Saturday, April 5, 2008

Jagdish Bhagwati's Free Trade Today

Professor Bhagwati has published a number of economic books and is becoming a "hot" name in the academic world. I recently read one of his earlier works, Free Trade Today. I dislike his writing style, which carries a strange odor of disarming arrogance. Still, no one can doubt Professor Bhagwati's diligent research--there were 114 footnotes in a 120 page book, some to his own works (hence, the arrogance).

This book was divided into three chapters. The first one, a defense of free trade, was impenetrable. For example, Prof. Bhagwati says that in a recession, the free market is failing to pay people their properly calibrated wage, and responding to unemployment with tariffs in an attempt to spur domestic consumption only makes the problem worse. This is because the real answer to unemployment is to create higher demand , and tariffs curtail more demand for services by limiting entrants into the market. But here's how Prof. Bhagwati expresses these thoughts:

The Keynesian warming to protection in times of unemployment due to deficiency of aggregrate demand evidently derived from the notion that tariffs could divert aggregrate demand from foreign to domestic goods. But from the viewpoint that I am setting forth about the role of free trade, it is equally possible for us to see that since the social cost of labor in a situation of massive unemployment us clearly less than its (market) wage, this is a market failure, and free trade is no longer a compelling policy. [In other words, too much unemployment leads to major social detriment, which may create a compelling scenario for government intervention.] That the optimal policy mix would still be to remove that market failure by creating a sufficiently more aggregate demand, instead of diverting a given aggregate demand towards yourself, and then holding on to free trade, is a matter that I shall turn to in the context of proposition 2 in the next section. (p. 17, Princeton U Press, 2002)

Did we all get that? (I'm still not sure I have.) Prof. Bhagwati redeems himself in the second portion of the book, which is the only portion I would recommend to anyone. In one section, Prof. Bhagwati demonstrates his high intelligence and understanding of economics vs. sociology:

First, fairness rather than justice is the defining moral principle in the United States, as compared to the more socially structured European and Japanese societies. So equality of access trumps equality of success; equal opportunity trounces equal outcomes. (p. 52)

This statement holds true, as long as the average American continues to have political beliefs slightly right of center. In an extremely interesting premise, Prof. Bhagwati also says democracy is a check against unfettered and irresponsible capitalism:

Few governments, certainly now that democracy has broken out worldwide, are likely to say instead to multinationals: come and make profits by polluting our waters and air. (p. 59-60)

In another interesting section on preferential trade agreements (PTAs), Prof. Bhagwati correctly says that rich nations insert provisions in these trade contracts that are one-sided. For example, the U.S. will focus on child labor rather than environmental or "quasi-slavery conditions for migrant labor in American agriculture." (p. 71) In addition, eliminating child labor in poor countries may lead to children entering more undesirable professions, such as prostitution. (p. 77)

The third chapter is more technical, but still readable, and focuses on how to draft bilateral agreements that favor free trade. Prof. Bhagwati points out that there are now so many bilateral agreements establishing favored trading partners or products, that it is becoming more difficult for poorer countries to navigate this system or even attain fair results.

I would not recommend this book to the casual reader, but if you want to major in economics, read this short book to see whether you have a future in the field, as most of the ideas mentioned are intelligent and informed.

1 comment:

5sbauthor said...

Interesting post, K_Yew. Based on your description, I don't think I'll be reading Bhagwati's book. I'll save my money.

You're obviously interested in the subject of "free" trade. I'd like to offer a completely new and different perspective - one I'm certain you've not heard before.

Our enormous trade deficit is rightly of growing concern to Americans. Since leading the global drive toward trade liberalization by signing the Global Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in 1947, America has been transformed from the weathiest nation on earth - its preeminent industrial power - into a skid row bum, literally begging the rest of the world for cash to keep us afloat. It's a disgusting spectacle. Our cumulative trade deficit since 1976, financed by a sell-off of American assets, is now approaching $9 trillion. What will happen when those assets are depleted? Today's recession may be just a preview of what's to come.

Why? The American work force is the most productive on earth. Our product quality, though it may have fallen short at one time, is now on a par with the Japanese. Our workers have labored tirelessly to improve our competitiveness. Yet our deficit continues to grow. Our median wages and net worth have declined for decades. Our debt has soared.

Clearly, there is something amiss with "free trade." The concept of free trade is rooted in Ricardo's principle of comparative advantage. In 1817 Ricardo hypothesized that every nation benefits when it trades what it makes best for products made best by other nations. On the surface, it seems to make sense. But is it possible that this theory is flawed in some way? Is there something that Ricardo didn't consider?

At this point, I should introduce myself. I am author of a book titled "Five Short Blasts: A New Economic Theory Exposes The Fatal Flaw in Globalization and Its Consequences for America." To make a long story short, my theory is that, as population density rises beyond some optimum level, per capita consumption begins to decline. This occurs because, as people are forced to crowd together and conserve space, it becomes ever more impractical to own many products. Falling per capita consumption, in the face of rising productivity (per capita output, which always rises), inevitably yields rising unemployment and poverty.

This theory has huge ramifications for U.S. policy toward population management (especially immigration policy) and trade. The implications for population policy may be obvious, but why trade? It's because these effects of an excessive population density - rising unemployment and poverty - are actually imported when we attempt to engage in free trade in manufactured goods with a nation that is much more densely populated. Our economies combine. The work of manufacturing is spread evenly across the combined labor force. But, while the more densely populated nation gets free access to a healthy market, all we get in return is access to a market emaciated by over-crowding and low per capita consumption. The result is an automatic, irreversible trade deficit and loss of jobs, tantamount to economic suicide.

One need look no further than the U.S.'s trade data for proof of this effect. Using 2006 data, an in-depth analysis reveals that, of our top twenty per capita trade deficits in manufactured goods (the trade deficit divided by the population of the country in question), eighteen are with nations much more densely populated than our own. Even more revealing, if the nations of the world are divided equally around the median population density, the U.S. had a trade surplus in manufactured goods of $17 billion with the half of nations below the median population density. With the half above the median, we had a $480 billion deficit!

Our trade deficit with China is getting all of the attention these days. But, when expressed in per capita terms, our deficit with China in manufactured goods is rather unremarkable - nineteenth on the list. Our per capita deficit with other nations such as Japan, Germany, Mexico, Korea and others (all much more densely populated than the U.S.) is worse. In fact, our largest per capita trade deficit in manufactured goods is with Ireland, a nation twice as densely populated as the U.S. Our per capita deficit with Ireland is twenty-five times worse than China's. My point is not that our deficit with China isn't a problem, but rather that it's exactly what we should have expected when we suddenly applied a trade policy that was a proven failure around the world to a country with one sixth of the world's population.

Ricardo's principle of comparative advantage is overly simplistic and flawed because it does not take into consideration this population density effect and what happens when two nations grossly disparate in population density attempt to trade freely in manufactured goods. While free trade in natural resources and free trade in manufactured goods between nations of roughly equal population density is indeed beneficial, just as Ricardo predicts, it’s a sure-fire loser when attempting to trade freely in manufactured goods with a nation with an excessive population density.

If you‘re interested in learning more about this important new economic theory, then I invite you to visit my web site at where you can read the preface for free, join in the blog discussion and, of course, buy the book if you like. (It's also available at

Please forgive me for the somewhat "spammish" nature of the previous paragraph, but I don't know how else to inject this new theory into the debate about trade without drawing attention to the book that explains the theory.

Pete Murphy
Author, Five Short Blasts