Leland Yeager on Trump and Trade

Cato adjunct scholar Leland B. Yeager had a long career at the University of Virginia Department of Economics in its golden age and later at Auburn University. He is the author of Foreign Trade and U.S. Policy: The Case for Free International Trade (1976), International Monetary Relations: Theory, History and Policy (1976), and Free Trade: America’s Opportunity (1954). At 93 he is still as insightful and as blunt as ever, and he just published this critique of President Trump’s understanding of trade policy at Liberty magazine under the title “Profound and Destructive.” The whole thing is reprinted below.


President Trump’s destructiveness requires few words here. Consider how world stock and currency markets have been shaken by the resignation on March 6 of Gary Cohn, regarded until then as Trump’s chief economic adviser. Although not a trained economist, Cohn apparently had some sound instincts derived from years of financial experience. His departure apparently and ominously leaves more influence, or echo, to Peter Navarro — look him up with Google.

This latest example of destructiveness follows the one touched off by Trump’s March 2 tweet bewailing America’s loss of “many billions of dollars on trade with virtually every country it does business with” and heralding trade wars as “good, and easy to win.”

I’ll spend more words on how profound Trump’s ignorance is. He considers a country’s excess of imports over exports a measure of loss. This measure applies even to trade with each foreign country separately. He counts China and Mexico among the worst offenders, deserving punishment. He does not understand the multilateral aspect of beneficial trade.

Nor does he understand how we gain in buying goods cheap from abroad. What difference does it make if steel and aluminum are cheap because of low foreign prices or because they grow cheaply on bushes at home? Money cost is a measure of opportunity cost, which means the loss of other goods when resources go instead to make the particular good in question. Opportunity cost reflects scarcity. Scarcity applies even to prosperous America, where we could enjoy still higher standards of living if food, clothing, shelter, entertainment, and other goods and services came costlessly and miraculously from heaven. Scarcity and how gains from domestic and foreign trade alleviate it are fundamentals of economics. The principle of comparative advantage goes far in explaining how.

Without understanding the academic presentation of the “absorption approach to the balance of payments,” everyone should be able to grasp its central idea, which is sheer arithmetic. If we as a country use more output for consumption and real investment than we produce, then the difference must come from somewhere — from abroad in the form of more imports than exports. A big item in this excess absorption, alias national undersaving, is government deficits. Yet Trump and Congress are complacent about increasing the deficit and debt by taxing less and spending more.

All too many politicians say that they are in favor of free trade if it is “fair trade” played on a “level playing field.” These slogans express Trump’s view of international trade as a game, a zero-sum game in which one player’s gain is another’s loss.

Trump does not understand how the price system coordinates economic activity, making most government planning about jobs and industries unnecessary and harmful.

The profundity of Trump’s ignorance goes beyond economics. It extends to diplomacy in domestic and foreign relations and even to the behavior of a decent human being. Yet his destructive economic ignorance remains prominent.


Posted on March 11, 2018  Posted to Cato@Liberty

What If Newspapers Reported the Real News about Human Progress?

In his new book Enlightenment Now and in his McLaughlin Lecture at the Cato Institute this week, Steven Pinker made the point that we may fail to appreciate how much progress the world has made because the news is usually about bad and unusual things. For instance, he said, quoting Max Roser, if the media truly reported the important changes in the world, “they could have run the headline NUMBER OF PEOPLE IN EXTREME POVERTY FELL BY 137,000 SINCE YESTERDAY every day for the last twenty-five years.”

This is understandable. As Pinker writes, 

News is about things that happen, not things that don’t happen. We never see a journalist saying to the camera, “I’m reporting live from a country where  a war has not broken out”—or a city that has not been bombed, or a school that has not been shot up. As long as bad things have not vanished from the face of the earth, there will always be enough incidents to fill the news, especially when billions of smartphones turn most of the world’s population into crime reporters and war correspondents.

And among the things that do happen, the positive and negative ones unfold on different time lines. The news, far from being a “first draft of history,” is closer to play-by-play sports commentary. It focuses on discrete events, generally those that took place since the last edition (in earlier times, the day before; now, seconds before). Bad things can happen quickly, but good things aren’t built in a day,  and as they unfold, they  will be out of sync with the news cycle. The peace researcher John Galtung pointed out that if a newspaper came out once every fifty years, it would not report half a century of celebrity gossip and political scandals. It would report momentous global changes such as the increase in life expectancy.

I’ve noted this myself. I think the mainstream media such as NPR, which I listen to morning and evening, fail to adequately examine the most important fact in modern history—what Deirdre McCloskey calls the Great Fact, the enormous and continuing increase in human longevity and living standards since the industrial revolution. If you listen to NPR or read the New York Times, you’ll be well informed about the news in general and about problems such as racism, sexism, and environmental disaster. But you won’t often be reminded that we are the richest, most comfortable, best-fed, longest-lived people in history. Or as Indur Goklany put it in a book title, you won’t hear about The Improving State of the World: Why We’re Living Longer, Healthier, More Comfortable Lives on a Cleaner Planet.

Pinker does point out, “Information about human progress, though absent from major news outlets and intellectual forums, is easy enough to find. The data are not entombed in dry reports but are displayed in gorgeous Web sites, particularly Max Roser’s Our World in Data, Marian Tupy’s HumanProgress, and Hans Rosling’s Gapminder.” But of course those aren’t the major media. Which is why, he says, “And here is a shocker: The world has made spectacular progress in every single measure of human well-being. Here is a second shocker: Almost no one knows about it.”

So what if the media did report the most important news, the Great Fact? I asked Cato intern Thasos Athens to help me envision that:

New York Times mockup

Posted on March 8, 2018  Posted to Cato@Liberty

David Boaz discusses the city of Baltimore paying for students to attend the upcoming March for Our Lives rally on ABC KRCR News Channel 7 at 5 PM

Posted on March 8, 2018  Posted to Cato@Liberty

David Boaz discusses the city of Baltimore paying for students to attend the upcoming March for Our Lives rally on FOX WBFF’s 45 News at Ten

Posted on March 7, 2018  Posted to Cato@Liberty

About David Boaz

Click here to learn more.