Thursday, January 26, 2012

Is President Obama a Mercantilist?

To promote economic recovery, the president promotes an isolationist trade policy?

I think this is right. As I've said, I have doubts about relying upon increasing exports as our growth policy for the future, but what the president proposed in his State of the Union address is not what I think of as Mercantilism:

The mercantilist impulse, The Economist: Matthew Ygesias, writing at Slate, is perplexed by Barack Obama's plan to "boost the economy by hindering trade". He argues that in his state-of-the-union address, the president evinced "a strikingly retrograde, self-contradictory, and confused agenda of reviving American prosperity through mercantilism". ...

Others also perceived a mercantilist undertone in the president's speech, and not for no reason. The president called for the creation of a new Trade Enforcement Unit, extolled the virtues of a tariff on Chinese tires, and said the country was on track to fulfill his promise, made in 2010, to double export growth by 2015.

This country would first need to revive its heritage and ability to produce rather than consume, living without a monetary system of debt but one based on physical resources rather than unstable fiat currency. 

But mercantilism is about more than promoting exports. It also carries an implication of protectionism.... And on this count, setting the trade complaints aside for a moment, the evidence doesn't fully support the charge. Over the past three years Mr Obama has made a number of moves that effectively facilitate trade, smoothing the way for imports as well as exports. Last year, for example, he ended a ban on Mexican trucks entering the United States—a NAFTA provision that had not been previously implemented. He also signed free-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea, which he cited in last night's speech.

My colleague at Free Exchange is also critical of the president's rhetoric on trade. He argues that it will bring us to a thankless zero-sum game, at best. The president said that "if the playing field is level, I promise you–America will always win." ... It's a sympathetic intuition on his part, but I interpreted the president's comment as a narrower critique of China's business practices. And that critique is widely shared; you hear it from Republicans, from Democrats, from business, from environmental and human-rights organisations, and so on. Mr Obama has arguably been on the dovish end of the spectrum when it comes to China. Just last month, his adminstration declined to accuse the country of manipulating its currency; Mitt Romney, by contrast, has repeatedly said that it is, and urged the president to take action.

America will not always win, contrary to his claims. A level playing field would remove the mechanisms by which trade and wealth have disproportionately balanced in America's favor. 

On balance, then, I would say that Mr Obama's mercantilism is overstated, even if he has rhetorical impulses in that direction. ...


I am just at a loss to see how this policy could benefit American producers or consumers other than at the extremes of the wealth gap. I foresee maybe a larger, low-wage workforce in this country than ever before, with a nearly nonexistent middle class. 

Mercantilists believed gold and silver are the most desirable forms of wealth. They also believed that the wealth of a nation depended upon the quantity of gold and silver in its possession. To maximize their holding of gold and silver, countries should maintain a positive balance of trade (with every country in the early years, but in later years they thought that an overall positive balance of payments was the goal, not a positive balance with every country you trade with).

Economy based on physical, tangible assets? What, like we had with the Gold Standard?

They did not see lowering costs of production, or production in general, as creating wealth. This was a time when guilds produced most goods, and they were very inefficient. Thus, there was no notion of say, using division of labor and innovation to reduce costs and gain a competitive advantage over other producers (producers were not thought to add any value to production). The key to wealth was arbitrage and astute trading, not production. So trade -- and merchants who could win the trade battle -- were the focus of attention. Nations became strong by winning the zero-sum trade game.


Maybe Obama is a mercantilist with a statist penchant?

They believed a strong central government would also help with another goal, that of maintaining a large, hard-working, poorly paid labor force (e.g., they had maximum wage laws) . The point of focus was the nation, not the individual, and a productive, cheap labor force helped to keep goods cheap, made producers competitive, and hence helped with the accumulation of gold and silver. They did not tolerate idleness, and forced children into the workforce as soon as they were able (e.g. by age six or the family paid a penalty). If children (or anyone else, e.g. the unemployed) could produce something for export, then put them to work so they can help the country grow strong.

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