that with large and painful consequences (see Paul Krugman’s posts in the For More Info section). It is a foolish response to a real problem. How did we get into this mess?

The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation
Available at Amazon.

(2)  The ugly math of free trade

David Ricardo is famous for explaining the benefits of free trade in (The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, chapter 7, 1817). He said that both sides benefited – if certain conditions were met. We have built our global economic system on his insights but forgotten his conditions.

Roy J. Ruffin reminds us of those forgotten aspects of free trade in “David Ricardo’s Discovery of Comparative Advantage“, in History of Political Economy (Winter 2002). It should force us to consider what Ricardo would tell us if he was alive today. Red emphasis added.

“These observations are Ricardo’s ‘home runs.’ Ricardo emphasized the “four magic numbers” as well as stating that because Portugal has an absolute advantage in the production of both cloth and wine:

‘it would undoubtedly be advantageous to the capitalists of England, and to the consumers of both countries, that under such circumstances, the wine and the cloth should both be made in Portugal, and therefore that the capital and labour of England employed in making cloth, should be removed to Portugal for that purpose.’ (Ricardo, I, p. 136)

Accordingly, Ricardo realized it was necessary to suppose factor immobility between countries. Indeed, of the 973 words Ricardo devoted to explaining the law of comparative advantage, 485 emphasized the importance of factor immobility!

Here’s a link to Ricardo’s discussion of mobile and immobile factors of production. Knowledge, capital, and labor were immobile in 1817. Today modern communications and cheap transportation mean that land is the only immobile factor — and land matters not at all.

(3) Slowly the news spreads

Today, sophisticated manufacturing can be done almost anywhere. Our knowledge and capital are quickly deployed to competitors. This exposes a large fraction of our workforce to global wage competition. Even so, our exposure to foreign competition was manageable so long as it was limited to traditional tradable goods.

Now services are becoming global businesses. Software engineering, radiography, operation of call centers – another tranche of jobs, low and high paying jobs — are going away. The core of America’s middle class has become vulnerable.

This has been known for years. Slowly awareness of this spreads among the US people, and the political support for free trade weakens. Will Americans passively watch their “class interests” (a Marxist education is becoming more useful these days) erode away in order to maintain record high corporate profit levels?

(4)  Problem recognition is always the first step

(a) Is Off-shoring Really Just Good Old Free Trade?” by Herman Daly and James Socas, presented to a Senate Democratic Policy Committee Hearing, 5 March 2004. Daly is a Professor at U Maryland, was a Senior Economist at the World Bank. Summary:

“Many academic economists argue that off-shoring is simply the next chapter in ‘free trade’ theory – a ‘good thing.’ However, some politicians of both parties are beginning to question whether off-shoring represents a fundamental break from the past. To them it appears that off-shoring is not free trade, as most think of it, but the systematic substitution in the production process of higher cost U.S. workers by lower priced foreign workers, due to an increasingly integrated global economy. The result is rising corporate profits, but falling U.S. jobs, stagnating wages, and enormous pressure on the country’s middle class.

“The authors contend that what is happening in today’s globally integrated economy is not the classical operation of ‘free trade,’ and, they point out, that argument can be found in the original writings on which free trade theory is based.”

(b)  “Offshoring: The Next Industrial Revolution?” by Alan S. Blinder in Foreign Affairs, March/April 2006. Blinder is no anti-globalization nut, right-wing reactionary, or even just another economist. He is Professor of Economics at Princeton, member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers (1993-1994), Vice Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve (1994-96). Excerpt:

“Although there are no reliable national data, fragmentary studies indicate that well under a million service-sector jobs in the United States have been lost to offshoring to date. A million seems impressive, but in the gigantic and rapidly churning U.S. labor market, a million jobs is less than two weeks’ worth of normal gross job losses.) However, constant improvements in technology and global communications virtually guarantee that the future will bring much more offshoring of “impersonal services.’ That is, services that can be delivered electronically over long distances with little or no degradation in quality.

