The Fallacy that Countries, not Individuals, Engage in International Trade

WASHINGTON (Reuters) — The United States imported $2.74 billion of “oil country tubular goods” from China in 2008, more than triple the previous year, as a surge in oil prices led to increased demand for the oil well tubing and casing.

MP: The statement above perpetuates a common misconception about international trade that clouds clear thinking about the topic. Technically, the United States did NOT import $2.74 billion of steel pipe from China, at least not as a “country.” It was dozens, if not hundreds, of American-owned companies that voluntarily placed hundreds, if not thousands, of individual purchase orders in 2008 to purchase Chinese steel from dozens, if not hundreds, of steel-producing companies in China who filled the orders and shipped the steel.

It might be a subtle point, but it’s important to realize that countries don’t trade with each other as countries, but rather it’s individual consumers and individual companies that are doing the buying and selling. The confusion gets reinforced when we constantly hear about the U.S. trade deficit with Japan or China, which might again imply that the “unit of analysis” for international trade is the country, when in fact the unit of analysis is the individual U.S. company that engages in trade with other invidual companies on the other side of an imaginary line called a national border.

It’s possible that the confusion about international trade can be traced to confusion about the “trade deficit” and the “budget deficit.” The relevant unit of analysis for the budget deficit is indeed the country, since it’s the entire country via elected officials that is responsible for the “budget deficit.” But conflating these two distinctly different deficits, it’s then easy to assume that the relevant unit of analysis for both is the “country” when in fact that only applies to the “budget deficit” and not the “trade deficit.”

Once one understands that it’s individual companies, not countries, that are doing the trading, then it’s not so easy to get fooled by statements or headlines like “Punitive tariffs are being imposed on China,” or “Obama to hit China with tough tariff on tires.” Since China doesn’t actually trade with the United States at the national level, tariffs cannot be imposed on the country of China – it’s not like the United States government sends a tax bill to the Chinese government.

Rather, since it is companies that are trading, it’s companies that have to pay the taxes TO their OWN government. In the case of U.S. tariffs on Chinese tires or steel, the tariffs (taxes) are being imposed not on the Chinese government or even the Chinese steel-producers, but on American companies who now are taxed for buying tires or steel from China, and then those taxes are ultimately passed along to the individual American who purchase the tires and purchase the consumer products like automobiles that contain Chinese steel.

Bottom Line: Starting with the fallacy that countries, not individuals, engage in international trade, it’s then much harder to realize that it’s individual American companies and consumers who are penalized, taxed and disadvantaged by trade protection. By understanding that only individuals ultimately trade, it’s then much easier to see that trade barriers typically protect a concentrated, small but well-organized group of inefficient domestic producers from more efficient foreign competition, while imposing huge and significant costs on other Americans – domestic companies that buy imported inputs and ultimately millions of U.S. consumers.

About Mark J. Perry 262 Articles

Affiliation: University of Michigan

Dr. Mark J. Perry is a professor of economics and finance in the School of Management at the Flint campus of the University of Michigan.

He holds two graduate degrees in economics (M.A. and Ph.D.) from George Mason University in Washington, D.C. and an MBA degree in finance from the Curtis L. Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota.

Since 1997, Professor Perry has been a member of the Board of Scholars for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a nonpartisan research and public policy institute in Michigan.

Visit: Carpe Diem

1 Comment on The Fallacy that Countries, not Individuals, Engage in International Trade

  1. Our enormous trade deficit is rightly of growing concern to Americans. Since leading the global drive toward trade liberalization by signing the Global Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in 1947, America has been transformed from the wealthiest nation on earth – its preeminent industrial power – into a skid row bum, literally begging the rest of the world for cash to keep us afloat. It’s a disgusting spectacle. Our cumulative trade deficit since 1976, financed by a sell-off of American assets, exceeds $9.5 trillion. What will happen when those assets are depleted? Today’s recession is the answer.

    Why? The American work force is the most productive on earth. Our product quality, though it may have fallen short at one time, is now on a par with the Japanese. Our workers have labored tirelessly to improve our competitiveness. Yet our deficit continues to grow. Our median wages and net worth have declined for decades. Our debt has soared.

    Clearly, there is something amiss with “free trade.” The concept of free trade is rooted in Ricardo’s principle of comparative advantage. In 1817 Ricardo hypothesized that every nation benefits when it trades what it makes best for products made best by other nations. On the surface, it seems to make sense. But is it possible that this theory is flawed in some way? Is there something that Ricardo didn’t consider?

    At this point, I should introduce myself. I am author of a book titled “Five Short Blasts: A New Economic Theory Exposes The Fatal Flaw in Globalization and Its Consequences for America.” My theory is that, as population density rises beyond some optimum level, per capita consumption begins to decline. This occurs because, as people are forced to crowd together and conserve space, it becomes ever more impractical to own many products. Falling per capita consumption, in the face of rising productivity (per capita output, which always rises), inevitably yields rising unemployment and poverty.

    This theory has huge ramifications for U.S. policy toward population management (especially immigration policy) and trade. The implications for population policy may be obvious, but why trade? It’s because these effects of an excessive population density – rising unemployment and poverty – are actually imported when we attempt to engage in free trade in manufactured goods with a nation that is much more densely populated. Our economies combine. The work of manufacturing is spread evenly across the combined labor force. But, while the more densely populated nation gets free access to a healthy market, all we get in return is access to a market emaciated by over-crowding and low per capita consumption. The result is an automatic, irreversible trade deficit and loss of jobs, tantamount to economic suicide.

    One need look no further than the U.S.’s trade data for proof of this effect. Using 2006 data, an in-depth analysis reveals that, of our top twenty per capita trade deficits in manufactured goods (the trade deficit divided by the population of the country in question), eighteen are with nations much more densely populated than our own. Even more revealing, if the nations of the world are divided equally around the median population density, the U.S. had a trade surplus in manufactured goods of $17 billion with the half of nations below the median population density. With the half above the median, we had a $480 billion deficit!

    Our trade deficit with China is getting all of the attention these days. But, when expressed in per capita terms, our deficit with China in manufactured goods is rather unremarkable – nineteenth on the list. Our per capita deficit with other nations such as Japan, Germany, Mexico, Korea and others (all much more densely populated than the U.S.) is worse. My point is not that our deficit with China isn’t a problem, but rather that it’s exactly what we should have expected when we suddenly applied a trade policy that was a proven failure around the world to a country with one fifth of the world’s population.

    Ricardo’s principle of comparative advantage is overly simplistic and flawed because it does not take into consideration this population density effect and what happens when two nations grossly disparate in population density attempt to trade freely in manufactured goods. While free trade in natural resources and free trade in manufactured goods between nations of roughly equal population density is indeed beneficial, just as Ricardo predicts, it’s a sure-fire loser when attempting to trade freely in manufactured goods with a nation with an excessive population density.

    If you‘re interested in learning more about this important new economic theory, then I invite you to visit my web site at

    Pete Murphy
    Author, “Five Short Blasts”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.