Trade Off

One of the great strengths of one of my former bosses involved his ability to see that the pie never extended unto forever. Everything one did in the classroom came with costs and benefits. Whenever trying something new, consider what that meant one would conversely not do, and judge the consequences. We see little of this thinking on either side of the political aisle today. When looking at issues, one should consider not just the benefits it would bring, but also consider which costs and drawbacks one can live with most reasonably.

The words “free trade” are a major coup for laissez-faire capitalists. Even those against such practices have to stand against something “free.” One can understand what the term means in one sense–that no barriers should exist between those who want to exchange something. But, the term obscures the fact that no trade is “free.” In every trade, one gives up something, and the term “free-trade” might not clue us into this fact.

In his book, Global Squeeze author Richard Longworth argues that the global “free trading” market which opened up in the post-Cold War era hurt us much more than it helped. We have exchanged much more than we thought in the bargain. This in itself is nothing remarkable–many books have argued likewise. What drew me to the book initially was that

  • He predicted many of our economic and resulting political concerns today (such as the rise of ethno-nationalism, populism, etc.) way back in 1998, when virtually everyone else saw only one side of the new globalism. At the same time,
  • I felt that this was not just a lucky guess, because he clearly understood the nature of trade-off’s even in “free trade,” and most of all,
  • He asked questions that no other economics book I’ve read asked, such as, “What is an economy for?”

That question we rarely ask. We want a “good” economy, but we have no clear idea what a “good” economy means. While I have no impression that Longworth has a conscious understanding of the patterns and symbolic structure of reality, his book helped me see economics within this frame. So, with apologies to all who find where I begin a bit odd . . .

Theologian Dumitru Staniloae wrote concerning St. Maximos the Confessor

Some of the Fathers of the Church have said that man is a microcosm, a world which sums up in itself the larger world. Saint Maximus the Confessor remarked that the more correct way would be to consider man as a macrocosm because he is called to comprehend the whole world within himself, as one capable of comprehending it without losing himself, for he is distinct from the world. Therefore man effects a unity greater than the world exterior to himself whereas, on the contrary, the world as cosmos, as nature, cannot contain man fully within itself without losing him, that is, without losing in this way the most important reality, that part which more than all others gives reality its meaning. The idea that man is called to become ‘the world writ large’ has a more precise expression, however, in the term macroanthropos. 

The term conveys the fact that in the strict sense the world is called to be humanised entirely, that is, to bear the entire stamp of the human, to become panhuman, making real through that stamp a need that is implicit in the world’s own meaning, to become in its entirety a humanised cosmos in a way that the human being is not called to become nor can ever fully become, even at the farthest limit of his attachment to the world where he is completely identified with it, a cosmosised man. The destiny of the cosmos is found in man not man’s destiny in the cosmos. This is shown, not only by the fact that the cosmos is the object of human consciousness and knowledge and not the reverse, but also by the fact that the entire cosmos serves human existence in a practical way.

Taking this view of man and the cosmos as my premise, I argue that we should interpret our experience of the world and derive meaning through the lens of what it means to be human, a composite being of body, soul, and spirit. This does not mean that all truth is relative or subjective–far from it. Rather, it is a perspective that recognizes that, “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath” (Mk. 2:27). God creates the world through the Logos, who is Christ (John 1). Ultimately then, Christ is not the image of Adam so much as Adam is the image of Christ, mysteriously “slain before the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8).

So for things to have intelligibility and proper functionality, they should scale to human experience (I realize that I am about to take a massive leap from this premise which I have not done a lot to prove, but . . . :)*

We have to trade things to live, in a sense, both in our bodies individually and in the body social. We have to take in food, water, and so on. We are not autonomous or self-sufficient. Longworth agrees, giving us examples of cultures that have no trade that end up drab, and lifeless. One might think of the ancient Spartans, and the more contemporary Soviet Union. But we can’t just take in anything from anywhere, for any reason–“trade” is not an inherent good, but a contingent one. If we trade too much, even of a good thing, it will be bad for us. One can drown even by drinking excessive amounts of water–too much water brings a flood. In addition, for reality to make sense to us, ideally at least, we should have some connection to those we trade with. Personal contact and personal relationships help let us know if we have a fair trade or not, one that pleases both sides.**

In sum, for an economy to work as it should, it should benefit all sides involved, and benefit them in a way that preserves meaning and coherence. Nations should trade, just as people should trade oxygen for carbon dioxide.

