Wednesday, March 8, 2017

How the Hell Did Peter Navarro Ever Get a Ph. D. in Economics From Harvard?

Peter Navarro, Harvard Ph. D.
The best explanation I have seen yet, of the fundamental errors in understanding of GDP by Donald Trump's trade adviser Peter Navarro, comes from Daniel J. Ikenson. He writes in an essay titled, Peter Navarro, Harvard Ph.D. Economist, Trade Warrior:
Peter Navarro, director of the newly-established White House National Trade Council, gave a speech last week to the National Association for Business Economics, which he condensed into an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal. The analytical errors and the fallacies portrayed as facts in that op-ed are so numerous that it is bewildering how a person with a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard University—and a potentially devastating amount of influence within the White House—could so fundamentally misunderstand basic tenets of introductory economics.

Almost every paragraph in the op-ed includes an error of fact or interpretation.  I’ll focus on a few, deferring to others’ noble efforts (Phil Levy, Don Boudreaux, Linette Lopez) at wading through the rest of Navarro’s confused and misinformed diatribe.

Consider Navarro’s portrayal of the national income identity as an economic growth formula.  He claims:
The economic argument that trade deficits matter begins with the observation that growth in real GDP depends on only four factors: consumption, government spending, business investment and net exports (the difference between exports and imports).
The sentence betrays a deep and troubling misunderstanding of the factors of economic growth. Real GDP growth (growth in the total value produced in the economy) depends on increases in the factors of production and increases in the productive use of those factors, which trade and specialization facilitate. What Navarro refers to as the drivers of growth are actually the channels that account for the disposition of our output – what we do with our output.

The national income identify is expressed as: Y=C + I + G + X – M.  It tells us that our national output is either consumed by households (C); consumed by business as investment (I); consumed by government as public expenditures (G); or exported (X). Those are the only four channels that can account for the disposition of national output.  We either consume our output as households, businesses and government or we export it.

Imports (M) are not a channel through which national output is disposed.  We don’t import our output. But M appears in the identity and is subtracted because we consume – as C, I, and G – both domestically produced and imported goods and services.  If we didn’t subtract M in the national income identity, we would overstate GDP by the value of our imports.

But Navarro believes – or wants the public to believe – that the national income identity is an economic growth formula or function, where Y (GDP) is the dependent variable, C,I,G, X, and M are the independent variables, and the minus sign in front of M means that imports are inversely related to (or detract from) GDP.  That’s wrong and a Harvard Ph.D. economist should know that...
[N]ote the implication that Navarro expects U.S. trade agreements to include commitments by our trade partners to meet certain outcomes – “…Mexico agrees to buy more products from the U.S.”  This kind of managed trade is unprecedented and utterly defies the purpose and spirit of trade liberalization.  Trade agreements are intended to reduce barriers to competition, not to preempt competition by anointing the winners at the outset.  But, okay, the administration believes it has a mandate to blow things up on the trade front.

But, here’s another problem with Navarro’s scenario.  If Mexico agrees to buy from the United States some of what it now purchases from other countries (Navarro’s key to decreasing the bilateral trade deficit with Mexico), then won’t those other countries have fewer dollars with which to purchase U.S. exports?  Wouldn’t that, all else equal, increase bilateral trade deficits or reduce bilateral surpluses the United States has with those other countries?  Yes and yes.  What Navarro is suggesting is a game of trade policy whack-a-mole. Bilateral trade accounting is utterly meaningless, and a Harvard Ph.D. economist should know that... 
Meanwhile, Navarro’s example precludes discussion of the opposite of outsourcing – insourcing.  The trade deficits Navarro so desperately wants to curtail are the sources of massive amounts of inward foreign direct investment.  When we run trade deficits, foreign companies have more resources to invest in U.S. operations, which increase the value of the investment component of the national income identity.  In 2016, the stock of foreigners’ (mostly Western Europeans, Canadians, and Japanese) investments in U.S. manufacturing was valued at $1.2 trillion – more than twice the amount of FDI in Chinese manufacturing.  And foreign companies operating in the United States directly employed over 6.4 million American workers.

When writing about the effects of trade and investment on GDP, it is inadequate and misleading to focus on one part of one side of the ledger. A Harvard Ph.D. economist should know that.


  1. So how did Peter Navarro obtain his PhD in Economics from Harvard? The answer is obvious: by telling the other economists in the doctoral committee, who also believe the GDP formula is a growth function, exactly what they wanted to hear.

  2. I strongly recommend reading the article because it sheds light on many of Navarro's economic faallacies which, unfortunately, are shared by too many, for instance: the emphasis on that bugaboo, outsourcing:

    "Now, what about the investment term in the GDP equation? When U.S. companies offshore their production because of America’s high taxes or burdensome regulations, that shows up in government data as reduced nonresidential fixed investment—and a growth rate lower than it would be otherwise."

    Ikenson carefully explains that Navarro's description of the situation is incomplete and thus misleading. Inxeed, there will be some instances of companies moving production sources to another country because of lower taxes or regulations but that, most of the time, the decision is not motivated by those factors alone but by achieving economic efficiency, meaning that even if the regulatory and fiscal environment was favorable you would still see companies outsource their production sources. The implication is that there is a different motivation from mere economic reporting behind pointing your finger at outsourcing as a "problem" that needs a "solution".

  3. Progressive macroeconomics is the study of the following absolutely true accounting identity, true by definition. You can't do better than absolutely true. I call this the Fundamental Equation of Government:

    GDP = Consumption + Investment + Government + (Exports - Imports)

    I use a more sophisticated breakdown. It is hard to increase net exports (X-M), so I looked for an easier way to increase wealth. Here is my equation, also absolutely true by definition. We home-gamers can play in the big leagues.

    GDP = Consumption* + CatFood + I + G + (X - M)

    (* consumption other than cat food)

    Clearly, by common reasoning, we can raise our GDP and become rich by increasing our purchases of cat food. I am open to the argument that dog food should be included.

    You may think this is silly, but where do I go wrong? More importantly, where do protectionist economists go wrong? In this way: Accounting for how you spend your money tells you nothing about how you earn your money.

  4. Here is the. dirty little secret and conceit of all economists, regardless of whether they ascribe to the London, Vienna, or Chicago schools of thought:

    Their capacity of predicting the future is simply horrible. If they were anything but horrible, they would all be multi-billionaires rather than merely upper class, academic elitist wonks. It goes without saying, they certainly would not remain so ideologically divided as a community if there actually were a single unifying theory to adequately explain their divergent beliefs.

    Res ipsa loquitur

    [ref: Noble Laureate Paul Krugman's now infamous market predictions of November 9, 2016]

    1. Nothing better than fiction criticizing fiction. Well maybe a dance off or pose off.