In his pique over unfair trade, Prcsident Trump is prone to bewail America’s as the “piggy bank that everybody wants to steal from.” Critics might dismiss this as just another whiff of Trumpian hyperbole, but it calls attention to a serious question about the country’s fiscal adequacy. Is there enough in that piggy bank for America to take care of its citizens, grow the economy, and defend itself?
The “piggy bank” analogy captures our concerns not only about trade, but also about national security and immigration. The bank was full when America was truly “great” in the Trumpian sense. This, of course, was the America that built the mighty war machine that vanquished Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, emerging as the world’s sole superpower with a moral obligation to help raise the war-torn countries back on their feet.
There were then enough dimes and nickels to fund the Marshall Plan—some $12 billion, or more than $100 billion in today’s dollars—which helped rebuild the European democracies. America also set up what the National Bureau of Economic Research called a “unique and asymmetrical” U.S.-centered network of alliances that required Washington to “guarantee the safety of multiple allies without requiring the protected parties to make any reciprocal commitments…in return.”
These arrangements were complemented by an equally asymmetrical trading system in which America’s huge and insatiable market absorbed much of the region’s industrial products without reciprocal access for U.S. products to Asia’s markets. This is how the ever-growing U.S. trade deficits with Japan, China, and other East Asian economies got started.
At Some Point, the Piggy Bank Goes Empty
But this open-handed generosity could not last forever. The American fiscal surplus turned into ever-growing deficits. The emptying of the piggy bank can be blamed equally on Republican and Democratic administrations that lacked the will and the courage to slow the growth of entitlement programs. The trillion-dollar wars the two Bush presidencies started made the problem worse, but so did the Obama administration that doubled the fiscal deficit in just eight years.
Long before Trump even contemplated a presidential run, other voices were sounding a lot like him. In the 1990s, Brent Bozell, a young conservative activist, groused about America making out as “the world’s social worker.” Kevin Kearns, a Republican, recounted how the U.S. made incredible sacrifices to win the Cold War. “It’s time for peace dividends,” he said. “I’d call on our allies to help us rebuild our economy.”
Ross Perot, the Texas billionaire who made a third-party bid for the White House in 1992, is best remembered for his warning of a “giant sucking sound” that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) could make as American companies closed their plants and poured capital into Mexico.
The establishment paid no heed. More than 300 economists of all persuasions, including several Nobel Prize winners, signed a petition urging NAFTA’s passage. The pact got a larger winning margin in the House than expected, 234-200, and a comparable 61-48 vote in the Senate. The lost American jobs left a big hole in U.S. Treasury accounts.
It took Trump, an economic naif to his critics, to call attention to the strategic costs of America’s $800 billion trade deficit. One country exporting more goods to another than it can import from that country, of course, does not constitute theft, per se. The matter of unfairness enters only if the trade surplus is obtained by currency manipulation or impediments to exports from the deficit-bearing partner. What constitutes prima facie theft is the $300 billion or more in intellectual property that the United States has lost to China through patent violations, espionage, and compulsory technology transfer.
If a growing trade surplus also contributes to a buildup of foreign exchange reserves, as with China, that would directly affect the global power balance. China has used its reserves—$4 trillion at its peak, with much of them in U.S. Treasuries—to buy influence from infrastructure-needy countries. The United States, a debtor nation with a fiscal deficit pushing $22 trillion, can no longer be big daddy to the world and has to husband its resources more judiciously.
Looking at the Fiscal Implications of Our Policies
Even immigration policy has serious fiscal implications. The administration wants to halt the flow of asylum-seekers on the borders because of its costs to the operations of federal agencies and the communities forced to shelter these border jumpers. One inkling of the potential fiscal drain is the $98 million per year price of California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s health care program for about 90,000 illegally present young adults.
The same issue of affordability lies behind Trump’s preference for merit-based migration, which puts entrepreneurs and skilled professionals at the head of the line. They are likely to be productive, high-earning citizens whose efforts can add to the nation’s wealth.
The current policies favoring migrants sponsored by relatives already in the United States or picked by lottery won’t affect the fiscal situation as positively. These migrants may pay taxes, too, but some of their earnings are not spent here, and instead passed to relatives left behind. Guatemalan migrants accounted for the bulk of the $9.3 billion in remittances their native country received in 2018. A positive take from this is that it’s one way the United States can help alleviate poverty in Central America.
Back to the trade front, the stakes are so high that retaliatory tariffs, cringe-worthy though they might be to Chicago School economists, could be a justifiable recourse (if of limited scope or duration) since there is no other way to bring the other party to the negotiating table. This is the rationale behind the president’s latest deal with Mexico.
Trade remedies, however, can get the country only so far. It is widely accepted that technology causes more job losses than unfair trade does. The job gains from the 2018 Trump tax cuts are encouraging, but more corporate and government-funded research and development are needed to keep up with the Chinese.
More investments are also in order. Both the Trump administration and the House Democrats should be reminded of their commitments to infrastructure renewal before their attention is wholly taken up by 2020 electioneering.