During the 2016 presidential campaign, trade has become a major economic and voting issue. For decades both political parties, in general, and Hillary Clinton in particular, have supported expansion of free trade through trade agreements that reduce tariff rates. In contrast, Donald Trump has upended that politics, seizing the Republican nomination with the promise to renegotiate trade agreements so that they balance trade.
As a result, the two alternatives in this year’s election are free trade vs. balanced trade. These are not necessary mutually exclusive. Indeed, there have been periods of world history in which trade has grown more free without getting out of balance. Especially notable were the 1840-1870 and the 1950-1997 periods. Those were the two golden ages of globalization in which tariff reductions around the world greatly benefited and integrated the world economy.
But the 1840-1870 period was followed by a period, much like the present, in which world trade became more and more unbalanced. The European countries were experiencing worsening trade deficits and eventually had to choose between free trade and balanced trade. Those that chose to balance their trade through tariffs resumed their economic growth, while those that stuck with free trade continued to stagnate. The United States faces a similar choice today.
The U.S. economic growth rate has followed the U.S. trade balance downward, as shown in the following graph:
The slow U.S. economic growth rate of the last 17 years is unprecedented. From 1999 through 2015, the average U.S. growth rate was just 2.1% per year, as compared with over 3% for almost every ten-year period during the previous five decades. And the first two quarters of 2016 (not shown on the chart) have been even lower — just 0.8% and 1.1% growth. There are six primary reasons why trade deficits slow economic growth: