Imagine that you’re a young teenager who really loves red jellybeans. You love them so much that you unabashedly call them your favourite food. It’s only the red ones though – you find all other jellybeans disgusting. For the purposes of this extended metaphor, you will have a sister. Like you, she loves one colour of jellybeans, but unlike you she only loves the green ones.
Your parents are stingy. They long ago realized that they could save a lot of money by paying you for your chores in jellybeans, instead of with an allowance. To prop up this system, they’ve forbidden both you and your sister from buying jellybeans in any store. Both of you can only get jellybeans from your parents. You each get a few jellybeans of your preferred colour each time you complete a chore.
You keep a small horde of jellybeans in a jar in your room. Chores are irregular and you don’t want to risk having a jellybean craving but no way to get jellybeans. It’s pretty inconvenient that you and your sister like different flavours of jellybeans. If this wasn’t the case, you could use jellybeans as a sort of currency, trading them back and forth for various small things. For example, if only you liked the same jellybeans, she could give you jellybeans in exchange for using your new Nintendo Switch for a bit, while you could give her jellybeans to help you sneak out at night. You do this sometimes already, but only when you both want something of the other at the same time.
One day your sister takes the bus to a friend’s house. On the way, she happens to sit next to an economics professor. She complains to the professor about her plight and the professor offers a solution. Your sister comes home that night with a large grin splitting her face.
The scheme she proposes to you is simple. When you don’t have two things to trade at the same time, you’ll use jellybeans as your currency. If you agree to accept her jellybeans as payment, she’ll accept yours. You’ll both have the understanding that someday your sibling will trade those jellybeans back to you for some other thing. As the first trade, she offers you fifteen of her green jellybeans for one hour on your Nintendo Switch.
You think about it for a few minutes. It’s true that the fifteen green jellybeans are worthless to you. But they aren’t worthless to your sister and she will probably eventually want them back. As long as you trust that she’ll be around in the future and will still want green jellybeans, you may as well accept the trade. You’ve now realized that green jellybeans are useful to you even though you can’t eat them to feed your jellybean cravings.
You and your sister successfully trade like this for a few weeks. There are some wild fluctuations in your horde of jellybeans – some days it’s mostly red, other days it’s almost entirely green – but over the long run it tends towards red and you get to enjoy all of the benefits of trading with your sister. You’ve successfully snuck out to see your friends three times, while she’s made it halfway through the new Zelda game. It’s at this point where she comes to you with a discovery.
She’s invented a chemical that she can mix with a jellybean to double its size. She can’t make very much of it, only enough to make thirty new jellybeans a day. She makes a deal with you: she’ll use the chemical on your jellybeans in the proportion that they appear in her stash, but she’ll still own them afterwards and they’ll be worth twice as much in future trades.
Slowly the trading relationship changes. Your sister does fewer favours for you – although she doesn’t stop completely. Meanwhile, an increasing amount of your wealth of jellybeans end up with her, despite her playing your Switch very often. You don’t mind this arrangement, because you end up with many more jellybeans than you would have without her. Your sister doesn’t mind either, because it’s made playing the Switch much more accessible to her. That said, there are some negatives for her as well. She’s gotten noticeably weaker without the exercise from chores.
Eventually your parents catch on to this and confiscate your sister’s chemistry set. Furthermore, they punish her by cutting her jellybean allotment in half. Now, she’ll make half of what you do for the same chores. Worried about the effect of video games on her, they also limit the total screen time either of you is allowed (they ignore you whining that this is totally unfair) and demand that you each do one chore per day.
You still trade after this, although now things swing in the other direction. Your sister has to scrimp and save to afford time on the Switch, whereas you have an easier time hiring her as a lookout.
A few weeks later, your parents go on vacation. While they’re gone, they want you both to record the chores you do. When they get back, they’ll question you separately about the honesty of the chore log. If you both agree that it’s true (and they can see the chores actually got done), they’ll give you jellybeans for all the chores recorded on it.
They also switch up the compensation a bit. You’ve been spending more time inside these days, now that you’re lending the Switch to your sister less often, while your sister has gotten strong from all the yard-work she’s been doing. Your parents don’t really approve of this, so they’re changing the rewards that chores give.
Under the new rules, your sister still makes generally less than you, but it isn’t evenly distributed; she makes almost as much as you for chores inside of the house and much less than you for chores outside it. This is crappy for you, because now you’re the weak one. Your sister can do chores outside in half the time it would take you.
