Economic Growth

Why Trade Can Still Thrive Under a Protectionist Like Donald Trump

Pietra Rivoli, author of The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy, talks to Reason about the politics of trade.


Muh trade
Richard Ellis/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Hostility to free trade is now a bipartisan feature of American politics. Donald Trump won last year's election in part by promising to pull out of trade agreements, impose trade tariffs, and preserve jobs in dying industries at all costs. On the left, Bernie Sanders campaigned on protectionism and portrayed the sometimes trade-friendly Hillary Clinton as a tool of big business who had no real sympathy for the plight of blue collar workers.

But free trade antagonists like Trump and Sanders tend to paint overly simplistic pictures of how trade actually works, and the ways in which our economy increasingly depends on, and benefits from, a complex web of national and international production.

That's what makes Pietra Rivoli's 2005 book The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy: An Ecomonist Examines the Markets, Power, and Politics of World Trade so valuable.

In the book, Rivoli, a Georgetown University international business and finance professor, writes of buying a tourist t-shirt in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and then meticulously investigates the the economic and political factors of every stage of its production and ultimate sale to the author for $5.99. Rivoli's t-shirt odyssey led her to travel all over the United States and the world—speaking with, among others, cotton farmers in Texas, factory workers in China, and used clothing entrepreneurs in Africa—examining the production and trade of each of the shirt's many components, the political factors that determined the location of each stage of production, and even the economic ramifications of discarded clothing that often ends up in the Third World.

The book is a valuable primer on how political considerations affect everything we buy and sell, and how even with both major political parties lurching towards increased hostility to trade, there are always opportunities for innovation.

Reason spoke with Rivoli over the phone earler this week.

Reason: Your book does a great job of explaining the mechanics of trade, the human costs and benefits, and the political factors that inform every aspect of production. Now that we have a president who is focused on building physical barriers as well as economic barriers, what do you think will be the results say one year, or even five years down the road as a result of President Trump's trade policies?

Rivoli: There's a theory in economics called the "mercantilistic approach," which basically said that exports are good and imports are bad. President Trump has talked about our trading relationships with different countries essentially as you might look at a perfect income statement, saying we are losing when we have a trade deficit with country X or country Y. Losing is bad, so we want to try to make trade relations more balanced.

But you don't want to look at a trading relationship as an income statement. A trade deficit is not equivalent to a business loss and we don't measure the health or progress of economy using that metric. There are better and more standard metrics, such as job creation or economic growth or standards of living.

What crosses borders today are not final goods, what's dominating is trade in tasks, and certain things done in certain places. If you look at a t-shirt, you have all kinds of trade embedded in this t-shirt that does not show up when you just look at the final product. In the case I wrote about [in the book], you have a trade flow when the t-shirt enters the United States and that's what you see in the trade data and statistics when you look at the tag in the back of the shirt. But actually behind that trade flow is lots of other trade that is represented in the global value chain (GVC)—the cotton might have started out in the United States or the yarn might have started out somewhere else. This trade behind the trade is what we call intermediate trade and today constitutes about half or more of global trade flows.

This is where you have to be really careful from a policy perspective because as soon as you start to try to limit imports of intermediate goods, then you start to raise the cost or reduce the choice of companies in the United States using those goods as part of their production.

The classic case many talk about right now are auto parts in the global value chain of U.S. automatons, specifically Mexican auto parts coming into the U.S., then going into American cars that are then exported or sold in the U.S. If we put barriers and cost on those imports of auto parts, then we make cars more expensive and less competitive here. That would be an example of where the mercantilist thinking is actually at cross-purposes with what we probably want. I think a standard, traditional economist view of trade protection is that it raises prices and limits consumer welfare, that's a notion that goes back to Adam Smith. The new notion of global value chains adds another layer of cost and complexity to trade protection because it is essentially limiting how companies make their production choices.

