Rocky VIII: An Economic Metaphor Part 2
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Update: 11/7/19 The tariff circus drags on. China continues to play the US like a fiddle. With every "deadline" China simply makes obviously empty promises and gets the date to slide further right. Today we hear we have a the framework on terms to be negotiated and a venue. And we are told that we won't get the "big" deal this time around. (big shock, right?) Instead we will get a promise from China to buy more stuff - AGAIN! And that will be called a deal. (Pass the fig leafs) As I have said in many places: When all this is over, we will ALL end up very much where we were when it started. TARIFFS DON'T WORK. AND THEY CERTAINLY DON'T WORK AGAINST TOTALITARIAN STATES!!! Only real free trade works across the board. But there isn't one politician with the sack to actually discuss real free trade.
At the moment, that doesn't even exist in this country!
The markets have closed down 800+. And no, it still isn’t the Hong Kong riots that caused the drop. That is just another symptom.
In Hong Kong, as with all drawn-out protests by youth, a Lord of the Flies mentality has set in. Agitators in their little corners of the conflict are fighting for the conch by attacking police and trying to be the toughest boy scout. This will cause them to lose public support and has doomed their fight. China wins. Of course they were always going to. They won’t let ANYTHING change because of this protest. The government is not civilized and they don’t preside over a democracy.
One cop showed incredible restraint when cornered by several attackers using sticks to beat him, quite badly. He drew his weapon but didn’t fire it. If it had been me, there would be dead kids at the Hong Kong airport. That’s one GOOD cop.
But back to the real problem at hand.
Who are tariffs good for? Certainly not consumers. And they don’t help suppliers of goods not protected. As I stated in my January article, they only help the specific industries being protected, allowing them to RAISE prices with less competition, but only for a short time. Then everyone looses.
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Thanks to this ridiculous tariff scheme we STILL have silly scenarios like this one: There are tariffs on materials used to make bicycles but no tariffs on bicycles. So U.S. manufacturers of bicycles, already hampered by higher labor costs here, now must pay more for materials and parts. The result? Foreign bike manufacturers, including Chinese companies have an even greater advantage in our market. Come Christmas all the “buy American” slogans in the world will not put an American-made bike under the tree in this country. And the tariff scheme is riddled with this stupidity, as if just launching this campaign wasn’t stupid enough.
So who pulled Trump's chain?
I don’t know who in the administration stroked Trump’s ego well enough to put him on this idiotic tariff bender, but I’d like to strangle them. We had just emerged from an abysmal 8 years of little of no growth and had just a bit of traction under out feet (even Europe was growing for the first time in a decade) when it was all wiped out with this one impetuous and utterly ill-conceived act.
Yes, many players on the world stage are corrupt and still charge tariffs to please their cronies. Hell, Europe has been enjoying tariffs we allowed since after WWII to give them a shot at recovery. And we completely dominated the world’s economy for 75 years. Europe didn't become a dominant power. Still, tariffs are an insult to free trade and should have been done away with. But how? With US tariffs? Hardly.
In our last episode a victorious Rocky (the US economy), still injured from his rematch with Creed, is being forced to fight Clubber Lang, Tommy Gunn and Ivan Drago (trading partners) at the same time. Mickey (Trump) said it was for Rocky’s own good (national security).
At the outset, Rocky seemed to be standing his ground. Gunn (Mexico and Canada) didn’t have the stomach for a fight and knew it wasn’t in his best interest. He immediately threw in the towel because Mickey was willing to renegotiate NAFTA. It was a smart move. He leaves the ring, not a hair out of place.
But problems remain.
Lang (Europe) puts up more of a fight. He throws lots of punches at the US economy and calls Mickey a bully but then slips in a few concessions, some of them really good (like zero tariffs on cars – our biggest obstacle). Where Lang might be inclined to turn on Drago (China) in the overall fight and stand with Rocky, he can’t. Every time he tries to step in, Mickey tells Rocky to punch him on the face. Mickey says he doesn’t want parody with Lang, he wants a complete advantage. Instead of taking 80% and turning Lang against Drago, Mickey chooses to post childish and insulting tweets about Lang, pissing him off and reinvigorating him.
