Tiankai’s tariff terror

Chinese ambassador Cui Tiankai

Cui Tiankai

The Chinese ambassador to the US offers a stern but misguided warning about the alleged dangers of tariffs:

Speaking to Reuters before heading to join Chinese President Xi Jinping’s delegation at the Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires, Cui Tiankai said China and the United States had a shared responsibility to cooperate in the interests of the global economy.

Asked whether he thought hardliners in the White House were seeking to separate the closely linked U.S. and Chinese economies, Cui said he did not think it was possible or helpful to do so, adding: “I don’t know if people really realize the possible consequences – the impact, the negative impact – if there is such a decoupling.”

He drew parallels to the tariff wars of the 1930s among industrial countries, which contributed to a collapse of global trade and heightened tensions in the years before World War Two.

“The lessons of history are still there. In the last century, we had two world wars, and in between them, the Great Depression. I don’t think anybody should really try to have a repetition of history. These things should never happen again, so people have to act in a responsible way.”

The problem is that protectionism did not cause the Great Depression. Like the idea that the Great Wall is visible from space (which was told to me by a certified tour guide in Beijing), this is a myth that just won’t die.

Allow economist Ian Fletcher to explain:

Let’s start by reminding ourselves of a basic fact: the Depression’s cause was monetary. The Federal Reserve had allowed the money supply to balloon excessively during the late 1920s, piling up in the stock market as a bubble. The Fed then panicked, miscalculated, and let the money supply collapse by a third by 1933, depriving the economy of the liquidity it needed to breathe. Trade had nothing to do with it.

The Smoot-Hawley tariff was simply too small a policy change to have so large an effect as triggering a Depression. For a start, it only applied to about one-third of America’s trade: about 1.3 percent of our GDP. One point three percent! America’s average tariff on goods subject to tariff went from 44.6 to 53.2 percent—not a very big jump at all. America’s tariffs were higher in almost every year from 1821 to 1914. Our tariffs went up in 1861, 1864, 1890, and 1922 without producing global depressions, and the great recessions of 1873 and 1893 spread worldwide without needing the help of any tariff increases. […]

World trade did indeed decline, but this was due to the Depression itself, not higher American tariffs. This is no surprise, as declines in the values of the currencies of America’s major trading partners wiped away much of the effect of the tariff anyway.

Fletcher quotes economic historian William Bernstein as follows:

Between 1929 and 1932, real GDP fell 17 percent worldwide, and by 26 percent in the United States, but most economic historians now believe that only a miniscule part of that huge loss of both world GDP and the United States’ GDP can be ascribed to the tariff wars. .. At the time of Smoot-Hawley’s passage, trade volume accounted for only about 9 percent of world economic output. Had all international trade been eliminated, and had no domestic use for the previously exported goods been found, world GDP would have fallen by the same amount — 9 percent. Between 1930 and 1933, worldwide trade volume fell off by one-third to one-half. Depending on how the falloff is measured, this computes to 3 to 5 percent of world GDP, and these losses were partially made up by more expensive domestic goods. Thus, the damage done could not possibly have exceeded 1 or 2 percent of world GDP — nowhere near the 17 percent falloff seen during the Great Depression…

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