You and your sister immediately hatch a plan to do each other’s chores and later divide the spoils evenly. Your parents are too clever for this though. They tell you they’ll be watching your jellybean transactions for the next little bit. If you two split the difference and lie, they’ll know and they’ll ground both of you for a week. You’re both dejected, doomed to doing chores you aren’t good at. In a last-ditch effort to find something more palatable, your sister emails her economist friend from earlier.
She comes back a few hours later, contemplative. The economist offered a solution, but it seems odd.
The economist recommended that you lie about the chores; your sister will do all of the ones outside and you’ll do all of the ones inside. To get around your parent’s crude attempt at lie detection, you’ll do something simple. You won’t split the difference; you’ll accept payment in full for the chores you claimed to do and get to spend it as if it were yours.
Even though this seems unfair, it leaves both you and your sister better off overall. By focusing on the chores you’re both quickest at, you can maximize the number of jellybeans you earn for each unit of time you spend working. You both agree to this plan.
When they get back, your parents are suspicious of your sister’s muscles and the deep impression you’ve worn in the couch. They monitor your transactions for quite some time. But they never find any evidence that you averaged your take with your sister and eventually they give up and leave you alone.
In the fall, your sister plans to leave for the annual mother-daughter fishing trip your extended family does. The trip lasts two whole weeks. In the weeks leading up to the trip, you begin to panic. While your sister is gone, you won’t be able to get any of your jellybeans from her. Combine this with your worry that you will have fewer chances to earn jellybeans for chores with only one parent home and you start to have a problem. What if you run out of jellybeans because a bunch of the red ones are hoarded by your sister?
To counter this, you stop accepting your sister’s green jellybeans in trade for favours and only trade green jellybeans back to her when you need something done. Eventually you run out of green jellybeans. Now you can’t get her to do anything. You won’t risk your red jellybeans so close to her trip.
Unfortunately, you don’t get all of your jellybeans back this way. Your sister begins to hoard them, knowing that they’re the only thing she can use to really get you to do anything for her. Despite you trying to get all your jellybeans back, you’ve made her hold onto them even tighter.
She’s pretty annoyed with all of this, because she wants to trade with you like before. In desperation, she emails her economist friend. Once again, the economist comes through for you. Your sister offers you a deal. She currently has 100 red jellybeans. At the end of every day, you can convert up to twenty green jellybeans for red ones at a rate of one to one. Normally you wouldn’t bother with this (and sometimes one of you lacks the means to), but she’ll give you this option for the next week so that you can accept her jellybeans with confidence.
This works quite well. Your mutually beneficial trades resume. When your sister leaves for her fishing expedition, she only has ten of your jellybeans left. You’re not going to run out in her absence.
Everything that was observed between the two siblings trading with jellybeans can be observed (in one form or another) between countries trading.
For this metaphor to work, the medium of exchange (jellybeans of different colours) had to be something that was so similar as to be essentially the same thing while being treated as vastly different by the participants. This is how people in different countries treat each other’s money.
As a Canadian, I need Canadian Dollars to pay my expenses. If I walk into a grocery store or get on a bus and try to pay with Swiss Francs or Japanese Yen, I will be refused service. Because I want to eat and take the bus, if I were sell goods or services outside of Canada, I would only accept as payment:
- Canadian Dollars
- Something else I know is trivially convertible to Canadian Dollars at a stable rate
People in other countries are in the same boat as me. Even if there’s something they want to sell me, they can’t unless I can provide them something that holds stable value for them. Canadian Dollars are only valuable to them insofar as they can use them to buy things they want in Canada or, if they don’t want anything in Canada, trade them for something they want with someone who wants something in Canada.
You can’t get something for nothing. For someone to send me goods (that aren’t simply a gift) from outside of Canada, they must want something in Canada or know about someone who does. This is the principle that allowed you to trade with your sibling. Her jellybeans weren’t inherently useful to you, but they were stably convertible into things that were, which made it reasonable for you to accept them as payment.
The ease of currency conversion often hides this from us. To see it, you need to look at exchange rates. Exchange rates are nothing more than a measure of the relative demand for goods and services produced by countries and debts denominated in their currencies.
When America was in financial crisis and Canada was raking in huge oil profits, people wanted Canadian Dollars just as much as they wanted American Dollars. Now that America has recovered, people would prefer to have American Dollars (USD) and so the Canadian Dollar is only worth about $0.75 US. Had either you or your sister been able to offer much more valuable services, you might have seen an exchange rate other than 1:1, with it favouring whoever offered the better stuff.