While Longworth does not engage in these kinds of symbolic connections, they do form the unspoken background to his foundational question of, “Whom is an economy meant to serve?”

We come into the world and into a family, if not sociologically, at least biologically. A family economy, then, primarily should serve the family. But it gets tricky, because no family should only concern itself with itself. When this happens, one gets The Godfather saga. Christian teaching pushes outwards towards those on the fringe socially and economically, but we need balance. A mom or dad who devoted too much of their energies to those outside the family would erode the very foundation of their well intentioned actions. Here, C.S. Lewis’ great principle of “First and Second Things” directly applies, which runs something like,

Put first things first and we get second things thrown in: put second things first & we lose both first and second things. We never get, say, even the sensual pleasure of food at its best when we are being greedy.^

Many have discussed the lack of connection we have to what we purchase. We have divorced the thing we buy from who made it, where it was made, and so on. Many have spoken of a “meaning crisis” in our culture and surely the fact that what we trade for and consume has no “context” for us contributes to this dislocation. However, Longworth doesn’t address this, and altering this societal condition remains impossible for almost everyone. We can focus then, on what we can fix, at least on a national level.

Longworth points out in multiple ways how our globalized economy violates the “First and Second Things,” principle. The “nature” of capital seeks out the most efficient way of doing business, so naturally labor would migrate out of the country. We anticipated this in part economically, but not at all sociologically. Longworth mentions that many African-American families (to take one example) rose to the middle class in part through blue-collar jobs in inner-cities. These jobs offered stability and helped build distinct local neighborhoods. As these jobs left, these communities eroded (something seen by Jane Jacobs way back in the 1960’s–this is not NAFTA’s fault alone). Just as we can see the distortions of Marxism as a reaction to the distortions of industrialism, so too we can see racial identity politics as the current distortion to try and correct for the distortions of the market. We can bring it back to the family concept. If your plumber brother really needed work, but you had a 20% discount coupon for some other guy you didn’t know, and hired him instead of your brother, you could expect family difficulties.

As Longworth points out, the medieval peasant always had work, but rarely had prospects for growth. Now, we have the opposite problem of the possibility of growth for all, but no promise of work.

Many today fear the presence of national populism, but here too Longworth had prescience. When we exhale deeply we will inhale in a like manner. One can look at the Hapsburg dominions of the mid 16th century . . .

and compare it with modern European global trading connections

The discontinuities lack coherence on both examples. The Hapsburg holdings don’t make sense, and most students recognize this immediately at some level. They then rarely root for them in any of their various wars. Starting around the mid 17th century, we saw the beginnings of concentration of identity into national states, partly as a reaction to the wars involving the Habsburg dominions. The trade map above concerns Europe primarily, but the principle applies to other regions. Start neglecting meaning and coherence in the family, and look for the kids to try and recover that meaning in ways the parents might not like–look no further than the relationship between the EU and Hungary.

Our modern free trade policies evolved for various reasons in the wake of W.W. II. Free-trade could legitimately serve (perhaps) as a means to combat communism in part because the vast majority of major players shared many in things in common:

  • Common cultures and religions
  • Similar pools of labor and technological access
  • A common political goal

Japan participated in this as well, which posed problems for the U.S. in particular. Japan had different cultural and political goals, which led to more protection of its labor force and different economic practices. However, Japan’s labor pool was small enough not to erode and distort the system. With the entrance of China and India, however, things changed dramatically. Economist Richard Koo commented in the early 1990’s

The free trade system has lasted this long only because China and India are not in it. The U.S started this system after the war and other countries joined in. Japan is not a full member even yet–Japan is certainly not a free-trader. But if the problem is just Japan, it’s tolerable. But if China plays the game as Japan has done, the system will not last without safeguards. With the 3rd world entering–there is no end to the potential problem.