Reason: In his address to Congress this week, President Trump said he supports free trade, but it has to be fair trade, and he has oft-stated his preference for top-down central planning. There's a passage in your book where you write that the real tragedy of central planning is the "crushing of intellect," and that "central planners will use the wrong goods, use the wrong inputs, set the wrong prices, hire the wrong people and ultimately produce shoddy products and not enough of them."

Under President Trump, are we trending in that direction? And do you think he would have the congressional support to impose the kind of limits on trade he's talked about?

Rivoli: I don't. If you look at the data on which congressional districts across the country are trade-dependent, there would not be broad-based support for building these kinds of walls in an impermeable way. The quote you just read from my book talks about a very particular setting, which is pre-Xiaoping China. It's certainly a stretch for me to think we are somewhere near that territory.

That said, I generally don't like the term fair trade because it means so many very different things. People use the term to suggest workers are being treated well. There are people who talk about fair trade in terms of not having government subsidies or currency manipulation. But we don't really know what the term means. It sounds good—everything to be fair—but we don't have an agreed-upon definition for that.


Reason: You wrote in your book about "textile Republicans" who were against things like the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), and crafted policies that led to things like requiring the pockets sewn in t-shirts to be produced in the U.S. These "free market" Republicans are purposefully adding another layer to the trade that goes into the creation of a t-shirt. Do you think Republicans and Democrats are moving closer on certain economic issues such as job protectionism?

Rivoli: It was just this week that The Wall Street Journal ran the results of a that reported support for international trade was higher now among the American public than it had been in over ten years. One of the things that I think gets confounded is support for trade compared to support for trade agreements. I can be in favor of trade and opposed to trade agreements and I can be in favor of trade agreements and opposed to trade.

A lot of what you heard in this election cycle was opposition to trade agreements. You heard a lot about NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), you heard a lot about TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership), but a legitimate criticism of these trade agreements is that the process by which they are negotiated is opaque. There are often a lot of special interests at work in terms of what these final agreements look like, and Congress has typically only up or down power on them, so they're not really subject to any kind of broader public discourse. That's why I think you will probably continue to see this reticence on trade agreements. This is not just true of the United States, it's true the world over, including of course in Europe right now. That's different than concerns about trade itself.

Reason: You also wrote in your book about how protectionism can help trigger entrepreneurial instincts. Specifically, how protectionism in 18th century England kind of sparked the Industrial Revolution. This is kind of crystal ball stuff, but given the bipartisan lurch against free trade right now, do you see potential as well?

Rivoli: That's an interesting question. I think you do already see responses to the barriers. For example, it's seems pretty true that China is worried about their access to the U.S. market, so that's a barrier they are potentially facing, and their response to that barrier is to set up factories in the United States. Companies and entrepreneurs often find creative ways to deal with all kinds of barriers. In the case of trade protection, in the 1980s the United States placed limits on Japanese auto imports. The most obvious thing that happens in a case like that is production moves.

Reason: You made a very interesting point in your book that seemed directed at people concerned with income inequality and wealth disparity when you wrote, "The most vulnerable have more to fear from power imbalances and weak institutions than from competitive markets." In the context of the Trump administration, where the president and many of his supporters seem to believe there will always only be a finite amount of jobs, how does one make a convincing argument that a rising tide lifts all boats?

Rivoli: One of the forces that led to Trump was this sense that we have socialism for the elite and capitalism for everyone else. A favorite example I tend to use is "Dumpling Street" in Beijing, where you have dozens of guys lined up with their little stalls selling dumplings. You'd think this should be a pretty good example of a competitive market. Whoever has the best dumplings at the best prices win, right? But it doesn't always work that way, because you have one guy who was able to bribe his way into securing the corner spot.

There are all kinds rules that get implemented that reflect differences in access to power. Those differences affect economic outcomes and so—as I think you recognize—one of the core points of the book is that this unequal access to the rules or to influence or to power limits people's ability to compete economically.

This interview has been edited for clarity, style, and length.

