October 16, 2017
This is a question that people should be asking, as there is a considerable effort to include digital commerce in a revised NAFTA argument, as argued in a NYT column by former Secretary of State George Schultz and Pedro Aspe a former secretary of finance in Mexico. For example, the rules on digital commerce may prevent countries from imposing punitive damages, similar to what exist for copyright infringement under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, for spreading fake ads. This is a realistic fear since Facebook and other major social media companies are likely to have substantial input into writing digital commerce provisions, whereas groups concerned about fair elections and the rights of users are not.
This piece also contains a striking error in economic reasoning. It dismisses concerns about trade deficits, telling readers:
“We hear a lot about trade deficits, but repealing trade agreements will not fix the arithmetic. If a country consumes more than it produces, it will import more than it exports. Federal deficit spending, a huge and continuing act of dissaving, is the big culprit. Control that, and you will control trade deficits.”
It is definitional that a country with a trade deficit consumes more than it produces, sort of like it is definitional that a dead person doesn’t have a working brain. But just as we might want to know why a person died, we also have reason to want to know why a country is running a trade deficit.
If a country is below its potential level of output, which means that it has higher than necessary levels of unemployment, then the trade deficit has been a factor reducing demand in the economy and increasing unemployment, as was undoubtedly the case in the United States since the collapse of the housing bubble until at least the very recent past. In this context, a lower budget deficit would reduce the trade deficit only by shrinking the economy further and in that way reducing imports. (When the economy is smaller, we buy less of everything, including imports.)
The lost output due to the trade deficit since the crash runs into the trillions of dollars. If we had more balanced trade, millions of additional workers would have had jobs and people would have been able to keep homes. This is a big deal, it is amazing that these distinguished figures don’t seem to understand the issue.
It is also striking that they tout the competitiveness of U.S. manufacturing relative to European and Asian competitors. This must be their own subjective definition of competitiveness, since by the market test (the trade balance) the United States’ manufacturing sector is losing badly.