“That said, we should not view the coming wave of offshoring as an impending catastrophe. Nor should we try to stop it. The normal gains from trade mean that the world as a whole cannot lose from increases in productivity, and the United States and other industrial countries have not only weathered but also benefited from comparable changes in the past. But in order to do so again, the governments and societies of the developed world must face up to the massive, complex, and multifaceted challenges that offshoring will bring. National data systems, trade policies, educational systems, social welfare programs, and politics all must adapt to new realities.

“Unfortunately, none of this is happening now.”

(c)  Testimony of Alan S. Blinder to the Joint Economic Committee: “Will the Middle Class Hold? Two Problems of American Labor“, 31 January 2007

“…the dividing line between jobs that are deliverable electronically (and thus are threatened by offshoring) and those that are not does not correspond to traditional distinctions between high-end and low-end work. …

“First, we need to repair and extend the social safety net for displaced workers. This includes unemployment insurance, trade adjustment assistance, job retraining, the minimum wage, the EITC, universal health insurance, and pension portability – plus other, newer ideas like wage loss insurance. …

“Second, we must take steps to ensure that our labor force and our businesses supply and demand the types of skills and jobs that are going to remain in America rather than move offshore. Among other things, that may require substantial changes in our educational system-all the way from kindergarten through college.”

Blinder gives the standard remedies: welfare, retraining, and more education.

  1. More welfare is likely both insufficient unsustainable as “outsourcing” grows from the manufacturing sector to the larger service sector, and effects higher-wage jobs.
  2. Re-training just pushes more workers into the ever-smaller boat of jobs not exposed to foreign competition.
  3. Calling for more education is nuts. Consider the plight of middle-aged workers with advanced professional degrees. Do they return to school to get a 2nd masters, or a PhD competing for the tiny pool of jobs for which these are required?

(d)  Paul Krugman in “A Protectionist Moment?“, March 2016,

“But it’s also true that much of the elite defense of globalization is basically dishonest: false claims of inevitability, scare tactics (protectionism causes depressions!), vastly exaggerated claims for the benefits of trade liberalization and the costs of protection, hand-waving away the large distributional effects that are what standard models actually predict. …

“Furthermore, as Mark Kleiman sagely observes, the conventional case for trade liberalization relies on the assertion that the government could redistribute income to ensure that everyone wins — but we now have an ideology utterly opposed to such redistribution in full control of one party, and with blocking power against anything but a minor move in that direction by the other.

“So the elite case for ever-freer trade is largely a scam, which voters probably sense even if they don’t know exactly what form it’s taking.”

Yet our ruling elites remain unmoved by the growing evidence. Now pressure has grown too great, and rogue President Trump threatens to capsize the system.

(5)   Another perspective: let’s share the pain of free trade

The Minimum Wage and Doctors’ Pay“, Dean Baker (economist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research) on “Beat the Press”, 24 June 2006. Excerpt (emphasis added)…

“To me, the main economic story of the last 3 decades has been that those in high paying professions (e.g. doctors, lawyers, dentists, accountants, economists etc.) have managed to drive up their wages by sustaining and increasing barriers against competition (both foreign and domestic), while less-skilled workers, like autoworkers, textile workers, dishwashers, and custodians have been deliberately placed in direct competition with low-paid workers in the developing world.

“The wages in these latter categories have generally been flat or declined over this period, while workers in most of the high-paid professions have seen substantial pay increases (e.g. the OECD reports that the real wages of doctors in the United States increased by 55% from 1964-1995 [sorry, it’s not free data, so I can’t link to it]). If this pattern is to be reversed, then the wage increases for workers at the middle and bottom will have to come at least partly at the expense of the real wages of high-end workers, just as the wage gains of high-end workers have come partly at the expense of those at the middle and bottom over the last three decades.

“This is all accounting; one can debate the merits of specific policies to reverse the upward redistribution of income, but there really is not much room to debate the accounting. My favored policy is free trade in professional services, so that doctors, lawyers, accountants and economists can enjoy international competition in the same way as autoworkers, textile workers and dishwashers. (See chapter 1 of The Conservative Nanny State.)”

(6) Conclusions

“Do I disapprove of Trump’s trade methods? I don’t see any method.”
Tweet by Paul Krugman.

