Free trade is never more necessary—or vulnerable—than in times of economic distress. The current global downturn is no exception. Protectionist barriers have shot up all over the world, including the United States. Earlier this year, Congress killed a pilot program allowing Mexican trucks to transport goods across America and included “Buy America” provisions in the stimulus bill banning foreign steel and iron from infrastructure projects funded by the legislation. More disturbingly, President Barack Obama, after chiding Congress for flirting with protectionism, initiated his own ill-advised affair by imposing a 35 percent tariff on cheap Chinese tires.
If the world manages to avoid an all-out trade war of the kind that helped trigger the Great Depression after the U.S. imposed the Smoot-Hawley tariffs in 1930, it will be in no small part due to the efforts of one man: Jagdish N. Bhagwati, an ebullient and irreverent 76-year-old professor of economics at Columbia University. Bhagwati has done more than perhaps any other person alive to advance the cause of unfettered global trade.
A native of India, Bhagwati immigrated to the United States in the late ’60s after a brief stint on the Indian Planning Commission, where he learned first-hand the insanity of an economic approach that tried to modernize a country by cutting it off from world trade. Since then, he has devoted his efforts, both in academia and in the popular press, to showing that there is no better way of improving the lot of both advanced countries and the developing world than through free trade. His path-breaking contributions to trade theory have put him on the short list for a Nobel Prize in economics.
Though a dogged trade advocate, Bhagwati is anything but dogmatic. He is a free spirit who draws intellectual inspiration from many disparate ideological camps. A self-avowed liberal, he is also something of a Gandhian social progressive, though Gandhi himself supported economic autarky. Bhagwati works with numerous Third World NGOs on a host of human rights issues. Yet he has no problem taking on these groups—or his famous student, Nobel laureate Paul Krugman—when they question the benefits of trade. In fact, he devoted his 2004 magnum opus, In Defense of Globalization, to a point-by-point rebuttal of these critics. Although he doesn’t vote Republican because he dislikes the party’s nationalistic jingoism, he readily declares that Democrats pose a far bigger threat to international exchange than Republicans.
This summer Shikha Dalmia, a senior analyst at the Reason Foundation, interviewed Bhagwati in his New York office.
reason: You have been on the short list for a Nobel Prize in economics for your contribution to trade theory. Could you explain what your main contribution is?
Jagdish Bhagwati: My breakthrough in trade theory was very simple, as all breakthroughs are. Back in the 1950s, when the case for free trade was widely regarded as less compelling analytically than today, protectionists had one very powerful argument on their side. They noted that a country necessarily benefits from free trade only when markets are perfect—that is to say, only when market prices reflect true social costs can we expect these prices to guide allocation correctly. Take pollution. Say your production process makes you spew things into the air and water but you do not have to pay for this pollution. Then the social cost of harming others is not being taken into account by you and hence your production costs are less than the “correct” social costs.
So you could take two points of view. The time-honored view was that when there is such “market failure,” or what might be better called a “missing market,” the case for free trade was compromised and any form of protectionism was justified. I argued that if you had a market failure, fix that, and you are back to perfect markets and the legitimacy of free trade. So, for example, you can have a polluter-pay principle on the environment. If you do that, then there’s no damaging spillover which has not been taken into account.
The proper policy response then is not to abandon free trade but rather to fix the market failure and then to embrace free trade. This was a revolutionary thought. For 200 years, serious economists had abandoned free trade in the presence of market failures of one kind or another.
reason: In Defense of Globalization was addressed to non-academic critics of free trade and globalization who claim that globalization does not have a human face. What was your argument?
Bhagwati: When I was in Seattle in 1999, when everything went haywire as far as trying to get a new round of trade negotiations, I realized that the young people who were agitating, and some of the older folks also, were not interested in whether trade was good for national income and prosperity. They were claiming that globalization has an adverse impact on a whole lot of social issues—gender equity issues, environmental issues, the effects of globalization on the polity and democratic rights. In short, to use the fetching phrase, they were concerned that economic globalization lacked a human face.
My book addressed precisely such issues. I found that, contrary to the fears of the critics, most social agendas were advanced rather than handicapped by globalization. Globalization, I concluded, had a human face.
Take women’s issues, for example: If you look at what happens to the gender gap on pay inequality, it turns out that you can make a perfectly solid argument that in fact it’s narrowed rather than widened as a result of international trade. The reason is very simple: If a man is paid twice as much as a woman, when they are both equally competent, that is inefficient. So when you are engaged in international competition, you’re really not going to be able to indulge your prejudice in this way. This will lead to more demand for women and less for men, bringing pressure to bear on their relative wages in the direction of greater pay equality.
