Brad de Long joins the debate over the gains from trade, responding to earlier posts by Kieran Healy and me, with a typically thoughtful and thought-provoking contribution.
I’m hoping this will be the start of a sustained debate/discussion, and I’m going to start by responding to a simple point. Brad says “1.24 percent of current consumption is nothing to be sneezed at ” and he’s right. It’s about $A 8 billion per year, which is a lot of money. For example, assuming government got about half of the gain this would be enough to restore most of the cuts made to post-secondary education over the past decade.
Brad goes on to make an argument I’m less happy with.
In the context of the Australian economy today… Gourinchas and Jeanne’s numbers say that (at a five percent per year safe real interest rate, and with a three percent per year economic growth rate) the value of international capital mobility to the Australian economy is on the order of a one-time present of some 400 billion $A.
To spell it out, with Brad’s numbers the present value of any flow that grows in line with GDP is fifty times (1/(.05-.03) its initial annual value. Multiply the initial $8 billion by fifty and you get Brad’s $400 billion.
I have two problems with this. The first is that, with such a low effective discount rate (2 per cent) a lot of these gains accrue a long way in the future (about half the PV refers to the period after 2040) and I think the impact of any given policy change is hard to predict that far into the future. For example, it may turn out that an approach taken to capital market liberalisation today turns out in 20 years time to preclude some better arrangement that would yield greater benefits.
The second is more important. Suppose, you think there are costs of capital mobility that outweigh the 1 per cent benefit. To take a really simple illustration, suppose you believe that capital mobility destroys national pride and that national pride is worth more than $8 billion per year. It doesn’t alter the argument to say that the benefit of capital mobility in PV terms is $400 billion. If your willingness to sacrifice consumption for national pride is proportional to your income, as seems reasonable, the cost of giving up your national pride can be multiplied by the same factor of fifty to get a present value greater than $400 billion.
The present value conversion is only useful if we are comparing a long-lived flow of benefits to a once-off cost, for example, the need to shift workers into more capital-intensive industries to take advantage of a capital inflow.
An issue where this kind of comparison is important is that of the cost of squeezing inflation out of an economy. Monetary hawks sometimes argue that you shouldn’t worry too much about the unemployment and loss of output associated with a very tight policy because the present value of a permanent reduction in inflation will nearly always outweigh any temporary losses.
I disagree for a couple of reasons. From my first point, I doubt the claim about permanence. The contractionary policies of the 1980s have been followed by a decade or more of low inflation, but it’s easy to see the possibility of a resurgence in inflation in a few years time, particularly in the US.
On the second point, it’s not at all clear that the economy returns to its long-term growth path after a recession. There’s clearly some rebound in the typical recovery, but if you look at an economy like New Zealand, where hawkish monetary policy produced a series of recessions in the 80s and 90s, it seems as if a fair bit of the output loss is permanent, or at least long-lived. There are similar points to be made about unemployment and hysteresis.