Conditions in the US resemble those before many severe public policy mistakes. The only missing ingredient is a recession to supercharge the pressure to take large-scale but ill-considered measures. The situation results from our elites misusing economic theory to support policies they find profitable, ignoring the consequences for many citizens, and so allowing support for a key part of the international economic regime to wash away.

Much as they have done with the rule and consensus based geopolitical system the United States built after WWII. I suspect that neither of these things will end well for us.

(7)  For more information

Reports about free trade and globalization.

  1. Fear of Offshoring” by Alan Blinder in the WSJ, 2005 (31 pages).
  2. Pain From Free Trade Spurs Second Thoughts Mr. Blinder’s Shift Spotlights Warnings Of Deeper Downside in the WSJ, 2007.
  3. Globalization, Worker Insecurity, and Policy Approaches” by the Congressional Research Service, 2008 (18 pages).
  4. Economists’ Dubious Relationship with Trade Policy” by Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism, April 2018 – “Comparative Advantage is a System that Works for the Wealthy.”
  5. Paul Krugman about our trade with China: “The Art of the Flail.
  6. Paul Krugman about the costs to America of a trade war: “Trade Wars, Stranded Assets, and the Stock Market.

Ideas! For shopping ideas, see my recommended books and films at Amazon.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about globalization and free trade, and especially these…

  1. Globalization and free trade: wonders of a past era, now enemies of America?
  2. Cheap Imports Backfire on America’s Retailers & What’s Left of Our Economy.
  3. A Harvard Professor explains the populist revolt against immigration & globalization.
  4. Before Trump, top economist Joseph Stiglitz warned about globalization.
  5. Stratfor: Trump risks a trade war with China that cannot be won.
  6. A powerful defense of free trade by Ed Dolan, before Trump attacks it.
  7. Stratfor: will Trump end free trade in food, & wreck US farmers?
  8. The forgotten secrets of free trade justify Trump’s tariffs.

19 thoughts on “The forgotten secrets of free trade justify Trump’s tariffs”

  1. Jorge Morales Meoqui

    Then perhaps you and your readers would be interested in finding out that David Ricardo had no theory of comparative advantage. This erroneous belief is the result of a misinterpretation of the purpose, content and implications of Ricardo’s famous numerical example in the Principles, as it is explained in this paper:

  2. Trade/tax comparative regimes:

    Regime A: 0% impediments/tariffs on foreign trade, 100% tax on incomes.
    Regime B: 100% proscription of foreign trade, 0% tax on incomes.

    Which would be the more productive economy?

    This tells us that it is not mechanistic trade and exchange that is paramount.
    It is human volition which is the determinant of productivity.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      I don’t understand your comparison. Would you rather be without a heart or brain?

  3. “I sympathize, therefore, with those who would minimize, rather than with those who would maximize, economic entanglement among nations. Ideas, knowledge, science, hospitality, travel–these are the things which should of their nature be international. But let goods be homespun whenever it is reasonably and conveniently possible, and, above all, let finance be primarily national. Yet, at the same time, those who seek to disembarrass a country of its entanglements should be very slow and wary. It should not be a matter of tearing up roots but of slowly training a plant to grow in a different direction.

    “For these strong reasons, therefore, I am inclined to the belief that, after the transition is accomplished, a greater measure of national self-sufficiency and economic isolation among countries than existed in 1914 may tend to serve the cause of peace, rather than otherwise. At any rate, the age of economic internationalism was not particularly successful in avoiding war; and if its friends retort, that the imperfection of its success never gave it a fair chance, it is reasonable to point out that a greater success is scarcely probable in the coming years.”

    — “National Self-Sufficiency” by John Maynard Keynes in The Yale Review, Vol. 22, no. 4 (June 1933)

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      Very apt. And, as usual with Keynes, stated cautiously and with awareness of the tentativeness of good public policy. Thanks for posting!

      Note: I added a citation to it.

