This Maurice Obstfeld op-ed in the FT is a perfect distillation of the orthodox position on trade. Obstfeld is the guardian of free-trade orthodoxy ex officio as head of research at the IMF; he’s also done the circuit of top US departments and is co-author of one of the most widely used undergraduate textbooks. 
The op-ed is, of course, against tariffs. This isn’t news. I was at a session on trade policy at the American Economic Association last year, where the chair introduced the panel by saying, “Obviously, if you are in this room then you are for free trade, as much as we can get,” which is a pretty fair description of the range of opinion among credentialed economists. But it’s still striking how many of the tenets of faith Obstfeld manages to hit in 250 words.
Start with the explanation for why trade deficits are not necessarily bad:
“For example, they can help countries finance productive long-term investments that ultimately raise national income and wealth.”
This is the classic argument for international integration. Poor countries, by accepting capital inflows (the ambiguity between capital as money and capital as means of production is essential to the argument) can finance more investment and thereby achieve faster income growth than they would be able to on the basis of domestic savings alone. Obstsfeld’s “for example” is misleading here — as I’ve pointed out before, the option of running trade deficits is the entire benefit of free flows of portfolio investment in the orthodox theory.
Analytically, the op-ed’s key passage is:
A country’s overall trade balance is a macroeconomic phenomenon that mirrors whether it spends less than its income or more. In contrast, the structure of bilateral trade reflects the international division of labor – based on each country’s comparative advantage.
Here we have three key planks of orthodox trade economics. First, the airtight seal between “macro” and “micro” analysis, which protects us from discovering that these are two incompatible approaches based on mutually contradictory assumptions. Second, the anti-Keynesian macro component, with income fixed and savings as a constraint. Third, the bland invocation of the “international division of labor,” as if this were an anodyne technical fact and not a hierarchical, unequal relationship between the rich and poor worlds.
The macroeconomic part of Obstfeld’s argument is that trade restrictions “would not alter the fact that the US spends more than it earns — the source of the overall US deficit.” It is, of course, true as a matter of accounting that the current account deficit is equal to the government deficit plus the difference between private investment and private saving. Writing “the source” implies that this is a causal relationship and not just an accounting one — that how much the US “earns” is independent of the trade position. But there’s a problem — additional US exports constitute additional income for US businesses and households. An increase in US exports (or fall in imports) would, all else equal, increase savings by an exactly equal amount. So it’s not obvious how savings can be a constraint on the trade balance.
The argument that trade policy cannot change the overall deficit because national saving is fixed, is simply a transposition of the “Treasury view” of the 1930s that public investment could not increase output or employment since it would draw on the fixed supply of national saving and would crowd out an equal amount of private investment. It’s wrong for the same reason: Exports, like investment, create their own saving. It’s straightforward to show how interventions like tariffs or devaluations can generate some mix of higher output and a move toward trade surplus, while all the accounting identities are satisfied. This was a standard feature of older textbooks, and of many more recent ones in the form of the IS-LM-BP model, even if it’s not there in the more recent Obstfeld-Krugman books.
Obstfeld himself seems to have some misgivings about this argument, since he adds the caveat “for a country at full employment, like the US.” He also warns that trade restrictions “could derail the world economy’s current expansion,” which is obviously inconsistent with the idea that saving and investment are determined prior to trade balances.
It’s also striking that while Obstfeld acknowledges that “trade balances can of course be excessive” (the “of course” here functioning as a dismissal) there is no hint anywhere else in the op-ed about what the dangers of excessive deficits might be or how they could arise.
On the micro side, Obstfeld simply repeats variations on the same formula several times: trade restrictions “can badly distort the international division of labor.”
This sounds fine: division of labor is good, distorting is bad. (Distort is one of the many keywords that allows economic theory to appear to make contact with observable reality by confusing a technical meaning with an everyday one.) But what this formula actually means is: The countries that are rich, should remain rich. The countries that are poor, should remain poor. The countries that specialize in higher education and software and pharmaceuticals should retain their monopolies, the countries that specialize in plantation agriculture and sweatshop clothing should keep on doing that. “Comparative advantage” means that the hewers of wood and drawers of water are destined to remain such. Everybody should stay in their lane.
The “international division of labor” is a gesture at models that start from the premise that countries’ productive potential is fixed, given by nature or god. It is directly opposed to the idea of economic development, which starts from the premise that productive potentials are contingent and path-dependent, and that the whole goal of policy is to change — “distort”, if you will — the international division of labor.
These phrases might not have leaped out at me so much if I hadn’t just been reading Quinn Slobodian’s Globalists. (It’s a great book — look for my review in the Boston Review of Books sometime soon.) As Slobodian lucidly recounts, the real content of Obstfeld’s pieties was expressed more clearly by Mont Pelerin luminaries like Wilhelm Ropke, who
believed that an economically equal world might simply be impossible, and that developing countries might have to remain underdeveloped as a way of preventing possible ‘over-industrialization and underagriculturalization of the world.’ … the conditions for industrialization in the Third World did not exist. .. ‘The rich countries of today are rich because, along with the necessary prerequisites of modern technology, they have a particular form of economic organization that responds to their spirit.’ … Ropke believed that the ‘lack of punctuality, reliability, inclination to save and create’ … meant that industrialization schemes in the Global South were ‘doomed to fail.’
The position these early neoliberals were arguing against was the “global New Deal” which aimed not to reinforce the global division of labor, but to erase it through a convergence between the poor and rich worlds — in the memorable words of Senator Kenneth Wherry, to “lift Shanghai up and up, ever up, until it is just like Kansas City.” It’s worth emphasizing how diametrically opposed Obstfeld’s 2018 vision of trade is to Wherry’s 1940 one. Comparative advantage and the international division of labor are, for Obstfeld, fixed and god-given. You’d think the fact that Shanghai has in fact risen up well above Kansas City — and more broadly, that China, the greatest economic growth story of our times, has violated every one of his precepts — would give him pause. But it doesn’t seem to.
The neoliberals of the 1940s and 50s took exactly Obstfeld’s line. In Slobodian’s summary, their “critique of mainstream development theories began with the conviction that the industrialization of formerly agricultural areas … distorted the international division of labor and led nations to specialize in branches of production for which their natural endowments were unsuited.” Since so many people in the newly independent South were unhappy with their current position in the division of labor, this led naturally to calls for restrictions on political rights in the former colonies, and of non-whites in South Africa and elsewhere.
Obstfeld would, I’m sure, be appalled at the frank racism of Ropke. But Ropke at least had an explanation for why the benefits of industry and technology should be concentrated in a small part of the globe — the genetic-slash-cultural superiority of white Europeans. What’s Obstfeld’s explanation for why the “undistorted” international division of labor happens to so favor Europe and North America? Is it the climate?
 I’ve assigned Obstfeld’s textbook. It’s pretty good, as mainstream texts go.