Two brilliant young women, Sandra Black and Elizabeth Brainerd, did their dissertation at Harvard on this hypothesis. They found that in two decades in internationally traded industries in the United States, the gender wage gap narrowed faster than in non-traded industries. Trade had thus been good for an important social objective, not a drag on it.
reason: You still hear the argument—President Obama made it during his campaign—that we want fair trade, not free trade.
Bhagwati: In the United States the phrase “fair trade” holds a lot of sway, because fairness is an important issue here. In the United States it’s the equality of opportunity, not of outcome, that matters. We have a fairness-oriented culture. The Europeans, who are actually more stratified—they’re more into equality of outcome. The social mobility of people is much less, so they want the state to intervene and redistribute. They’re more into justice and we’re more into fairness.
So if you want to be a protectionist in the U.S., you’ve got to say that these Japanese or these Indians are trading unfairly. People will much more readily give you protection if they think the other guy is a wicked unfair trader.
President Obama hasn’t really understood the case for free trade because I don’t think he’s been too interested in trade. His background is as an activist working with the poor people, so he hasn’t thought about these issues. So he ends up listening to other people, and a lot of people who are protectionist are around him, particularly the unions, who are afraid of international competition. But they dress up the fair trade argument in altruism, that they’re doing it to raise the labor standards and wages of workers in India and Brazil and so on and so forth, when in fact, they’re doing it to protect their own workers from competition. The president doesn’t seem to realize that this is something which other people, whom you pretend you’re trying to help, actually see as a naked, cynical ploy.
Instead of pandering to union fear, Obama has got to engage them. You have got to help these doubting Thomases confront their fears. He’s got to say that trade with the poor countries is actually helping, not hurting, you. The unions’ main fear is that unskilled jobs are disappearing. They see these jobs being taken up elsewhere where the labor is cheap. But they can’t hold onto these jobs anyway. What they get in return from trade are cheap products that they need as consumers. So free trade moderates the downward pressure on their real wages.
Big portions of the wages of poor workers go toward low quality textiles, for instance. That is well-established. But if you look at the structure of protectionism, if you go and buy something from Anne Klein that’s going to be expensive, but it carries no tariff at all because these high-end designers compete on variety. Tariffs matter where the competition is on prices. So the low-quality items which poor people buy end up carrying higher tariffs than high-end items that rich people buy.
reason: So free trade’s harm to union workers as producers is minimal, but the harm to them as consumers would be very great if we didn’t have free trade?
Bhagwati: Yes. So what President Obama has to do is basically change the ethos in this country so that it understands that the United States has profited enormously from free trade. Free trade has rescued India and China from poverty, yes. But the U.S. working class has also profited from international trade.
He’s got to make an eloquent case like that. He’s got to see that this is something that needs as much attention and as much of his eloquence as the speech he made on race after he got into trouble over his pastor.
But then to move the case of free trade forward, the Obama administration has to show global leadership, because the U.S. is the biggest trading country. He has got to make sure that the stimulus package and everything that he does is completely consistent with openness. I think he’s got to understand this is not something he can keep postponing and postponing.
When President Clinton came in the first year, he was into Japan bashing and he hadn’t made up his mind on whether he wanted trade or not, because he had advisors on both sides. So his first year was extremely tentative. Then he made up his mind and was fiercely pro-trade after that. President Bush, the junior, he too gave into steel tariffs when he first came in, but after the first year, when he found his feet, he was very pro-trade.
President Obama doesn’t have that luxury because the weaknesses are showing in the way the stimulus is being designed and played out. So someone has to tell him very clearly that he doesn’t have the luxury of most presidents, which is to use a first year to find your feet on trade. He’s got to be out there and he’s got to provide the leadership. He’s got to bring in the people who waiver and dither, the AFL-CIO, the Democrats who are indebted to the AFL-CIO, and say: “Look, you’re wrong. Here, let’s have a debate.” There are lots of Democratic economists who’d be able to engage these guys in a proper debate.
reason: In recent years, the opposition to free trade hasn’t just come from left-wing unions, but also people on the right who fear that outsourcing will cause the U.S. to lose its economic edge as it imports high-value-added products and exports low-value-added ones. How do you respond to that?