If I’m right about this, we’d expect to see countries import as much as they export. Trade deficits shouldn’t exist. As Donald Trump might be happy to remind you, trade deficits do indeed exist. What’s going on? How is this possible?
Trade deficits can occur when trade is financed via debt. A country might borrow money denominated in another currency (which has a more stable value than its own) and use that borrowed money to purchase things. This is essentially a country promising that it will have exports of value to the lender at some point in the future. This is how developing nations can have trade deficits, but it isn’t generally how developed nations pull them off.
We can view America (and other developed nations with a trade deficit) as similar to your sister when she had the tools to create more jellybeans out of otherwise worthless chemicals. She was definitely doing less things of direct value for you than you were for her (e.g. she was standing lookout for you much less often than she was borrowing video games from you), but she was able to do this sustainably because she had a way of making the jellybeans to pay for it.
Developed nations can have a trade deficit in a sustainable way because other countries will give them raw materials or physical goods simply for the privilege of holding debt denominated in their currency or being able to buy property within their borders. The sophisticated financial systems of developed countries allow them to reliably and safely (most of the time) create money for anyone willing to invest. How do you get money to invest if you don’t live there? You trade for it!
Developed countries are still providing goods and services to their trade partners, even if they aren’t tangible or recorded on balance sheets as exports. Sometimes this does mean that trade is funded by loans, but crucially, the debt is generally denominated in the currency of the debtor country. This makes repayment much, much easier.
Countries have many more options for repaying debts denominated in their own currencies. Japan can safely have a government debt of several times its GDP because the debt is denominated in Yen. Japan controls the means to print more Yen, so is able to pay its debt just by printing more money. There are obviously problems with just printing money (i.e. inflation), but these apply less to Japan because of its overall economic situation (i.e. deflation). On the other hand, Greece’s debt burden was so bad specifically because it can’t print the Euros its debt is denominated in itself. It needs to produce things other countries want in order to raise the cash it needs to pay down its debt.
There are certainly ways that funding trade via financial products can go sour. If the financial system that provides for the trade deficit relies on high consumer debt, then a financial shock could make it all come crashing down and deprive a country of the exports they’re used to receiving. But when trade deficits are based on the security and sophistication of a nation’s financial institutions (or the value of its real estate, or something else that is relatively stable), that nation stands to benefit enormously. It can receive tangible goods just by letting other countries invest or loan with its currency.
Seen this way, Canada’s trade deficit with China (as an example) is caused because many Chinese people have been willing to ship us manufactured goods in exchange for the ability to invest in our companies, buy real estate in Toronto and Vancouver, and make loans to us.
There are trade-offs here. On one hand, foreign investment in housing has probably made living in Toronto and Vancouver less affordable. On the other hand, it has made electronics and manufactured goods available at lower prices than they would otherwise be. Whether this is good or bad for you personally depends on where you live and how often you buy manufactured goods.
There are also trade-offs around employment here. It’s not a simple matter of trade with developing nations costing us manufacturing jobs. It probably has! But I’d like to point out if trade has cost us jobs in manufacturing, it has certainly created jobs in construction and in finance. Houses aren’t built without workers and investments can’t be made without investment assistants and portfolio managers. These may not be manufacturing jobs, but they’re still jobs.
This shades into the next example from the jellybean world. When you and your sister could both work jobs at very different rates of compensation, you weren’t made worse off by letting you sister do half of the chores. You weren’t really in competition with you sister. Despite much of the rhetoric about trade being a competition, trade with another country isn’t a competition with that country.
When split up between two countries that are trading, jobs don’t get done based on who had the competitive advantage. Since trade cannot happen unless both parties benefit (remember, if no one outside Canada wants anything Canada produces, I will be unable to buy anything outside of Canada with Canadian dollars) the fact that trade is happening at all means that each country has something the other wants. Given this, what gets traded will be determined by the relative advantages industries in each country have over the industries within that country. This is the comparative advantage theory of trade.
China has the advantage of relatively cheap labour but has the disadvantage of relatively high corruption. When you compare China with Canada, China’s manufacturing sector is advantaged over their financial sector, so they will tend send Canada manufactured goods in exchange for Canadian financial instruments.