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  1. “What crosses borders today are not final goods, ”
    My former employer imported 100% of its raw materials from Canada for 45 years after all non-competitor U.S. sources got out of the business. There is talk of a “border adjustment tax” that would prohibit U.S. companies from deducting the cost of foreign sourced materials for tax purposes. If my former employer can’t do that, then it is out of business.

    1. “If a business can’t pay its employees a living wage, then it deserves to go out of business.” – the left
      “If a business can’t be patriotic enough to buy its supplies domestically, then it deserves to go out of business.” – the right

      1. “OH MY GOD BOTH OF YOU JUST SHUT UP” – the reasonable folks neither left nor right (all eight of us)

      2. Both: “But we’re for American jobs!”

        1. *sustained applause*

        2. They took our jobs!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      3. “…and the Keystone XL pipeline is an exception” – the right

    2. Er, no. Right after a “border adjustment” there will likely be a currency correction and your former employer will be just fine.

      Here, let a socialist site explain it to you:…..ustability

  2. a legitimate criticism of these trade agreements is that the process by which they are negotiated is opaque. There are often a lot of special interests at work in terms of what these final agreements look like, and Congress has typically only up or down power on them, so they’re not really subject to any kind of broader public discourse. That’s why I think you will probably continue to see this reticence on trade agreements. This is not just true of the United States, it’s true the world over, including of course in Europe right now. That’s different than concerns about trade itself.

    I thought that any questioning of trade agreements means I’m a protectionist shill that doesn’t appreciate the free market properly?


  3. One of the things I love about Markets, is they follow their own set of rules no matter what Gov’t tries to decree. People act as if we can just pass a law to make something magically happen, when they can’t work in reality.

    Trump may be a disaster on trade, but his views on taxes and other regulations may be enough to offset the damage.

    1. Trade, uh, finds a way.

  4. Thank you for this article Reason. We need to get back to disagreeing with Trump on policy, and not trying to make the site friendlier to disaffected SJWs

    1. Yes, Republican snowflakes were getting uncomfortable at the very thought

      1. no it’s just never going to work. Progressive will never turn to Libertarianism. Liberals yes, but SJWs, no. They hate us more than they hate Republicans. Freedom and Choice and Individualism is the complete opposite of everything they believe in.

        You don’t have republcans or liberals saying it’s ok to attack “While Male Libertarians”; that’s coming from the progressive wing.

        1. Well, you have SJWs completely pegged. Let them know when you meet one.

          1. Are you the new groggy troll here? Another Tulpa perhaps?

            (Apologies if I’m off base)

            1. ‘proggy’

              Strong with the force today, those squirrels are.

    2. Was there ever a chance that the rag that repeatedly writes in favor of free speech on campus (even if oft-enough couched in Robby Innuendo) and who repeatedly write advocating for the rights of men on college campuses accused of rape, and which investigated and thoroughly destroyed the Rolling Stone Jackie story, would ~ever~ appeal to SJWs??

      1. No, because SJWs would never believe that all rape on campus is “fake news” because a news magazine once published an unsubstantiated account of rape.

        One exception is all it takes to disprove a rule that all men rape. Oh wait, not all men, so there, men do not rape.

        1. What an adorable straw man you made there. None of that hs anything to do with the subject. The issues comes down to a growing lack of due process for anyone accused of rape (If an accusation is even necessary in some cases), and a definition of rape that comes to encompass any later regretted/boozy/poorly thought out consensual encounter.

          All of which cheapens ACTUAL rape, which is pretty awful.

  5. free trade antagonists like Trump and Sanders tend to paint overly simplistic pictures of how trade actually works

    “Simplistic” is charitable. Sanders is an old-school bolshevik, and General Cheeto is an authoritarian halfwit.

    1. Ah. So you’re admitting Trump does have at least half a wit.

    2. General Cheeto

      Commenting on his color? RACIST!


  6. their response to that barrier is to set up factories in the United States

    Isn’t that Trump’s stated goal? Or are we still going with “those manufacturing jobs aren’t coming back”?

