Bluegrass Beacon — Kentucky to the ‘trade deficit’: You’re fired!

BluegrassBeaconLogoConsidering the Bluegrass State last year exported $30 billion worth of goods and services – more than 33 other states – Kentuckians should vigorously oppose anything remotely associated with a “war on trade.”

American Enterprise Institute scholar Mark Perry rated the share of Kentucky’s economy in 2015 linked to imports and exports fifth-highest in the nation, comprising 34 percent – or $66 billion – of the commonwealth’s $193 billion GDP.

Perhaps Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, who recently conducted a trade mission to Japan, could find a way to strike up a cordial conversation with his good friend President Donald Trump to put the commander-in-chief at ease about this whole “trade-deficit” matter.

Bevin could even share some wisdom from flyover country by passing on Indiana University Southeast economics professor D. Eric Schansberg’s reason for claiming the trade deficit remains “the most misunderstood concept in economics.”

Schansberg, Ph.D., says the discussion about international trade often focuses heavily on the downside – which tends to be more visible in terms of some individuals losing out in a global economy – while nearly completely missing out on its subtle but significantly important benefits for an entire state or nation.

“Trade is good for the aggregate if not always for the individual,” he says.

Schansberg, who’s also a Bluegrass Institute scholar, notes that “exports lead to imports” and warns that attempting to artificially narrow the so-called “trade deficit” could result in fewer dollars invested in America’s economy.

“Everybody talks about the difference in goods and services exported versus imports when what really matters is investment surplus,” Schansberg says.

Shallow-thinking protectionists rarely dig deep enough to reach this important component in making their own determinations about the success or failure of free-trade relationships.

Why, these shallow paddlers must wonder, would Bevin travel to Japan to tout the commonwealth as an attractive investment option instead of chastising that nation because last year it only spent $1.1 billion in direct purchases from Kentucky while we as a state imported $5.1 billion worth of Japanese products?

Consider the rest of this trading-partnership story.

Not only are imports critical to keeping Kentucky at – or near – the top in the automotive, aerospace and pharmaceutical industries, but Japanese-owned companies now operate more than 180 facilities in our commonwealth.

And while Kentucky is the fifth-largest importer of Japanese goods – Japan is the No. 1 international investor in the Bluegrass State, having created 44,400 full-time positions in those facilities.

“Investment surplus,” anyone?

An important teaching moment could occur if our governor explained to the president why Kentucky exporting nearly $30 billion while importing almost $40 billion is worthy of replicating rather than punishing, which would only bring us more harm, anyhow.

Schansberg notes the last time America had a trade surplus was not during an uptick but when the economy tanked during the late 1970s.

“It’s because investors were looking at our economy and they didn’t see it as a great investment,” he said.

All those current imports mean more choices and better prices for consumers and industry. It means foreign investors look at today’s Kentucky and America and they like – really like – what they see.

Frenchman Frédéric Bastiat, a 19th-century champion of free-market economics, proposed reversing “the principle of the balance of trade and calculate the national profit from foreign trade in terms of the excess of imports over exports.”

Bastiat called this “excess” the “real profit,” and challenged the contemporary protectionists of his day to produce evidence showing otherwise.

“Even if our imports are infinite and our exports nothing, I defy you to prove to me that we should be the poorer for it,” he said.

Jim Waters is president of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Read his weekly Bluegrass Beacon column at www.bipps.org. He can be reached at jwaters@freedomkentucky.com and @bipps on Twitter.