Bhagwati: It’s an irrelevant argument. To say that the United States should be exporting high-value items rather than low-value items is itself a fallacy. But America’s great comparative advantage lies in innovation. For someone like me who has come from India it is very obvious that this country is full of innovators. When I was a student I read about Britain’s Industrial Revolution. And it was powered by all kinds of people, inventing the spinning jenny and so on. They were like little Americans, you know, thinking of new ways of doing things and making a buck. Almost every other American I know is thinking about something, some way to do something. We are a highly inventive people, and technology therefore is our driving force. It’s not savings and investments which are driving our productivity. It’s technology and innovation and immigrants like me—not me in particular—lots of people who come here and by the second generation go through the mill and become Colin Powell or Orlando Patterson at Harvard.
Nobody can compete with us in the long run, in my view, because these are not advantages which people in traditional societies can reproduce. So we’re always going to be doing high value. We’ll lose the high value we generate to others quickly because now technology diffuses very fast. But then we’ll have new ideas, new technologies.
reason: Which side poses the bigger threat to free trade, conservatives on sovereignty, neo-mercantilist grounds, or liberals on equity and environmental grounds?
Bhagwati: In the U.S., I think the Democrats are the biggest threat to free trade. I don’t see the right-wing threat to globalization in terms of sovereignty as being a major one, frankly.
Conservatives are principled people, so they have Edmund Burke type of reservations about continuous change and so on. But they are not people who are going to undermine the rule of law when it comes to trade. Even their arguments against immigration are rule-of-law arguments. Anti-globalization noises saying we’ve lost our sovereignty and so on and so forth, it’s not going to get very far in the U.S. system.
The threat from the left, on the other hand, is much more serious because they oppose free trade on equity grounds. I love America. I have settled in it. But there is a tendency, particularly on the part of the Democrats, to become totally self-righteous on everything and this is the way it has to be and if you disagree, then you’re a Republican. I mean, that’s the way they argue it. It’s unbelievable. They don’t want to argue the merits of the case.
reason: Why do you think Republicans are better on free trade than Democrats?
Bhagwati: Both the last Bush and Ronald Reagan believed in America. They thought that their own people could win. That made them more prone to accept international competition and trade.
They carried that attitude over into politics, of course. For instance, President Reagan won the Cold War by pushing Gorbachev to the limit. But he was lucky. President Bush went into Iraq with the same attitude, and that was unfortunate.
But since they both believed that Americans would win, they were good on international trade, although maybe for the wrong reasons. Democrats don’t believe that America can remain number one, and hence they cannot bring themselves to be completely in favor of open markets.
reason: You are a big believer in multilateral trade agreements over bilateral trade agreements. What’s wrong with bilateral trade agreements?
Bhagwati: Free trade agreements and protectionism are two sides of the same coin. When I have free trade just with you, I’m freeing trade with you but I handicap those who are not members of our free trade area. They have to keep paying the duties to get into our markets. So that becomes a de facto way of increasing protection against outsiders. Multilateral free trade would be a closer thing to pure free trade.
But there are two additional worries about bilateral trade agreements: One, we don’t just have two or three free trade agreements. Today there are close to 500, and every week there’s another new one being constructed. As a result, you’re getting all kinds of special tariffs, rules of origin, and other things multiplying in the system, something which I’ve called the spaghetti bowl. Exporters rightly get upset by the large numbers of tariffs they face depending on where you’re coming from.
Two, how do you enforce these agreements in a globalized world? It’s very chaotic. Parts are coming from everywhere. For a country to have to then decide which product is my partner country’s product rather than an outside country’s product becomes completely arbitrary. A car produced in Canada with Japanese steel and German chemicals, where 80 or 90 percent of the parts may come from elsewhere—is that a Canadian car or is it really something else? Does it qualify for the zero tariff under the North American Free Trade Agreement or not?
reason: Was NAFTA a mistake?
Bhagwati: I think in retrospect, yes. It’s not a slam dunk argument because it did bring in Mexico. Otherwise, they were talking about CAFTA which included just Canada and the U.S. But when you brought in Mexico, it made it a much bigger thing.
President Clinton was carrying on the multilateral negotiations in tandem with NAFTA. But NAFTA created worries on the part of the unions here, because this is a poor country and they were worried that Mexican competition would really hurt their wages. So even though the multilateral talks would’ve gone through without any difficulty, President Clinton ended up having to fight very hard for NAFTA, which survived by a very narrow majority. In order to win NAFTA, he had to give in on things like labor standards and so on. That’s when all these social things became part of trade deals. From there, it never looked back.
