Economist talks tariffs at annual Manuel Johnson Center lecture

Published 10:43 pm Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Will an “America First” trade policy make America great again? That was the question economist Mark J. Perry posed to students at the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy Wednesday at the center’s annual BB&T lecture.

Perry, a professor of finance and economics at university of Michigan – Flint, spoke on the issue of how President Donald Trump has described trade with other countries and his policies on tariffs and protectionism.

He noted that countries do not actually trade with one another; instead, individuals and businesses within those countries participate in free trade, and the result, Perry said, is a balanced exchange where both sides win.

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“Both parties are always made better off because both sides always get something they want,” Perry said. “It’s not a win/lose situation the like Trump administration would like us to believe.”

Perry said that politicians and media have especially jumped on, and misused, the term “trade deficit” to describe America getting the short end of the stick in trade with foreign countries. According to Perry, that is not a good way to measure the health of free trade and the economy.

“The real measure of economic benefits of international trade should be the total volume of trade,” Perry said. “…International trade now at an all-time high. Much better way to think about international trade.”

Perry compared the trade deficit to the exchange of money for groceries at a local store, where the grocery store doesn’t buy anything back from the consumer. “Nobody would consider that a bad thing,” Perry said.

Perry also made the point that tariffs such as those recently imposed on steel, aluminum and washing machines come back in costs to U.S. consumers and producers instead of foreign producers. The only beneficiaries of this “protectionism,” Perry said, are the local producers of those items.

Perry explained his perspective by showing U.S. protecting the sugar industry, which he said is about twice as expensive in the U.S. as in the foreign market.

The local sugar farmers benefit, Perry said, but U.S. companies that produce products with sugar such as ice cream and candy brands must move out of the country to save costs on sugar and consumers pay the extra cost in the end product for sugar at the stores. However, the total expense per year for a consumer is not high enough for people to organize around, Perry said, and so there is little risk politically to siding with the U.S. sugar lobby and nothing changes.

Finally, Perry said free trade doesn’t necessarily have to go both ways to be beneficial to the U.S.

“Let’s say China develops a cure for cancer and they’re the only ones that can produce it,” Perry said. “Meanwhile, the U.S. develops cure for heart disease. Let’s say that protectionist China refuses to give its people access to U.S. medicine to cure heart disease but gives us the cure to cancer. Would we be upset about that? As long as they’re willing to sell the cure for cancer and we’re benefitting from that, it doesn’t matter whether they want to buy our cure for heart disease.”¬¬

Perry concluded that tariffs are akin to a sales tax self-imposed on American consumers and, at the end of the day, it is consumers that should be the main concern.

“Economist Frederic Bastiat said we should always view economics from the viewpoint of the consumer because there is always a conflict of interest with the producer,” Perry said. “Treat all economic questions from the viewpoint of the consumer, for the interests of the consumer are the interests of the human race.”