    1. Trump has said a lot about things he does not quite understand. The more extreme positions won’t really materialize, at least not to an extent to match his rhetoric.

  7. “”””factory workers in China””””

    Did he talk to the largest factory owner in China, the Chinese Communist Party?

    List of government owned companies of China

  8. Kind of amusing to see Anthony try to lead him down a certain path, and Rivoli steadfastly refusing to take the bait.

    He makes a good point about free trade and free trade agreements not being the same thing. And people feeling like the agreements have been set up to primarily benefit the politically connected – because isn’t that usually what happens with things like this? Even if it’s not true, or only partially true, it’s a tough impression to break. Part of Trump’s appeal is no doubt rooted in people wanting to have “somebody on MY side” for once.

  9. Cheap imports are good for the consumer, expensive imports are good for domestic producers. Which provides the most good for the most people? That’s one of those things you really don’t need a lot of research or a lot of number-crunching statistical analysis to find – just look at what people choose for themselves when given a chance. You can say that people who choose cheap imports over saving American jobs are short-sighted and don’t understand the damage they’re doing to the longer-term economy, but getting educated about the issue is a cost, isn’t it? The consumer is better off, happier, being ignorant, isn’t he? It’s like complaining about cheap fast food making people fat and stupid and lazy – what’s it to you if they’re happier being fat and stupid and lazy? Are you suggesting their purpose should be to serve the collective interest rather than their own?

    1. I believe I saw this the other day, but the US is actually a net exporter of services, while our goods are a big deficit. And that is just the nature of the transition to a service oriented economy.

      When talking to a prog friend about this, I got him to agree that the smart phone in his hand is one of the greatest inventions and is an incredible tool, and that the poor are much better off with cheap access to communications, the internet, applications for work and personal life, etc.

      So I then asked, what if that phone wasn’t $300 (or whatever), but $3,000, or $30,000? Because that’s what it would cost without trade, without competition, and with massive regulations, assuming the phone or networks were built at all.

      It isn’t much help to the poor if no one can afford it. Back in the 80s, the technology in your phone would have cost a million dollars. Hell, before Internet Explorer, you had to pay $30 a month just for your damn web browser.

      So should we save a few domestic producers here and have everything be more expensive, or maybe not created in the first place? Should we go back to the 80s where a rich person might have a phone in their car and a computer that had 64KB of ram?

  10. A couple of comment refer to Rivoli as a “he”. Pietra is the feminine for “Peter”.

    Stop gender shaming!

    1. Nice catch. And if we had a fucking edit button, I could fix it!

      1. The technology has not yet reached the advanced state where an Edit button is provided.

  11. Well, duh, I mean it’s survived well enough under nearly a century of uninterrupted interventionists.

  12. I am using it now & it’s awesome! I’ve signed up for my account and have been bringing in fat paychecks. For real, my first week I made ?350 and the 2nd week I doubled it & then it kinda snowballed to ?150 a day! just folllow the course.. they will help you out


  13. I can see what your saying… Raymond `s article is surprising, last week I bought a top of the range Acura from making $4608 this-past/month and-a little over, $10,000 this past month . with-out any question its the easiest work I’ve ever had . I began this five months/ago and almost straight away startad bringin in minimum $82 per-hr


  14. I can see what your saying… Raymond `s article is surprising, last week I bought a top of the range Acura from making $4608 this-past/month and-a little over, $10,000 this past month . with-out any question its the easiest work I’ve ever had . I began this five months/ago and almost straight away startad bringin in minimum $82 per-hr


  15. Chinese automakers wanted to use American made auto parts a while back. I believe they were catalytic converters.

    These automakers were willing to pay a higher price and import them, presumably because they saw some value in them.

    The Chinese government, of course, wanted them to purchase domestically, and forced them to do just that.

    Honestly, the Chinese government is dumb. They could import more and their economy would still be gangbusters, and they could have freed up their financial system, and not have to keep buying t-bills, too.

    “No, no, we have to make toys, furniture, and jet airplanes! We have to make it all!”

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