Incentives Matter, the International Trade Edition

A chart and a paragraph from The Economist to get us started today. First, the chart:

I’ve been a student of economics for a little more than two decades, and the one thing that is quite familiar to me in this chart is how large China’s share is in US imports (that’s what the “17” at the bottom right of the chart represents. Spend some time going over the rest of the numbers on the right of this chart, and come to the realization that China is about 50% more than all of the other nations on this chart combined.)

Being a student of economics in these past two decades makes it inevitable that some notions of how the world works and functions will get deeply ingrained. And the idea that China will be much larger in everything compared to, often, the addition of all other countries performances has become a useful rule of thumb. Note that I am not advocating forming such a rule for the future – I’m simply saying this has been the case for the past two decades.

But as the Nobel Laureate said, the times, they’re a-changin’:

Yet Mr Trump’s tariffs seem to have played an important role. According to recent analysis of industry data by Chad Bown of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, a think-tank, China’s share of America’s imports rose from 36% to 39% this year in goods not covered by tariffs. For goods subject to a 7.5% tariff, however, China’s share sank from 24% to 18%. And for those hit by a whopping 25% tariff, which covers lots of it equipment, China’s share of imports fell from 16% to 10%. Overall America is now much less dependent on Chinese goods, from furniture to semiconductors. (Emphasis added)

This post isn’t about whether Trump should have imposed those tariffs or not, nor is it about whether those tariffs have been worth it. That is an important topic, but we’re going to skip over it in today’s post. Today is just a reaffirmation of a principle of economics:

When something becomes more expensive, there will be lesser demand for it.

That, of course, is just another way to state the law of demand. You can draw a curve, if you like, or you can phrase it the way I did, or you can write out a paragraph that gives an application of the law, like The Economist did. But the next time you read people opining about whether Policy X will work or not, ask yourself how the incentives have been realigned as a consequence of the new policy.

By how much will demand go down (elasticity), should this policy be implemented or not (geopolitics), and what might be the impact of this policy on China and America and other nations (international trade) are all excellent questions, and they will keep all manner of professionals busy for decades to come.

But again, that’s for another day. Today’s post is about helping you realize that the law of demand is one way to understand incentives, and (don’t stop me even if you have heard this before) it is about chanting a mantra that all economics students would do well to internalize:

Incentives Matter

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