Trade wars: Easy to win?

The trade war between the US (or rather the Trump Administration) and China (or rather Xi Jinping) is heating up again. The standard view seems to be that, because of the massive imbalance in merchandise trade between the two countries, Trump has the advantage. China could retaliate by dumping US bonds, but this is seen as a weapon too dangerous to use.

I don’t think this exhausts the options. As we’ve seen in Australia, the Chinese government can do all sorts of things to retaliate against nationals of a country that has offended them. That might, however, be an option confined to bit players like Australia.

If I were advising Xi on retaliation against Trump, I’d suggest looking at services where the balance is strongly in favor of the US. An obvious starting point would be tourism. A travel advisory, suggesting that the US is a dangerous place for Chinese tourists to visit, and implying that such visitors might face adverse consequences on their return would be an obvious choice. It would cause instant economic pain, be easily reversible and could be justified by pointing to the example of the US embargo on Cuba.

A more hopeful, and probably more likely, outcome is that China will play for time until 2020, when Trump will come under pressure in US farm states, or until 2021 when (more likely than not) he will be gone altogether.

Trade wars aren’t, as Trump suggests, easy to win. But they are nowhere near as destructive as real wars. We should be more concerned about the hawks in the foreign policy establishment, spoiling for a fight over the South China Sea, than about tariffs on TVs and soybeans.

Evidence and conventional wisdom

I’ve been looking over some posts from the bright dawn days of blogging in the early 2000s. One thing that struck me is that some ideas I put forward as unconventional but evidence based, are now fairly widely accepted. In view of the widespread, and justified, concern about a post-truth era, this seems encouraging, and worth investigating. A few examples

  • In this post on equality of opportunity from 2003, I noted that “contrary to popular belief, there is less mobility between income classes in the United States than in European social democracies.” I was drawing on a 1999 book, The Real Worlds of Welfare Capitalism by Goodin, Headey Muffels and Dirven, which I’d reviewed a couple of years previously. In 2009, when I started work on Zombie Economics, I wrote about this again. However, I soon realised I was pushing at an open door. The decline of social mobility in the US had become part of the conventional wisdom.
  • In 2004, some of the first studies of charter schools were coming out, showing that, contrary to the widely-shared expectations of education reformers, they weren’t showing any clear gains in student performance. I wrote about this fairly cautiously, noting that studies of this kind often fail to find any effect. As it turned out, however, the findings were replicated, particularly in the case of for-profit schools. This piece in the Washington Post (which used to be associated in some way with the for-profit testing industry, IIRC) shows how much the tide has turned against charters, and even more against for-profits.
  • Here’s a post on minimum wages, drawing on the work of David Card and Alan Krueger (whose tragic death recently was a big loss to the economics profession). from the early 1990s. By then, the formerly orthodox view that minimum wages had big negative effects on employment was sufficiently out of favour to be revived in Slate (then famous, or notorious, for “contrarian” views that generally tended to support the establishment).
  • Finally, I wrote a couple of mildly snarky pieces about the “Reading Wars” between phonics and whole language. This was one of the relatively rare cases in which the emerging evidence supported the cultural right. It’s pretty hard nowadays to find unequivocal supporters of whole language.

Looking at these examples, there’s a gap of about 10 years between the time the evidence emerged (or at least, emerged prominently enough for me to take notice) and the time the conventional wisdom adjusted. That doesn’t seem too bad. As the great replication crisis has shown, it’s unwise to take too much notice of an individual study on any social science topic.

Unsurprisingly, most of the examples above are cases where the emerging evidence was consistent with my broad political principles (I was never engaged in the Reading Wars, though I mostly lined up against the phonics advocates on other issues). I’d say that’s because most of the evidence we’ve had in the past twenty-five years or so has gone against the beliefs of the political right, who have had to retreat from the triumphalism of the early 1990s. But it’s obviously possible that there is confirmation bias at work. I’d be interested to see suggested examples of evidence shifting the conventional wisdom to the right in this period.

Why were the Turks our enemies in 1914? Because Britain refused their offer of alliance in 1913

Both my grandfathers fought in the Great War, one in the Middle East and one in France. They survived (or I wouldn’t be here), but one was badly wounded in a gas attack. I’ve thought about this on Anzac Day for most of my 60+ years, but last year I learned something I hadn’t thought about and, as far as I can tell, hardly anyone else in Australia knows. We were only fighting Turkey because the British government refused their request for an alliance. I wrote about this last year, and I’m reposting it now.

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The weakness of dictatorship: China and coal

Global Energy Monitor, Greenpeace India, and the Sierra Club have just released the fifth annual Boom and Bust report, tracking the global coal plant pipeline. The news is mostly good, with three glaring exceptions, all related to China.

First, as reported last year, provincial governments appear to have restarted construction on a number of coal-fired power plants, previously suspended on the orders of the central government. Second, the China Electricity Council, which represents the country’s power utilities, has proposed setting the country’s coal capacity cap at 1,300 gigawatts, a level that would allow 290 gigawatts of new capacity to be added—more than the entire coal fleet of the U.S. (259 gigawatts). Finally, Chinese financial institutions, mostly state-owned are the last large scale backers of coal-fired projects at a global level.

It remains to be seen how this will play out. Perhaps the central govenment will pull the provinces and state-owned enterprises into line and override the Electricity Council.

The bigger lesson here is that even though China is well on the way to becoming a personal dictatorship of Xi Jinping, and despite the supposedly Leninist organization of the Communist party he leads (the official phrase is “democratic centralism“) most of the real power in the country is exercised by local magnates, just as it was in the days of warlord rule. That seems to be characteristic of dictatorship.

Over the fold, the good news

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