The Folly of Risking Trade War

There is a scene in Book XXI, Chapter IV, of Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte D’Arthur,” which described how King Arthur waged his final battle with Sir Mordred, concluding with the utter destruction of both their armies, and leaving the latter surviving, alone. Meanwhile, the monarch still had two knights left, Sir Lucan and Sir Bedivere, though they were both “sorely wounded.” Sir Lucan pleaded with the king not to continue the conflict any further, reminding him that he had “won the field” that day. But Arthur would have none of that as he was determined to exact final revenge, at whatever cost. Readers all know what happened next because of his fateful decision.

This all came to mind as I read a recent question posted in the Wall Street Journal’s online “Journal Community” section:

Should the U.S. and other countries risk a trade war with China over the valuation of the yuan?

Alas, it is just another way of saying, should the U.S. and like-minded countries risk mutually assured destruction in order to fix what others refer to as a non-existent problem, or at worst, one that is overblown.  We could all simply end up like King Arthur.

As economist Walter E. Williams noted in his excellent article entitled, “Our Trade Deficit (May 25, 2005):” “I buy more from my grocer than he buys from me, and I bet it’s the same with you and your grocer. That means we have a trade deficit with our grocers. Does our perpetual grocer trade deficit portend doom?”

Of course not, I say, but as Dr. Williams had observed, this example illustrates that there is more to the issue than those seemingly frightening deficit figures used by certain “pundits and politicians” to scare the general public, and there are a fair number of such fear mongers these days, both from the political right and left, whether we refer to Pat Buchanan, Lou Dobbs, as well as former congressman Richard Gephardt, current U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), and a host of others.

However, judging from the lopsided poll results and angry posts in support of trade war, these respondents and other, similarly outraged individuals, have largely ignored the thoughtful and sensible pronouncements of people like Dr. Williams. Yes, these folks have certainly worked themselves up to a similar, “to hell with the consequences” frenzy, and the U.S. Federal Reserve’s new  initiative, known as QE2, is largely influenced by these same views. Fortunately, saner heads seem have to have prevailed at the recent G20 summit, with the general consensus rejecting American efforts to pressure China to relax tight controls on its currency. Yet, that hardly resolved any major issues, leaving the prospect of trade war hanging over everyone’s heads like a dreaded “Sword of Damocles.” More importantly, the United States has simply incurred the opposition of trading partners such as Germany (not to mention China) for this seemingly reckless monetary policy aimed at further bringing down the value of the U.S. currency, all in the name of “stimulating the U.S. economy and creating jobs.”

Gee, if only things were that simple and not fraught with risks, such as the likelihood of causing a dramatic rise in inflation, especially in the price of commodities like petroleum products. With the continued deterioration of the U.S. dollar, we may very well see oil prices again rise north of USD $100 per barrel, perhaps as early as 2011.  The Obama administration is probably betting that many Americans (especially those who actively participate as voters) are not savvy enough to know the connection, and unfortunately, that may very well be the case. Maybe people will finally figure it out once oil hits USD $200, with inflation raging at 20 percent.

Meanwhile, I doubt President Obama fooled anyone with his insistence that QE2 was “not meant to deliberately weaken the U.S. dollar,” as reported by Ben Feller of AP and others. It also appeared that the Fed was not fully prepared for international reaction, especially with countries getting ready to, or having imposed additional financial regulations meant to blunt the intended effects of QE2. Nowadays, I am increasingly convinced that Bernanke and his people are losing their grip on economic, global reality.

With this unfortunate and largely misleading political perception that America’s high unemployment rate is directly linked to its massive U.S. trade imbalance, and with increasing demands to impose trade barriers, other nations could likely respond in kind, which could bring us to a SH2 (Smoot-Hawley 2) type scenario and an economic nightmare that could reduce global trade dramatically and bring about massive, worldwide unemployment not seen since the Great Depression. As the philosopher George Santayana was quoted as saying, “Those who do not learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.”

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