    2. SunVillageStudio

      Chester, PA, adjacent to Philadelphia, at 474 years old, is one of our oldest cities. Until a generation ago, it was also one of its most productive cities (see Sun Ship, largest dry-dock in Western Hemisphere). Chester’s demise can be directly traced back to those Boards of Directors in industry and banking who embraced economic internationalism, and its exact time of death can be surmised from the death-warrants they signed.

  4. After reading about the horrors that importing masses of 3rd world doctors has brought to the UK, I’m gonna have to disagree with Baker there. If people want foreign doctoring, let them engage in some medical tourism.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      Also, is it ethical to strip poor nations of their doctors, usually without any compensation to them for the investment in those doctors’ education?

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      Thanks for the feedback. It’s an updated and moderately revised version of a post from 2009.

      What did you like about it?

    2. Just seen your comment, the company my brother worked for just got bought out by a large American operation, they just canned half the staff including my brother, as part of the takeover.

      I just landed a nice little gig with an American film production company cause it makes financial sense to film in Ireland. So much of our workings lives are now at the mercy of financial forces of which we are only dimly aware. Its no long good enough to be competitive in your own market, you need to be competitive on the otherside of the planet too.

  5. Besides offshoring, there are also some examples of using free trade agreements to import workers who are paid lower wages according to foreign rules. This is different from immigration, because the contracts of these “guest workers” are subject to the law of their home countries, instead of the law of the country they work in; also, after a few years they usually must leave (or immigrate) and can be replaced by a new batch. For me, this is a way to “offshore” jobs which are difficult to relocate, such as construction work.

    For instance, inside the EU, companies from one country can have their workers “deployed” to another country for up to 2 years. This means that e.g. if a Polish company wins a contract in France, Polish construction workers can work there with Polish contracts, usually below French minimum wage and without French social security payments or benefits, while paying their taxes in Poland. French companies following French law find it hard to compete for contracts, and this is used as an excuse to demand deregulation of work laws. Macron has promised to stop this but I don’t think he’s having much success.

    For now this seems an internal EU problem (or maybe this is my ignorance speaking), but it’s not a large step to e.g. make a free trade agreement with China where you can hire a Chinese construction company to build something, and that for a “short time” they can bring in their Chinese-contracted workers with Chinese salaries. I think that the US does not allow this, but would it be far-fetched to think that in the near future a Mexican construction company could work in the US with Mexican minimum wages for a defined period?

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      Thank you for this info about corporations in the EU playing the same games as those in the US. That might be yet another factor driving the growth of populist parties there!

    2. SunVillageStudio

      Stephen E. Ambrose in Nothing Like It in the World gives the account of when the US did bring in Chinese-contracted workers with Chinese salaries to build the transcontinental railroad. Backbreaking and dangerous work on the tracks, to reduce backbreaking and dangerous lives for generations hence. How did it work out for those who gave their sweat and blood to that enterprise?

      1. Larry Kummer, Editor

        Sun Village,

        It worked well for those immigrants, but the measure they most valued: their children’s lives were better than if they had stayed in China.

        But that was 1869. Much of the US was almost empty, ready to be taken from the Native Americans, economically developed and populated. That’s not so today.

    3. “I think that the US does not allow this, but would it be far-fetched to think that in the near future a Mexican construction company could work in the US with Mexican minimum wages for a defined period?”

      See the NAFTA-guest-worker (TN, L-1) work visa category. Mainly for skilled professionals, so not quite the construction example. These are similar to H1B, except without the path to eventual US citizenship. I believe they do also have to follow the US labor standards. But for these job categories, the story isn’t about minimum wage — as with H1B’s you’ll see guest workers underbidding domestic.

      But large scale offshoring of skilled work is the bigger factor, and it’s only going to get easier as better communications, auto-translation, and increasing modularity of complex tech makes it easier to divide up the work, formally specify it, and send it out to the lowest bidder in the global market.

      At the end of the day it’s a problem of redistribution. I think we’re slowly coming around to that realization.

    4. SunVillageStudio & Larry, to tie into some of Larry’s recent posts… maybe we’ll see a mass importation of Chinese bare branches by hostile older American feminists who can’t find anyone else that will marry them. /s

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