So in retrospect, I would say, because of the concessions they had to make, Clinton started us down a road which really has been counterproductive.
There is another thing to worry about. When you look at a trade agreement like NAFTA, it’s about that thick (holds his hands about two feet apart). When I debate people like Lori Wallach of Public Citizen, she arrives with a lot of books, and among them is this NAFTA treaty she carries for effect. I hope she gets a hernia from doing this often enough, because it looks pretty heavy to me. I wouldn’t be carrying it around. Anyway, she shows this book and asks, “Is this free trade?” And mad as she is, she’s right to raise that issue. You should be able to say maybe in 10 pages that in these sectors we are going to liberalize and so on. But nine-tenths of what’s in these agreements are things which have nothing to do with trade. Labor standards, environmental standards, intellectual property rights. If I were Jane Fonda, in order to sell more workout tapes, I could put into the agreement a clause that the president of Mexico has to do his exercise to my tapes. And it would go in, because ours is a lobbying culture and nobody really would know that it’s there. Because who opens these things except the lobbyists?
So many developing countries are now waking up to the fact that they’re being sold a bill of goods in the form of trade agreements.
reason: Do you think a global externality problem like global warming poses a fundamental threat to free trade?
Bhagwati: I think it depends on the way you do it. First, you’ve got to decide whether there is a problem of an externality. I have doubts about these scientists who claim to have a consensus on global warming because, you know, Freeman Dyson, a great scientific figure, says these guys are really low-level scientists and I’m told by many that they, in fact, are. And if they reach a consensus, I don’t care. I mean, that’s the consensus of incompetents.
But so long as only the scientists were talking about global warming, nobody paid the slightest attention. Remember, not a single senator voted for the Kyoto resolution back in the ’90s. Even Al Gore and Clinton had to walk away from Kyoto. But then the polar bears were threatened, the glaciers began to melt, and then that great French film about the penguins which touched all our hearts came out. So these were three whammies. Even if you live in Peoria you will understand, wrongly maybe, that global warming is a problem. I tell all my students: If they think of something like that for free trade, please let me know.
What countries like India and China are saying is that if the CO2 was accumulating and it’s going to create a disaster, then that took a lot of time to establish. So they want the West to bear primary responsibility for the damage it has caused in the past. If America applies some kind of a carbon tax and it says that if India and China don’t impose a similar tax, it’s going to use what is called border tax adjustment, then that is protectionism. And there’s no reason why Indians and Chinese have to accept this. Just as America was not willing to accept it when it didn’t sign onto Kyoto and Europe started threatening a countervailing duty on American exports. But everybody reacted to that talk and said this is a cockeyed thing to do. Peter Mandelson, who was the EU Commissioner, said it was very unwise because the United States will retaliate.
It’s ironic that we are now using exactly that kind of threat on India and China. But America’s fuel tax is so much lower than that of most other countries, except the Middle East. So India and China are going to hit us because we had a low gas tax for a long time. And all hell would break loose. India and China are big guys. They can get legal [World Trade Organization] retaliation against the U.S. Or India could take away contracts from Boeing and give them to Air France. It can have nuclear reactors go to France rather than to G.E. Caterpillar would be shut out.
So I suggest a different way. If in our own U.S. system you’re going to get your companies to clean up under the Superfund Act, that’s a tort principle which we accept. Then we ought to be willing to pay in some form to other poor countries for the past damages. The West has completely ignored this suggestion so far. It has provided maybe a few million dollars in assistance to Third World countries for this purpose. But if the West seriously starts contributing to this fund, Third World countries could get anywhere from $150 million to $1 billion to mitigate global warming.
reason: This is a political non-starter, you know.
Bhagwati: Yes. But the president actually has made some remarks about border tax adjustments not being such a good idea. He’s got to do more than that. He’s got to say this is a crazy thing to do. He’s still very cool—he needs to lose his temper once in a while. Because it’s too important. The U.S. is one of the biggest trading nations in the world. We want the rule of law. We don’t want retaliation, which would be massive. India and China are not Zaire or Zimbabwe. They’re not little countries you can push around. We don’t want to unleash that kind of trade war, because it would be very hard to control, I’m afraid.
Shikha Dalmia is a senior analyst at Reason Foundation. This interview first appeared at Reason.com.