The current Republican front-runner, Donald Trump, has repeatedly claimed that China, and many other countries, such as Mexico and Vietnam, are “killing us” in foreign trade. The basis of his claim is the fact that U.S. imports from those countries substantially exceed U.S. exports to those countries. In 2015, for example, the overall, total difference between U.S. imports and exports, known as “the balance of trade,” was in excess of $500 billion, with trade with China accounting for about 70 percent of that sum.
An excess of imports over exports is typically described as an “unfavorable balance of trade.” The description of the balance as “unfavorable” derives from the belief that exports are a source both of money coming into a country, in exchange for the goods exported, and of jobs in that country in the production of the exports. Imports, on the other hand, are viewed as taking money out of the country, in the purchase of the imports, and transferring jobs from the domestic economy to the foreign producers of the imports.
It is on this basis that Trump and many others believe that China et al. are “killing us.” The implication of this belief and its intellectual foundations is that the United States needs to adopt a government policy of increasing exports and reducing imports by such means as protective tariffs, import quotas, and export subsidies. (Trump has not yet explicitly enunciated this policy, but it is logically implied in what he does say.)
Now the truth is that in the monetary conditions of the present-day world, an excess of imports over exports does not at all represent a threat to the money supply of a country or the ability of domestic spending to support employment. In the 17th Century, when the doctrine of the balance of trade first came into vogue, the money of the world was gold and silver. In those conditions, the only way that a country without gold or silver mines could increase its money supply was by means of obtaining money from abroad, in exchange for the export of goods. The import of goods could for a time reduce the money supply of a country.
But today, money is irredeemable paper, and every country manufactures its own money supply. Indeed, in these conditions, an outflow of part of the money supply of a country in exchange for imports is positively favorable. This is certainly true in the case of the United States dollar, which to an important extent serves as a global currency. The fact that dollars are in demand globally, but are produced only in the United States, implies that the United States must export a more or less substantial part of its new and additional supply of dollars. Exporting part of the supply of dollars represents getting imports of real goods in exchange for pieces of paper that are virtually costless to produce and replace. At the same time, it limits the rise in prices in the United States by holding down the increase in the supply of money in circulation in the United States. Thus, seen in this light, an excess of imports over exports turns out actually to be highly favorable rather than “unfavorable.”
Far more important than the gain associated with obtaining imports by means of the export of costless paper dollars is the gain associated with obtaining imports by means of the investment of foreign capital. To make this point as clear as possible, think of Saudi Arabia before it had an oil industry but after geologists had confirmed the existence of vast oil deposits there. What was necessary to develop those deposits was flotillas of ships from Europe and America bringing vast imports of drilling equipment, sections of pipe, the materials and equipment required for building oil refineries, and the consumers’ goods required for armies of foreign workers constructing the Saudi oil industry. Indeed, so far from being a source of unemployment in Saudi Arabia, this allegedly unfavorable balance of trade was the foundation not only of Saudi Arabia’s oil industry but at the same time practically all of the worthwhile jobs that exist in Saudi Arabia, which are either in its oil industry or closely connected to its oil industry. Thus, in fact, nothing could be more favorable in reality than what most of today’s economists absurdly describe as an “unfavorable” balance of trade and a cause of unemployment, namely, such an excess of imports over exports.
Today, investment by China and other foreign countries in the U.S. is what enables the American economy to import more than it exports. As in the case of Saudi Arabia, this investment and accompanying excess of imports over exports makes it possible for the United States to have more and better equipped factories and all other types of means of production than would otherwise be the case, and thus to have a larger number of well-paying jobs. Indirectly, even the purchase of U.S. government securities by China et al. has this effect. Foreign purchases of U.S. government securities hold down the diversion of capital funds from U.S. firms into the purchase of government securities. The government securities that foreign investors buy are government securities that U.S. investors do not have to buy, which enables them to have more funds available for the purchase of capital goods and labor in the U.S. To this extent, its effect is the prevention of the drain of capital funds from the purchase of capital goods and labor by business into the financing of government spending.
In addition, foreign investment in U.S. government securities serves to prevent the Federal Reserve from creating still more new and additional money with which to purchase those securities, something which would represent a substantial increase in inflation in the U.S.
American job losses are not the result of freer trade and an excess of imports over exports, but of government policies that prevent capital accumulation in the United States, among them policies that limit imports. An essential part of any economic policy that would truly help to “make America great again” is to avoid preventing imports.
To learn about every aspect of the case for capitalism, read my Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics. Originally published at the blog of George Reisman. Copyright 2019 George Reisman. All rights reserved.