So No One Loses When It Comes to Trade, Right?…Right?! Part II

Actually, there is somebody who loses out in the case of the cook coming to work at our place.

But for this story to make sense, please first read last Friday’s post, and then yesterday’s post. I’ll wait, there’s no hurry. Done? All right, here we go.

So, as I was saying, there is somebody who loses out in that little story. Who? The amateur cook inside of me. That part of my personality loses out, given the fact that I’m optimizing for my income. Society rewards me more for boring people about economics than it does for me cooking meals for my family. In order to maximize my family’s income, I spend more time boring people about economics, and less time on practicing my cooking skills.

The more time I spend boring people about economics, the better I get at this skill. The less time I spend in cooking up delicious meals for my family, the worse I get at that skill. And so over time, I become a (hopefully!) better teacher of economics, and not as good a cook as I might have been.

And so, as I said, the amateur cook in me loses out in this trade. Or put another way – and if you are an economist reading this, you were probably getting impatient for me to say this – the opportunity cost of being an econ teacher is not being an amteur cook at home.

But this is exactly why international trade is such a political hot potato! Because in the case of trade between countries, as opposed to trade between individuals, there are people who will lose out. If a university in the United States of America hires me to teach online classes to the students over there, there isn’t a hypothetical amateur cook who is losing out. There is an actual person in that country who could have taught this course, but is no longer able to because of me.

The university that hired me is better off, because it is able to hire the services of a teacher for lesser money. To the extent that I do about as good a job as the person I replaced, the students are (at least) indifferent. And given how strong the dollar is, I am certainly better off!

But it is not enough to say that both parties in this trade are better off (I and the university). A complete economic analysis should also include the person in the USA who is out of a job, and I would argue that one should also include what I find myself unable to do here in India as a consequence of teaching that course abroad. Both of these are the opportunity costs of this trade, and a complete economic anlaysis should include these aspects as well.

Even if you were to include this analysis, it still makes sense to go ahead with this trade. It isn’t for free (TINSTAAFL) – that is to say, there are opportunity costs, but even so, the world as a whole is better off.

But how diffused/concentrated are the gains from this trade in both countries? The dollar value of this trade – the gains from trade – might be such that the parties who are a part of this trade are better off. But is the number of people who are better off more than the number of people who are worse off?

Don’t think about this in the context of my examplein this blogpost. What about in the case of importing cheap Chinse goods into India? What about in the case of India exporting software to America? What about in the case of cheap textiles being imported into India from Bangaldesh? Are the dollar gains in case of such trade concentrated, and are the number of people unemployed more diffuse?

And if so, should we just shrug and say that this is the cost of doing business? Or should we institute a form of government that seeks to redistribute the gains from international trade? How well might such a scheme work – does our understanding of governments and their performance the world over fill us with optimism that they can perform this task efficiently?

More: who is likely to have a louder voice in public discourse? Will it be the people who gain from trade, or the people who lose from trade? Who is the government therefore more likely to listen to? Should we therefore abandon international trade altogether? What role should academicians play in this discourse? What role do they play in this discourse?

And it is this that makes the study of international trade so very fascinating. The realization that trade is a Very Good Thing, but that at the same time it is Definitely Not Without Costs. Increasing international trade, while minimizing the damage done to the domestic economy is the tightrope that many countries have walked in the past, and not all of them have been successful all the time. Throw into the mix cultural factors, political pressures and environmental concerns, and you have the recipe for an extremely fertile field of study.

But if you have thought that international trade is just plain awesome, with no downsides, you’re wrong. And if you’ve thought that international trade is just plain horrible, with no upsides, you’re wrong. Getting both sides to talk to each other, and figuring out where exactly we should be on the Say Only No To Trade – Say Only Yes To Trade spectrum is an ongoing battle that will never end.

Enjoy the ride, for what else is there to do?

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