Brainstormers will remember Steve Keen, the brilliant iconoclast who is breaking new ground in the field of economics. In Forbes, he points out that Trump’s heretical anti-globalism is actually more economically sound than the fallacy of Ricardian free trade:
Globalization and Free Trade are good.
This belief is shared by almost all politicians in both parties, and it’s an article of faith for the economics profession.
You are right to reject it.
It’s a fallacy based on a fantasy, and it has been ever since David Ricardo dreamed up the idea of “Comparative Advantage and the Gains from Trade” two centuries ago. The best way to prove that (apart from looking at the bitter experience of the millions of once-were-factory-workers who voted for you) is to apply real-world scepticism to the original argument in favour of free trade.
When Ricardo wrote, England was the global economic superpower, and Portugal was its main rival. Ricardo was in favour of abolishing the “Corn Laws” that placed tariffs on grain imported from Europe. His opponents argued that, if the tariffs were abolished, Portugal would undercut England in all industries. Ricardo came up with an example that accepted that Portugal was better at producing everything than England was, but still “proved” that free trade was better than protection for both countries.
He assumed that England would need 100 workers to produce a given amount of cloth in one year, and 120 workers to produce a given amount of wine in a year. Portugal could produce the same amount of cloth in a year with just 90 workers, and the same amount of wine in a year with just 80 workers. So Portugal (read China for today) was absolutely better at producing everything than England (read the USA), but relatively better at producing wine.
Ricardo argued that free trade could nonetheless benefit both countries, if England devoted all of its workers to producing cloth, while Portugal turned all its workers into wine makers, because the total amount of wine and cloth produced by the two countries would be higher. They could trade the two commodities, and everyone would be better off than if trade didn’t occur. So specialization allows “gains from trade”. Drop the tariff barriers, and everyone will win—even the inhabitants of the weaker economy.
The argument might sound convincing, until you ask a simple question: “So how do you turn a wine press into a spinning jenny?”. Answer? You don’t.
Ricardo’s model assumed that you could produce wine or cloth with only labour, but of course you can’t. You need machines as well, and machinery is specific to each industry. The essential machinery for making wine can’t be used to make anything else, if its use becomes unprofitable. It is either scrapped, sold at a large loss, or shipped overseas. Ditto a spinning jenny, or a steel mill: if making steel becomes unprofitable, the capital involved in its production is effectively destroyed.
Ricardo ignored this little detail in his example, pretending that goods could be produced using labour alone. Later economists have made Ricardo’s example more complicated, and included the need to have machines as well as labour to make output. But they have been even worse than Ricardo, because they pretend that you can shift a machine (they call it “capital”) from one industry to another without loss.
That is simply nonsense.
The theory ignores the reality that, when foreign competition undercuts the profitability of a domestic industry, the capital in it can’t be “transformed” into an equal amount of capital in another industry. Sometimes it’s sold at a fire-sale price, often to overseas buyers. Most of the time, as ex-steel-mill workers throughout the Midwest know, it simply turns to rust.
Ricardo’s little shell and pea trick is therefore like most conventional economic theory: it’s neat, plausible, and wrong. It’s the product of armchair thinking by people who never put foot in the factories that their economic theories turned into rust buckets.
So the gains from trade for everyone and for every country that could supposedly be shared more fairly simply aren’t there in the first place. Specialization is a con job—but one that the Washington elite fell for (to its benefit, of course). Rather than making a country better off, specialization makes it worse off, with scrapped machinery that’s no longer useful for anything, and with less ways to invent new industries from which growth actually comes.
Excellent real-world research by Harvard University’s “Atlas of Economic Complexity” has found diversity, not specialization, is the “magic ingredient” that actually generates growth. Successful countries have a diversified set of industries, and they grow more rapidly than more specialized economies because they can invent new industries by melding existing ones.
So, globalization isn’t merely a societally destructive infringement on national sovereignties, and entirely dependent on substituting debt for economic growth, it builds huge economic inefficiencies into the global trade system.
If you’re still a free trader after everything you’ve seen, after everything you’ve read from Ian Fletcher, Steve Keen, and me, it is apparent that at this point, you’re simply clinging to economic dogma you don’t really understand.