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October 20, 2017

The Past and Future of Free Trade, or How Partisan Preferences Spread Foolishness

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I woke up on October 16 to a learned debate on Twitter about economic history. Daniel Hannan, who is a Conservative Member of the European Parliament, had posted this:

What made us the world's richest nation? We removed trade barriers and so put money into ordinary people's pockets.

In response, Nick Dearden, who is the director of Global Justice Now, a campaigning organization, replied:

No. We plundered & pillaged. We sold people by the millions. We forced China into opium addiction. We decimated Bengal's textile industry.

(At the time of writing, both of these tweets were well liked, with Dearden well ahead: Hannan 982, Dearden 1.9K.)

Maybe you've guessed: this dispute was not really about economic history. It's about Brexit. Hannan urges Britain to go it alone as a free-wheeling, free-trading nation state, as in the past; that, he maintains, is what made us rich then, and it will work for us again. Dearden maintains that we owe Britain's wealth to the world, from which we once stole it. I'm not sure what that implies for Brexit, but for sure he doesn't seem to like free trade.

Considered as economic history, which version is more plausible? Neither account would pass even a low bar, say, that of an undergraduate multiple choice test. But, of the two, I prefer Hannan's. Here's how that works:

Why Hannan would not pass: he is wrong to imply that free trade was the key factor. Britain's relative advantages can be dated at least back to the fourteenth century, long before free trade; in fact, long before foreign trade represented a substantial share of Britain's economic activities.

Why Hannan deserves some credit: he is right to suggest that in the nineteenth century free trade further promoted British productivity and prosperity. He is also correct to remind us, as many forget, that trade is primarily about wages and prices, and that the gains from trade stem from higher productivity in the jobs we have, not from more jobs.

Why Dearden would fail -- on every count. Plunder, pillage, and the slave trade have little or nothing to do with Britain's modern competitive advantages. These advantages stemmed from factors that came into play long before the eighteenth century. Even in the eighteenth century, Britain's foreign predations were not on a sufficient scale to explain the continued growth of the economy at home, for at that time the total of foreign transactions was not large enough relative to the size of the economy, and all profits on trade did not represent a significant share of British investment.

At home, the revenues from British colonies and plantation enriched a few, but they did not generate economic growth. Britain's industrial revolution was made by mill owners and ironmasters, who were not especially enriched by their entrepreneurship because competition continually drove down their prices and profits. Those enriched by the cotton trade were the many who gained from falling textile prices and cheap imported food.

That's at home; what about the rest of the world? The cotton trade did not only enrich Britain. It also enriched others. It did not, as Dearden claims, "decimate Bengal's textile industry." That was done by Indian mill owners. In India as in England, some lost but many gained. This is shown by the fact that, throughout India's so-called deindustrialization, both production and consumption of textiles rose decade by decade.

So . . . if Hannan had the better case for Britain to have embarked on free trade in the nineteenth century, does he have the stronger case for Britain to leave the EU in the twentiy-first? Absolutely not.

The gains from free trade in the nineteenth century arose from exchanging basic staple commodities: food and raw materials, textiles, and simple machinery. These goods could be described by simple standards, and contracting for them was largely free of regulation. Trade in the twenty-first century is radically different.

Today, trade in complex machinery and electronic devices relies on common standards for quality, safety, and networking. Trade in services, where there are the greatest unrealized gains, relies even more on common regulatory standards for consumer protection and contract enforcement. These things are not provided by the WTO, or by free trade, or by free trade agreements. They are provided by international regulatory harmonization, such as by the EU's Single Market.

If you want to import, you have to export. By leaving the Single Market, we throw up a trade barrier between ourselves and our largest, most competitive market.

So, to the extent that Hannan is correct on free trade, his is a powerful argument against Brexit.

More generally, the exchange between Hannan and Dearden illustrates how the desire to defend or attack prompts the opposing sides to oversimplify history and to spread half-truths and "alternative facts." Partisanship makes idiots of us all.

January 03, 2012

A Flood of Cheap Chinese Goods

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Late in the Old Year, I listened to a radio interview. The question was: "What has the world gained from China's emergence into global trade?" The response was something like this:

A few countries have gained by selling raw materials to China -- Australia, Canada, parts of Africa.

What about the rest?

The rest of us have just had to face a flood of cheap Chinese goods.

To me this neatly encapsulated one of the central tenets of Do-It-Yourself Economics:

Production (and exports) good. Consumption (and imports) bad.

The mixed feelings with which the world's media greets the deluge can be readily illustrated by Googling the search terms "flood" and "cheap Chinese goods." On a recent morning, the first page of search results yielded the following:

Brazilian factories tested by Chinese imports -
But a growing flood of cheap Chinese manufactured goods into Brazil is testing the relationship. “The relationship with China is important but, ...

Why do we allow cheap chinese goods to wreck the western economies ...
Why do we allow cheap chinese goods to wreck the western economies? we sell them very little where they flood our markets with cheap products that used to ...

artificially cheap Chinese goods « Savvy Writers & e-Books online
What many American, Canadian and European citizens don't grasp is this: The flood of artificially cheap Chinese goods, putting America out ...

UK retailers tell Brussels: we want cheap Chinese goods | Business ...
UK retailers tell Brussels: we want cheap Chinese goods ... He has warned that a flood of cheap T-shirts and flax yarn is harming producers in Italy, ...

Chinese tyres cause accidents: police | The Zimbabwean
The flood of cheap Chinese goods has also retarded the reopening of many industries which cannot compete with the goods of cheaper quality. “I urge people to ...

has created a Chinese market in Luanda flooded with cheap Chinese goods. The Chinese are currently working on two major railway renovation projects ...