Trade in finance may prove an even bigger problem than trade of goods, and again, Longworth showed remarkable foresight here. Bartering goods has a direct coherence to it. You give me your apples, I give you my wheat. But bartering is cumbersome, so we go to money. But in the early stages at least, one could exert a degree of control over money and give it a degree of coherence in a local context–i.e., the money that “works” in a given place is the money with the king’s head on it. That too, limits us, so we went to a more universal, though still concrete, “gold standard” to determine the value of money and limit its movement at least partially. Then Nixon abandoned the Bretton-Woods arrangement and broke from the gold standard, which pushed money into an even further abstraction. Non-national currencies in the cloud are the inevitable conclusion to this process, a process which–however many it benefits materially–pushes us further away from meaning and coherence in our exchanges with each other. I am not one to often quote Keynes approvingly, but he understood–perhaps subconsciously–the necessary symbolic balance of trade, stating,

I sympathize therefore, with those who would minimize, rather than maximize economic entanglement between nations. Ideas, knowledge, art, hospitality, travel–these are things which of their nature should be international. But let goods be homespun whenever reasonably possible. Above all, let finance be primarily national.

But nations cannot control the flow of money because they cannot control trade. Merely trying to control currency movement by the elite, therefore will not work and only hurt the “everybody else” in the economy.

The bigger question, however, of “Can we stop this?” relates strongly to the question, “Do we want to stop it?” Here it gets difficult for all of us. Longworth rightly says that technology is not the problem. The internet obviously has the ability to “actualize” many of the trends Longworth saw developing, but the shift had begun decades before the internet entered society. For Longworth, the root lies in trade, but I say, let’s go one deeper–what in our cultural leads us to practice trade as we do?

Democracies foster a sense of individualism, which maximizes opportunities for the self vis a vis the group. Democracies tend towards dynamism, which bodes ill for stability. For example, a recent study shows that

…democratic rule and high state capacity combined produce higher levels of income inequality over time. This relationship operates through the positive effect of high-capacity democratic context on foreign direct investment and financial development. By making use of a novel measure of state capacity based on cumulative census administration, we find empirical support for these claims using fixed-effects panel regressions with the data from 126 industrial and developing countries between 1970 and 2013.

Aye, there’s the rub. To change how trade works, we may have to change more than just trade.^^


*Suggesting any kind of absolute relativism is the last thing I mean to do, but unfortunately I fear I may not be explaining it well. By ‘human experience’ I don’t mean anything at all that humans might experience. We experience many things that are obviously wrong and bad for us. I mean then, something akin to a union of Heaven and Earth that is supremely Christ Himself, then the Virgin Mary, the saints, and so on down the line. Of course man himself was meant to function as a union of Heaven and Earth originally in creation. One can see this in the very structure of our bodies. Some animals soar above the earth, some slither under it (fish). Most every animal has all of its appendages on the ground, whereas we have two on the ground, with our intellect–our ‘heavenly’ aspect on the commanding heights above us. Our heart unites the two.

**For those that used to trade baseball cards, think of those times when you might see when you drove too hard a bargain for the “Mutton Chop Yaz” in the face of your friend. Unless you were Comic Book Guy, hopefully you adjusted the cost so that you prioritized your relationship and avoided taking advantage of him.

^In seminary many years ago I heard several cautionary tales along the lines of:

  • Young, energetic pastor and young family come to the church
  • Young pastor becomes popular and receives lots of affirmation from church. He throws himself into his work at church–glory and acclaim can be like a drug.
  • But because of this, he spends less time at home, where things are inevitably more mundane. His wife eventually grows resentful and distant.
  • Wife leaves husband, which makes it impossible for him to keep his job at church. Thus, he loses both the “first thing” (family, in this case), and the “second thing” (job) all at once.

^^Supposing the accuracy of the study, one can react in the following ways:

  • Inequalities in wealth are such a bad thing that if democracy contributes to it we should overthrow it.
  • Inequalities in wealth are not good, but perhaps it is one of the costs we must endure to have the greater good of democracy.
  • Inequalities in wealth are not always bad–and in fact can sometimes become a positive good. The wealthy (individuals or companies) can dramatically advance society in important ways, etc. We cannot avoid hierarchy.

As to #1–I would wonder what we would replace it with. Certainly most modern replacement ideas involve a revival of Marxism which we should reject out of hand. The other two make more sense to me, but I am still not satisfied. I feel that if a solution to the problem exists, it exists outside the system itself, and this would mean letting go of some aspects of our modern world as it relates to culture, politics, etc.

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