Even when your sister was making less than you for every chore, you and her were still able to trade for mutual benefit. You got to do only the chores you found easiest while still gaining enough jellybeans to trade for things you wanted from your sister. People (and countries) don’t act blindly to maximize the amount of money they make. They have other desires as well. You would have only been in competition with your sister if you wanted to blindly maximize your total haul, without a thought for how much leisure it would cost you.
Competition would also come up if your parents were looking to minimize the amount they paid for chores. In this case, your sister would have had a competitive advantage. But this isn’t a competition within your trading relationship with you sister! Here you would be competing for the business of some third party (your parents).
You are never competing with your trade partners within the context of the trading relationship. It would be impossible for the whole American economy to move to China (no matter how often Donald Trump claims it is happening) because if this happened China would refuse to sell America anything and America would again require indigenous industries. If industries get outsourced and aren’t replaced by something else that adds value, you’ll see them pop right back up in their original country. Outsourcing is only cheaper when you have things of value to buy the outsourced products with.
You can be competing with your trade partners for third party business, but the answer here isn’t to raise tariffs and abandon trade. Instead, you can reap the benefits of an integrated supply chain and the overall lower costs you see when countries focus on their comparative advantages. For example, Apple has become one of the largest companies in the world by marrying American business expertise, stability, and engineering know-how with Chinese and Taiwanese manufacturing, which allows them to compete with Samsung, a Korean company (which also makes use of Taiwanese/Chinese manufacturing).
Apple products would be more expensive if manufactured solely in the United States. They wouldn’t be a global luxury brand if they were designed and marketed from China. Apple wouldn’t be a global behemoth without trade. When the CEOs of companies stand up for international trade, they’re doing so because they understand this.
It is possible for a country to be in a state such that basically no one wants to trade with them, often because they produce very little of value to anyone else. Take North Korea as an example here. They’re able to trade some coal to China (in exchange for manufactured goods) and managed to make a one-off trade with Pakistan (swapping missiles for atomic bomb designs and materials), but by and large the rest of the world doesn’t want to trade with them. Since the government is pursuing a policy of juche (“self-reliance”), North Korea isn’t much bothered by this.
Unfortunately, lack of trade doesn’t always happen by choice. Venezuela spent more than a decade squandering oil wealth on everything but productive infrastructure. When oil prices were high this was fine. Venezuelans could trade oil to other countries and in return they received all of the food, medicine, and manufactured goods they could want. This worked while global oil demand outstripped supply. Now that demand for oil has considerably lessened, Venezuela is facing serious difficulties importing necessities.
Because there’s little of value in Venezuela, no one wants to hold on to the Venezuelan currency (the Bolivar). Currently about all its good for is buying sub-par oil. This would suggest that Venezuela should be unable to important much of anything and indeed that’s what we’re observing.
In the jellybean world, we saw something similar. When your sister was about to leave on her trip, you didn’t want to trade with her, because her currency would soon be worthless. She was able to convince you to trade by using her reserves of your jellybeans.
Venezuela is currently able import goods via a similar mechanism. During the oil boom, the government of Venezuela was able to amass a significant number of American Dollars. It is now using this stockpile to pay for imports. Venezuela actually has three official exchange rates. If you are importing key goods, the government will turn your Bolivars into USD at a very preferential rate, 10 Bolivars for 1 USD. If you’re importing less critical goods, you’ll get fewer dollars per Bolivar. If you’re just a private citizen, the government will give you a much worse deal, something like 190 Bolivars to the dollar. It will also limit the amount you can exchange at any one time.
At the time of writing, the unofficial exchange rate was 3014 Bolivars per USD. You can make a lot of money if you bring USD into Venezuela, convert it to Bolivars on the black market, then use the government to convert it back to USD. The only loser here is the Venezuelan government (and you if you’re caught – please don’t actually do this).
Propping up the value of a currency this way is very expensive. If the Bolivar loses no more purchasing power, then Venezuela can limp along like this for two more years. If oil becomes cheaper or Venezuela becomes less able to export it, then Venezuela will lose purchasing power and that grace period shrinks. Once Venezuela exhausts its currency reserves it will be essentially unable to import anything and this story will end the same way every story about socialism ends: with a horrific famine.
This of course assumes that Venezuela doesn’t attempt to seize what it needs from its neighbours using force. Throughout this post I’ve assumed that trade has been undertaken freely for the mutual benefit of all participants. This hasn’t always been the case.
