Sunday, March 16, 2008

Do corporations oppose free trade?

Apparently Dr. Don Bourdreaux of Cafe Hayek noticed my comment that he, along with his colleagues, seems like a "shill for industry". His reply is that, if he was a shill for industry, he would fit a large number of conditions. The fallacy here seems to be that all shills for industry must fit all, or least some of these conditions -- it's a form of straw man argument, or perhaps a red herring. If all shills had to fit all those conditions, the word would be useless.

What does shill actually mean? Merriam-Webster defines shill as "a: one who acts as a decoy (as for a pitchman or gambler) b: one who makes a sales pitch or serves as a promoter". Wiktionary defines shill as "a person paid to endorse a product favourably, while pretending to be impartial".

Does Bourdreaux "serve as a promoter" of industry? Certainly. Do I think he's been paid egregiously to do it, as some other scholars of the Cato Institute have? Not really. Can he still be a shill? As I elaborated in my comments, shill may not be the exact word. Rather, they are apologists for the status quo. They don't think there's something wrong with the way we are treating our environment, and believe that the free market (composed of industry) will fix all problems if only it was completely unshackled.

The GMU economists seem to ignore the significant incentives that corporations have to look for short-term profit rather than the long-term, ,and the worrying concentration of power in a few firms, who exert that power both in the market and in politics. Similarly, they don't seem to mind the increasing concentration of wealth. They've expressed doubts on global warming, an area which they are not experts in. Scientists are as certain on global warming as economists are on free trade (which means that it depends on who you talk to) (do any believe in global warming? I'd like to know). They seem bothered that people ignore economists when it comes to free trade, but don't recognize the irony in their global warming skepticism. Further, and most damning in my mind, they never seem to say a peep about the information asymmetries which dominate economic decisions.

Does your typical corporation oppose free trade? Doubtful. If industry didn't benefit from free trade, it's unlikely that it would happen. Economists don't have that much power. Efficient multinational corporations benefit enormously from free trade -- it's the inefficient corporations which oppose free trade, such as the old steel industry (which is quickly being supplanted by mini-mills). Especially in today's globalized world, businesses benefit from free trade -- they can hire cheap labor and export to new emerging markets. It's likely that most businesses realize that it's the 21st century, and there's no going back from globalization (or at least, that's how it appears). Tariffs mean paying more for inputs and closed foreign markets. A glance at The Economist's CEO Briefing 2007 shows that CEOs are (or at least were) extremely bullshit about the global economy and trade, and, while worried about international competition, your average business is not really exerting a lot of political pressure to stop it. This Fortune 500 survey of 1987 found that a third of CEOs declared, without prompting, that they were free traders, and that CEOs want government to promote free trade -- and by that, they mean bipartisan free trade. I wonder what the number would be now.

Ironically, I like quite a few of the posts at Cafe Hayek -- for example, this one (though I think we can get some idea on the effect of NAFTA). But attributing most of our problems to regulation is just ridiculous. Yes, there is far too much government going on, but most of that government is spurred by industry -- the military-industrial complex which elected George W. Bush will continue to funnel most of our tax dollars to corporations. The recent financial crisis is not caused by government. Can we blame the government for our environmental crisis?

What has government done right in the past hundred years? Hmm: Internet, national road network, Clean Air Act, and the SEC., to name a few I'd agree that the government has done quite a few things wrong, but these were more a function of bad leaders than some intrinsic nature of government. It's not so simple as "industry good, government bad".

No comments: