When the self-proclaimed "conscience of liberal America" and a one-time free trader to boot starts arguing for protectionism, you know that things have come to a pretty pass. But that's what's happened over the past week.Unlike Krugman, who already has given us a fantasy version of what would happen if the USA were to retaliate against China for officially undervaluing its currency against the dollar. To be honest, I think Peter Schiff's recent comments were far more astute.
Paul Krugman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, has taken to advocating a 25 per cent "surcharge" – he refuses to use the more descriptive term of "import tariff" – on goods from China as a way of bringing the Chinese leadership to heel over currency reform. So potentially dangerous and out of character is this idea that when I first read it, I assumed he was being ironic. But sometimes the cleverest of people can also be the most stupid, and he's now said it so often that you have to believe he's serious.
What he's advocating is trade retaliation so extreme that it would make the 1930s look like a stroll in the park. Contrary to Professor Krugman's naïve assumption that the Chinese would soon cave in and allow their currency to float if confronted by such hard-ball tactics, I am certain that nothing is more guaranteed to produce the opposite response.
Professor Krugman's suggestion mines a rich seam of populist US thinking and rhetoric which grows ever more vocal and worrying as the recession persists. What makes Krugman and other highly regarded economists who toe the same line so dangerous is that they give intellectual respectability to a fundamentally disreputable idea.
Warner makes some important and insightful comments here:
An outbreak of protectionism is just what the still-fragile economic recovery doesn't need. China makes an easy scapegoat for America's ills, but it is not the cause, nor would making it revalue its currency provide the solution. The debate is echoed in Europe, where Germany – an exporter second only to China – finds itself blamed for the eurozone crisis. If only Germany would make itself less competitive, if only Germany would save, invest and export less, then everybody else would be fine. The virtuous find themselves depicted as the villainous. If the argument were not so perverse, it would be laughable.For all of his "credentials," let us not forget that Krugman is a Keynesian who has no clue whatsoever what happens in a real economy. His world is the imaginary world of aggregates, GDP numbers, crude graphs, and no real people and certainly no real production. There is no such thing as consumption, only spending. And all good Keynesians know that no one has to produce anything, just print a bunch of money, and we'll all be rich!
Let us briefly consider what would happen if Professor Krugman got his way and there was either a 25 per cent devaluation of the dollar against the renminbi or 25 per cent import duties. Almost overnight China would sink into a deep recession as exporters already operating on wafer-thin margins were plunged into insolvency.
American business, which relies heavily on China as the assembly plant of choice (guess where iPods are made), would also find itself deep in the mire. Even in the long term, the revaluation would scarcely be more helpful. Over time, Chinese wages would merely deflate relative to US ones to make exports competitive again.