Colonialism is perhaps the best example of trade where one participant was compelled to participate. In colonies Europeans used force to extract resources and labour from non-Europeans. The colonizing Europeans would then ship these raw goods back to their home country in exchange for manufactured goods they couldn’t get from in the colony.
Trade was only ever disastrous for the colonized. They were forced to produce cash crops or mine until they were nearly dead from exhaustion, all in exchange for goods that they would never receive and had little use for even if they had.
There’s one last concept to cover. Let’s return to the jellybean metaphor!
Your sister gets deeply addicted to a game on your Nintendo Switch. Unfortunately, she’s still getting far fewer jellybeans than you are. She has to do a lot of chores just to get to play it at all, many of which aren’t particularly fun or pleasant. Because of your control of the Switch, you don’t have to do any chores; you always have some of your sister’s jellybeans to trade for whatever you need. While your sister might be happy while playing her game, she’s deeply peeved about all the chores she has to do in order to be able to play it all.
Eventually, your sister’s desire for video games overcomes the number of jellybeans she can earn. You allow her to pay you in IOUs. Soon she’s racked up hundreds of them. When she finally beats the game and has free time for other things, she realizes that she’s going to have to spend weeks working and giving you all the jellybeans just to pay off the debt she owes.
She tries to default, but you go to your parents. They decide that she can’t be trusted to pay off the debt on her own, so they’ll give you red jellybeans for every chore she completes until she’s settled the account. Now your sister is stuck doing all the chores without any benefit to herself. It takes her weeks to dig herself out of her hole and start receiving green jellybeans again.
Even when trade technically makes people better off, it can be a devil’s bargain. The benefits of modern medicine and technology (like smartphones) are so overwhelming that many developing economies must set aside a significant amount of their potential productivity creating products that aren’t locally useful so that they have something developed countries want and will trade medicine and technology for.
This can lead to vast monocultures of cash crops grown only for foreign export, stifling unsafe textile factories, and vast poisonous open pit mines.
It’s not just modern necessities that cause countries to give over vast portions of their economies to export. Poor (one might even say predatory) lending practices by world financial institutions have left many nations with unsustainable foreign debts, denominated in foreign currencies.
Remember, the only way to get foreign currencies is by having something foreign countries want and being willing to sell it to them. As long as a country has foreign debts to service, it must leave aside a chunk of its productivity for foreign rather than domestic priorities. If the pie is big and the slice set aside for other countries is small, this is sustainable. But when a small pie requires a big slice, disaster can strike. Debt relief for struggling countries remains an urgent humanitarian priority.
In real life, the IMF and the World Bank have taken a role not unlike that of your parents in the metaphor. They threaten poor debtor countries with dire consequences unless they continue to pay down their (often) ridiculously large debts. This occurs even when debts were racked up by dictators, or are for money that was stolen from the public purse by corrupt administrators.
All serious advocates of international trade need to acknowledge and grapple with the negative consequences trade can have.
But I’m hopeful. I refuse to believe that there exists no way we can make essential generic medicine and essential modern technology available to all of the people of the world except through unsafe working conditions and environmental destruction. Debt write-offs can fix some of the problems, but other reforms can only occur once the narrative around trade changes.
Framing trade as an adversarial process allows business interests to push for the rollback of worker and environmental protections where they exist and fight their introduction where they don’t. Protectionist rhetoric, whether it comes from Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders, is wrong and hurts workers the world over. Trade isn’t a competition. Framing it that way may be useful for politicians when they are competing for votes, but it won’t improve the material situation of anyone, at home or abroad.
As prosperity increases, all of these problems become more tractable. International trade remains one of the best ways we have of increasing prosperity. We can’t afford to go without it. Trade is something people should be able to agree on, whether they want to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and ensure a just global society, or just plain get rich.
My primary source was Joseph Heath’s wonderful economics book, Filthy Lucre (subtitled Economics for People who Hate Capitalism). It systematically dismantles 12 common economic fallacies, 6 beloved of the left and 6 beloved by the right. Trade is covered in Chapter 5: Uncompetitive in Everything.
The rest comes from reading too many articles on Wikipedia and too many news think pieces. Some things only became clear to me as I was writing this, like the difference between Japan’s debt and Greece’s. I’m also indebted (heh) to Tessa Alexanian, who explained to me why trade can be bad for developing countries. She influenced most of the ideas laid out in that section (that said, I should get all the credit for any errors).
As usual, this blog post should only be taken as an accurate account of my own views, not the views of anyone else.
Epistemic Status: Model