Despite a groin injury (zero, and even negative economic growth) Lang persists in the fight. While he isn’t as much of a threat, his continued presence in the ring makes Rocky’s real challenge more difficult. And with each punch he gets weaker, so even if Lang (Europe) does eventually try to turn on Drago, he will be too weak to help.
Drago (China’s economy) is huge, everyone says his economy is weak and he can’t stand up to a trade fight with the US. But he has something the Rocky doesn’t have. His corner is a totalitarian police state. The corner will not suffer if Drago takes hits, even severe ones. Drago’s fans will. But they will endure what they are told to endure and they will like it.
It won't end well.
You see, ultimately, that is where controlled economies must end up. You can’t control economics like you are planning a birthday party, although idiots who call themselves economists and politicians try every day. But you can oppress people. The more control exerted over the economy, the greater the oppression must be. I give you Free College for All, The Green New Deal and Tax the Hell Out of the Rich as examples.
Where will this end? It remains to be seen. But it won’t end well. Serious and unnecessary damage has been done and it will take a while to unwind.
Leaving the ring for the real world, we have two options to fix this and move on:
Real free trade
Demanding tariff-free trade among all our trading partners
I’ll address number 2 first.
U.S. Dominated Trade
We can start by country or by region or with all our trading partners at once. Congress passes a law that states by a date certain there will be no tariffs anywhere in trading with the United States. We send you our Spaghetti-o’s, you send us your kumquats. They are sold to our respective consumers unencumbered by tariffs. If you keep or create tariffs, you have sold your last kumquat in the US. Subsidies would have be eliminated at the same time as they are just the B side of the same 45, created to thwart competition.1
This is preferable to the existing fight and the pre-existing status quo. However, it isn’t really free trade. If trade takes place under the auspices of the US government, like it as we may, it isn’t free. Making a product and gaining market share at home or abroad is up to the companies who wish to trade, not the government!
And, oh, by the way, try to wrestle sugar or corn subsidies from the political whores on Capitol Hill or the cronies they protect. They’ll tell you the economy is too complex and you just don’t understand why we have to take the bribes we take to help market sectors. Poor, ignorant you.
Number 1, above, is actually the real answer. Free trade. Really free.
Sadly for the dupes who think the government is obligated to get your rubber dogshit into novelty stores in Poland, this scenario pretty much resembles the situation we have right now, based on how ignorant other trading partners remain.
If you, unlike most politicians and career government workers, have brains and vision, you understand that having rich trading partners is better than having poor ones. So rule number one for healthy trade is don’t impoverish your customers. You are not obliged to prop them up, but you don’t kick the stool out from under them either.
Further, if Heinz wants to sell ketchup in Germany and pay a hefty tariff to do so, that is none of the U.S. Government’s business. That is 100% up to Heinz and the board of directors. It is up to that company if they wish to move into a market where they are made artificially less competitive based on price. If they didn’t think they could use the popularity of their brand and quality of their product to make money in that market, they wouldn’t send their stuff there to begin with. And if Berliners wish to pay more for ketchup or pay tax money to their own ketchup companies in the form of subsidies, that is their concern ONLY.
Naturally, if Heinz finds a political whore who will go and fight and threaten the Germans or initiate tariffs here, I suspect Heinz would make huge campaign contributions and pay tens of thousands of dollars for speeches to be made by the whore in return. But that doesn’t make it right.
The lesser of two evils? Meh, Maybe.
I support choice number 2 over the status quo. But I know choice number 1 is the best long-term answer to all of this. I hold out absolutely no hope that ANY of our politicians have the guts to start the process by winding down our existing market protections to undeserving cronies. And I also despair at Trump’s lack of intellectual curiosity on the matter.
How bloody it gets depends on how long people insist on being stupid. But when it all finally shakes out we will all be financially weaker and pretty much the same place we were relative to the rest of the world when this all started.
So, Rocky is screwed on this one. We all are. But don’t worry. You’re screwed on lots of other ways as well. Maybe next time we’ll revisit how Facebook, Google (and politicians that are supposedly “taking on the tech giants”) are playing all of you for total suckers
1. But we'll deal with subsidies in another article. I did deal with them in my book. See the link above.