January 27, 2017
Donald Trump has indicated that he might slap high tariffs on imports from Mexico as a way to make the country pay for his border wall. While it’s not clear this makes sense, since U.S. consumers would bear the bulk of the burden from this tax, it would certainly reduce imports from Mexico. It would also would violate NAFTA and WTO rules, thereby opening the door to a trade war with Mexico and possibly other countries.
Many have seen this as taking us down a road to ever higher tariffs, leading to a plunge in international trade, which would have substantial economic costs for everyone. However, Mexico could take an alternative path that would provide far more effective retaliation against President Trump, while leading to fewer barriers and more growth.
The alternative is simple: Mexico could announce that it would no longer enforce U.S. patents and copyrights on its soil. This would be a yuuge deal, as Trump would say.
To take one prominent example, suppose that Mexico allowed for the free importation of generic drugs from India and elsewhere. The Hepatitis C drug Solvaldi has a list price in the United States of $84,000. A high quality generic is available in India for $200. There are also low cost generic versions available of many other drugs that carry exorbitant prices in the United States, with savings often more than 95 percent.
Suppose that people suffering from Hepatitis C, cancer, and other devastating and life-threatening diseases could get drugs in Mexico for a few hundred dollars rather than tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in the United States? That would likely lead to lots of business for Mexico’s retail drug industry, although it would be pretty bad news for Pfizer and Merck.
The same would apply to other areas. Medical equipment, like high-end scanning and diagnostic devices, would be very cheap in Mexico if they could be produced without patent protections. This should be great for a medical travel industry in Mexico.
There would be a similar story on copyright protection. People could get the latest version of Windows and other software for free in Mexico with their new computers. This is bad news for Bill Gates and Microsoft, but good news for U.S. consumers interested in visiting Mexico, along with Mexico’s retail sector. Mexico could also make a vast amount of recorded music and video material available without copyright protection. That’s great news for consumers everywhere but very bad news for Disney, Time-Warner, and other Hollywood giants.
Of course, the erosion of patent and copyright protection will undermine the system of incentives that now support innovation and creative work. This means that we would have to develop more efficient alternatives to these relics of the feudal guild system. Among other places, folks can read about alternatives in my book, Rigged: How Globalization and the Rules of the Modern Economy Were Structured to Make the Rich Richer (it’s free).
Anyhow, this would be a blueprint for a trade war in which everyone, except a few corporate giants, could be big winners.