EXCEEDED ONLY BY the pathological dread of imports that affects all nations is a pathological yearning for exports. Logically, it is true, no thing could be more inconsistent. In the long run imports and exports must equal each other (considering both in the broadest sense, which includes such “invisible” terms as tourist expenditures, ocean freight charges and all other items in the “balance of payments”). It is exports that pay for imports, and vice versa. The greater exports we have, the greater imports we must have, if we ever expect to get paid. The smaller imports we have, the smaller exports we can have. Without imports we can have no exports, for foreigners will have no funds with which to buy our goods. When we decide to cut down our imports, we are in effect deciding also to cut down our exports. When we decide to increase our exports, we are in effect deciding also to increase our imports.
The reason for this is elementary. An American exporter sells his goods to a British importer and is paid in British pounds sterling. But he cannot use British pounds to pay the wages of his workers, to buy his wife’s clothes or to buy theater tickets. For all these purposes he needs American dollars. Therefore his British pounds are of no use to him unless he either uses them himself to buy British goods or sells them (through his bank or other agent) to some American importer who wishes to use them to buy British goods. Whichever he does, the transaction cannot be completed until the American exports have been paid for by an equal amount of imports.
The same situation would exist if the transaction had been conducted in terms of American dollars instead of British pounds. The British importer could not pay the American exporter in dollars unless some previous British exporter had built up a credit in dollars here as a result of some previous sale to us. Foreign exchange, in short, is a clearing transaction in which, in America, the dollar debts of foreigners are canceled against their dollar credits. In England, the pound sterling debts of foreigners are canceled against their sterling credits.
There is no reason to go into the technical details of all this, which can be found in any good textbook on foreign exchange. But it should be pointed out that there is nothing inherently mysterious about it (in spite of the mystery in which it is so often wrapped), and that it does not differ essentially from what happens in domestic trade. Each of us must also sell something, even if for most of us it is our own services rather than goods, in order to get the purchasing power to buy. Domestic trade is also conducted in the main by crossing off checks and other claims against each other through clearing houses.
It is true that under the international gold standard discrepancies in balances of imports and exports were sometimes settled by shipments of gold. But they could just as well have been settled by shipments of cotton, steel, whisky, perfume, or any other commodity. The chief difference is that when a gold standard exists the demand for gold is almost indefinitely expansible (partly because it is thought of and accepted as a residual international “money” rather than as just another commodity), and that nations do not put artificial obstacles in the way of receiving gold as they do in the way of receiving almost everything else. (On the other hand, of late years they have taken to putting more obstacles in the way of exporting gold than in the way of exporting anything else; but that is another story.)
Now the same people who can be clearheaded and sensible when the subject is one of domestic trade can be incredibly emotional and muddleheaded when it becomes one of foreign trade. In the latter field they can seriously advocate or acquiesce in principles which they would think it insane to apply in domestic business. A typical example is the belief that the government should make huge loans to foreign countries for the sake of increasing our exports, regardless of whether or not these loans are likely to be repaid.
American citizens, of course, should be allowed to lend their own funds abroad at their own risk. The government should put no arbitrary barriers in the way of private lending to countries with which we are at peace. As individuals we should be willing to give generously, for humane reasons alone, to people who are in great distress or in danger of starving. But we ought always to know clearly what we are doing. It is not wise to bestow charity on foreign people under the impression that one is making a hardheaded business transaction purely for one’s own selfish purposes. That could only lead to misunderstandings and bad relations later.
Yet among the arguments put forward in favor of huge foreign lending one fallacy is always sure to occupy a prominent place. It runs like this. Even if half (or all) the loans we make to foreign countries turn sour and are not repaid, this nation will still be better off for having made them, because they will give an enormous impetus to our exports.
It should be immediately obvious that if the loans we make to foreign countries to enable them to buy our goods are not repaid, then we are giving the goods away. A nation cannot grow rich by giving goods away. It can only make itself poorer.
No one doubts this proposition when it is applied privately. If an automobile company lends a man $5,000 to buy a car priced at that amount, and the loan is not repaid, the automobile company is not better off because it has “sold” the car. It has simply lost the amount that it cost to make the car. If the car cost $4,000 to make, and only half the loan is repaid, then the company has lost $4,000 minus $2,500, or a net amount of $1,500 It has not made up in trade what it lost in bad loans.3
If this proposition is so simple when applied to a private company, why do apparently intelligent people get confused about it when applied to a nation? The reason is that the transaction must then be traced mentally through a few more stages. One group may indeed make gains—while the rest of us take the losses.
It is true, for example, that persons engaged exclusively or chiefly in export business might gain on net balance as a result of bad loans made abroad. The national loss on the transaction would be certain, but it might be distributed in ways difficult to follow. The private lenders would take their losses directly. The losses from government lending would ultimately be paid out of increased taxes imposed on everybody. But there would also be many indirect losses brought about by the effect on the economy of these direct losses.
In the long run business and employment in America would be hurt, not helped, by foreign loans that were not repaid. For every extra dollar that foreign buyers had with which to buy American goods, domestic buyers would ultimately have one dollar less. Businesses that depend on domestic trade would therefore be hurt in the long run as much as export businesses would be helped. Even many concerns that did an export business would be hurt on net balance. American automobile companies, for example, sold about 15 percent of their output in the foreign market in 1975. It would not profit them to sell 20 percent of their output abroad as a result of bad foreign loans if they thereby lost, say, io percent of their American sales as the result of added taxes taken from American buyers to make up for the unpaid foreign loans.
None of this means, I repeat, that it is unwise for private investors to make loans abroad, but simply that we cannot get rich by making bad ones.
For the same reasons that it is stupid to give a false stimulation to export trade by making bad loans or outright gifts to foreign countries, it is stupid to give a false stimulation to export trade through export subsidies. An export subsidy is a clear case of giving the foreigner something for nothing, by selling him goods for less than it costs us to make them. It is another case of trying to get rich by giving things away.
In the face of all this, the United States government has been engaged for years in a “foreign economic aid” program the greater part of which has consisted in outright government-to-government gifts of many billions of dollars. Here we are interested in just one aspect of that program—the naive belief of many of its sponsors that this is a clever or even a necessary method of “increasing our exports” and so maintaining prosperity and employment. It is still another form of the delusion that a nation can get rich by giving things away. What conceals the truth from many supporters of the program is that what is directly given away is not the exports themselves but the money with which to buy them. It is possible, therefore, for individual exporters to profit on net balance from the national loss — if their individual profit from the exports is greater than their share of taxes to pay for the program.
Here we have simply one more example of the error of looking only at the immediate effect of a policy on some special group, and of not having the patience or intelligence to trace the long-run effects of the policy on everyone.
If we do trace these long-run effects on everyone, we come to an additional conclusion—the exact opposite of the doctrine that has dominated the thinking of most government officials for centuries. This is, as John Stuart Mill so clearly pointed out, that the real gain of foreign trade to any country lies not in its exports but in its imports. Its consumers are either able to get from abroad commodities at a lower price than they could obtain them for at home, or commodities that they could not get from domestic producers at all. Outstanding examples in the United States are coffee and tea. Collectively considered, the real reason a country needs exports is to pay for its imports.