This is the 22nd installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.
Trade wars are on the rise, and it’s enough to get any nationalist all het up and excited. Earlier this week, Narendra Modi’s government announced that it would start imposing tariffs on 28 US products starting today. This is a response to similar treatment towards us from the US.
There is one thing I would invite you to consider: Trump and Modi are not engaged in a war with each other. Instead, they are waging war on their own people.
Let’s unpack that a bit. Part of the reason Trump came to power is that he provided simple and wrong answers for people’s problems. He responded to the growing jobs crisis in middle America with two explanations: one, foreigners are coming and taking your jobs; two, your jobs are being shipped overseas.
Both explanations are wrong but intuitive, and they worked for Trump. (He is stupid enough that he probably did not create these narratives for votes but actually believes them.) The first of those leads to the demonising of immigrants. The second leads to a demonising of trade. Trump has acted on his rhetoric after becoming president, and a modern US version of our old ‘Indira is India’ slogan might well be, “Trump is Tariff. Tariff is Trump.”
Contrary to the fulminations of the economically illiterate, all tariffs are bad, without exception. Let me illustrate this with an example. Say there is a fictional product called Brump. A local Brump costs Rs 100. Foreign manufacturers appear and offer better Brumps at a cheaper price, say Rs 90. Consumers shift to foreign Brumps.
Manufacturers of local Brumps get angry, and form an interest group. They lobby the government – or bribe it with campaign contributions – to impose a tariff on import of Brumps. The government puts a 20-rupee tariff. The foreign Brumps now cost Rs 110, and people start buying local Brumps again. This is a good thing, right? Local businesses have been helped, and local jobs have been saved.
But this is only the seen effect. The unseen effect of this tariff is that millions of Brump buyers would have saved Rs 10-per-Brump if there were no tariffs. This money would have gone out into the economy, been part of new demand, generated more jobs. Everyone would have been better off, and the overall standard of living would have been higher.
That brings to me to an essential truth about tariffs. Every tariff is a tax on your own people. And every intervention in markets amounts to a distribution of wealth from the people at large to specific interest groups. (In other words, from the poor to the rich.) The costs of this are dispersed and invisible – what is Rs 10 to any of us? – and the benefits are large and worth fighting for: Local manufacturers of Brumps can make crores extra. Much modern politics amounts to manufacturers of Brumps buying politicians to redistribute money from us to them.
There are second-order effects of protectionism as well. When the US imposes tariffs on other countries, those countries may respond by imposing tariffs back. Raw materials for many goods made locally are imported, and as these become expensive, so do those goods. That quintessential American product, the iPhone, uses parts from 43 countries. As local products rise in price because of expensive foreign parts, prices rise, demand goes down, jobs are lost, and everyone is worse off.
Trump keeps talking about how he wants to ‘win’ at trade, but trade is not a zero-sum game. The most misunderstood term in our times is probably ‘trade-deficit’. A country has a trade deficit when it imports more than what it exports, and Trump thinks of that as a bad thing. It is not. I run a trade deficit with my domestic help and my local grocery store. I buy more from them than they do from me. That is fine, because we all benefit. It is a win-win game.
Similarly, trade between countries is really trade between the people of both countries – and people trade with each other because they are both better off. To interfere in that process is to reduce the value created in their lives. It is immoral. To modify a slogan often identified with libertarians like me, ‘Tariffs are Theft.’
These trade wars, thus, carry a touch of the absurd. Any leader who imposes tariffs is imposing a tax on his own people. Just see the chain of events: Trump taxes the American people. In retaliation, Modi taxes the Indian people. Trump raises taxes. Modi raises taxes. Nationalists in both countries cheer. Interests groups in both countries laugh their way to the bank.
What kind of idiocy is this? How long will this lose-lose game continue?