“Economists have the least influence on policy where they know the most and are most agreed; they have the most influence on policy where they know the least and disagree most vehemently.”
And what a shame! That quote is Alan Blinder’s Murphy’s Law of economic policy, provided by Greg Mankiw in the New York Times. Mankiw’s article, “Economists Actually Agree on This: The Wisdom of Free Trade“, discusses the prospective Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an agreement that would liberalize trade between the U.S. and a number of Asian nations. A bill is before Congress that would give President Obama “fast track” authority to negotiate the deal. Some provisions of TPP are settled in principle, such as reduced tariffs, free trade unions, a reduced role for the state in the economy, and more transparency. Admittedly, it feels odd to advocate for Barack Obama to negotiate over less government — not to mention transparency!
As Mankiw says, “Among economists, the issue is a no-brainer.” Just as individuals voluntarily engage in trade because it is mutually beneficial, nations should engage in trade when they can specialize in their areas of comparative advantage. Liberalized trade, including reductions in tariffs and removal of quotas and other obstructions, ultimately brings more goods at lower prices. And ultimately, trade liberalization is not really about nations trading with one another. Rather, it is about liberating individuals to trade freely with one another across international borders.
Passage of fast-track authority is not assured. A great deal of nonsense has been written about the agreement. Oddly, people have a big hang-up about imports, but Mankiw notes that this is precisely wrong:
“A nation benefits from imports, [Adam Smith] argued, because they expand its opportunities for consumption. Exports are necessary only because other nations have the temerity to want to be paid for the goods they provide.“
Again, economists across the idealogical spectrum agree with this perspective. Mankiw offers three reasons, attributed to Bryan Caplan, for the public’s ambivalence to free trade:
“The first is an anti-foreign bias. People tend to view their own country in competition with other nations and underestimate the benefits of dealing with foreigners. Yet economics teaches that international trade is not like war but can be win-win.
The second is an anti-market bias. People tend to underestimate the benefits of the market mechanism as a guide to allocating resources. Yet history has taught repeatedly that the alternative — a planned economy — works poorly.
The third is a make-work bias. People tend to underestimate the benefit from conserving on labor and thus worry that imports will destroy jobs in import-competing industries. Yet long-run economic progress comes from finding ways to reduce labor input and redeploying workers to new, growing industries.“
Tyler Cowan is enthusiastic about the prospects for some of the poorest Asian nations to benefit from TPP, especially Vietnam. I seem to recall that he likes the cuisine! Cowan says: “Do you get that, progressives? Poorest country = biggest gainer.“