It's good to talk - even better to sell
Cheap Chinese goods are flooding into Africa's markets. China's trade with Africa has increased from $900m (about £500m) in 1990 to nearly $30bn last year ...

Involvement of the People's Republic of China in Africa ...
China does not purchase manufactured products from Africa, while cheap Chinese imports flood the local marketplace, making it difficult for local industries...

Indonesian Study Shows Trade Pact Led to Flood of Chinese Goods ...
A wide range of Chinese goods has flooded Indonesia since the ... that cheap Chinese goods are swamping Indonesia under the free-trade ...

China Ties Aiding Europe to Its Own Trade Goals | Think on That!
Nevertheless, Europe must consider the effects of very cheap Chinese goods that some consider “unfairly priced” flooding their markets. ...

The reality is somewhat less dramatic than these quotes would suggest. What proportion of the goods that our firms and households buy is actually sourced from China? Almost certainly, less than you think.

In 2010, for example, the UK imported goods from China worth £30.6 billion (see the 2011 edition of the Pink Book published by the Office of National Statistics). This sounds like a lot, but is only two percent of the UK's £1.5 trillion national expenditure, or three percent of household consumption. Even this will overstate the proportion of British expenditure originating within China's borders since many Chinese exports incorporate components previously imported into China from abroad. In short, the Chinese economic tsunami is really more of a ripple, although a growing one.

Why is the perception so much more dramatic than the reality? Several reasons.

  • China sells things that nearly every household is likely to buy, such as clothes, toys, and consumer electronics.
  • These things are especially salient because they are sources of pleasure.

Oh -- and the domestic firms that are displaced by the Chinese goods we prefer then noisily beat the drum of "unfair" competition by tricky foreigners in pursuit of a clever plan to wash away our industries. You can hear that drumbeat clearly in the Google search results above.

Anyway, never mind the facts. Just how bad is this and how much worse can it get? We can learn something from a historical parallel: the tale of Indian textiles in the nineteenth century.

The last time we saw a flood of cheap goods from a single country was in the nineteenth century. At this time British factories sent a tidal wave of cheap textiles across the world. By 1913, Lancashire was providing four yards of cotton cloth for every man, woman, and child on the planet. The world price of textiles came crashing down.

Who lost and who gained? Most obviously, they gained whose labour and capital was employed in the Lancashire cotton mills. At its peak, cotton employed half a million English workers. These won a living wage, while the profits went to the Manchester millocracy and their agents overseas. At the same time the English cotton interest took only a small fraction of the total gain. They had to share the rest with 1.8 billion global consumers, many of whom found they could afford comfortable, washable, durable clothing for the first time. The mechanism that distributed this global gain was the market: as prices plummeted, more and more people in distant lands could pay for a cotton shirt or even a suit.

There were a few losers. These were the world's artisan spinners and weavers. The products of their hand labour were previously a luxury; only the well-to-do could afford them. When a new product came along that consumers preferred and could pay for, the same market mechanism that shared the gain from Lanchashire's high productivity across the world told the handloom weavers: "Stop now. You can find something better to do."

When the history England's industrial revolution came to be written, Lancashire's contribution was well remembered. But its gift to the world was little emphasized or ignored. Instead, what was remembered was the destruction of Indian hand spinning and weaving.

How were Indian consumers affected by the destruction of native artisan textiles? Did the flood of cheap British goods wash away the basis of Indian economic life? It should be possible to tell. A simple test would be this: Whatever happened to India's production of textiles, what happened to consumption? If the Indian economy was truly wrecked by imported cloth, then India's masses would surely have been excluded from the benefits.

A new paper by Tirthankar Roy tells the story. It comes in two parts:

Part 1. 1820 to 1860

  • The Indian price of imported cloth relative to prices of hand-spun cloth fell by 80 percent.
  • The outputs of Indian hand spinning and weaving did not change.
  • Cloth imports into India rose from nothing to around four fifths of the level of domestic cloth production.
  • Consumption of cotton cloth per head of the Indian population rose by about 60 percent.

Part 2. 1860 to 1900

  • The price of imported cloth relative to those of hand-spun cloth fell by a further 50 percent.
  • Hand weaving fell by one third and hand spinning disappeared.
  • But it was new Indian cotton mills, not English mills that displaced the products of Indian handloom weaving; the total output of Indian cloth did not change.
  • Cloth imports rose by two thirds, reaching around twice the output of domestic weaving.
  • Consumption of cotton cloth per head of the population rose by a further 40 percent.

What's important here? Two simple facts:

  • First, the flood of cheap English textile did not destroy the Indian textile industry. Native spinning and weaving were restructured by competition and became much more efficient.
  • Second, however difficult was the transition, Indian consumers became better off on average at every stage of this process, and were markedly better off at the end compared with the beginning.

To summarize, innovation is local but the gains from innovation are global. Adjustment to changes in national competitive advantage is psychologically painful and economically difficult, as the English textile industry discovered in the twentieth century. But the same competition in international trade is the mechanism that redistributes the gains from innovation in one country to consumers in all countries.

In conclusion, whatever you think of Chinese politics or nationalism, the flood (or floodlet) of cheap Chinese goods is not a threat. Those whose business competes directly with Chinese products should aim to beat the competition or get out of the way. Whether they succeed or fail is up to them, and that's how it should be. Either way, there is a gain to be won from China's entry into the world market, and the gain will accrue to all the world's consumers, that is to say, to every one of us.

I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).

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  • Great blog as usual Mark. You always lay out the facts of the situation. by Thomas O'Malley on this entry
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