United States President Donald Trump has imposed additional import duties on solar panels and washing machines to protect American manufactures. He proposes to impose similar import duties on steel and aluminum. These import duties will have little impact on India directly because India’s exports account for only 2 per cent of US’ imports of steel and aluminum.
Follow Trump’s protectionism
This will lead to higher price of utensils produced in the US. Soon, Trump will also have to impose high import duties on utensils to protect American utensil makers from cheap steel utensils made in China.
The point is that one cannot adopt protectionism in parts. It is like air pollution. You cannot restrict polluted air to one part of the city. It will spread on its own. Similarly, high import duties on one item will necessarily spill over to other items. Thus, seen together with other protectionist measures such as curbing H1B visas, these import duties signal the birth of a new world of protectionism.
This signals a massive reversal. The US was the strongest supporter of globalisation in the nineties. At that time, US technology companies were leading the global economy. Microsoft had introduced the revolutionary software Windows in 1993. US companies like International Business Machines (IBM) and Hewett Packard (HP) were able to export hi-tech computer goods with ease because there was no competition from other countries. Similarly, Monsanto could sell its genetically modified cotton seeds in India.
Free trade was beneficial for the US economy because it enabled Microsoft and Monsanto to sell their goods at high prices across the world. Free trade also made available cheap imported goods to the US consumers. It led to fierce competition among the suppliers and reduced the prices of goods imported into the US. For example, competition between India and Bangladesh in the manufacture of garments has led to lower prices for US consumers. Free trade at that time was profitable for American companies and beneficial for American consumers.
The US was also not worried about its manufacturing industries like automobiles shifting to Mexico or India because good numbers of jobs were being created by Microsoft, IBM, HP and Monsanto. The last decade has led to a dramatic erosion of the technological edge of the US. Revolutionary new products like the Windows software are far and few in coming.
Indian companies have developed skills in making GM seeds and other products that were being supplied by the US previously. US companies like IBM, HP and Monsanto do not have a free run in India anymore. Free trade still provides cheap Indian clothes to American consumers but not jobs. Previously American companies could export their goods at high prices.
The jobs lost in the shift of manufacturing from the US to India were being made up in the hi-tech sectors. Not any longer. The jobs that are today getting lost in manufacturing are not being made up in hi-tech sectors because of the slow pace of technological innovations. The loss of manufacturing is leading to increased unemployment numbers.
Thus, there is unrest in the US. American people can see cheap India garments in the shopping windows, but they have no jobs and incomes to buy them. Trump rightly understands this concern hence he has adopted protectionism. He knows that the development of new hi-tech technologies is not in his hands. He cannot recreate the golden era of nineties.
The only thing he can do is to reduce imports so that more manufacturing takes place and jobs are created in the US. Thus, he has imposed high import duties and is likely to follow these with an across-the-board hike in duties.
He recognises that these import duties will lead to higher cost of goods for the American people. There is a tradeoff involved here. Low import duties lead to loss of jobs and availability of cheap goods. High import duties lead to the creation of jobs and increase in the price of goods. He has chosen jobs over cheap goods—I think rightly. Jobs first.
With this background, we can examine whether we must also adopt Trump’s protectionist policy. I have been an opponent of globalisation since the nineties. My argument has been that instead of inviting FDI and trying to access frontline technologies though MNCs, we should encourage more domestic investment and help Indian companies access frontline technologies.
Instead of importing cheap goods from China, we should reduce the costs of infrastructure and corruption for Indian companies and help them produce those same goods at a competitive price. Instead of trying to export our natural resources, we should focus on increased sale of grains and utensils to Indian people and increase their standard of living.
I said this when FDI was coming, and exports were easy because free trade was holding sway. I feel that my prognosis has proven correct. Our average growth rate in the two decades of globalisation is nothing to gloat about. We are still technological laggards. We have not been able to create jobs and the demographic dividend is slowly but surely becoming a demographic disaster. Our farmers continue to suffer.
I repeat the same arguments today with greater vehemence. Now, the MNCs are heading back to the US. FDI is not likely to pick up. Our exports will surely face more difficulty as Trump’s protectionist policies dig in deeper. Thus, if globalisation has not delivered in the last two decades, it is much likely to deliver in the coming decades.
We need to change gears. Instead of running after FDI, we should focus on encouraging our businessmen to invest in India rather than flee abroad. Our problem is not lack of capital. We have plenty of it. Our businessmen are investing huge sums abroad. They can also afford to buy frontline technologies if they get protection from cheap imports.
Instead of exporting our water and minerals for consumption of foreign nationals, we must use these for increased consumption of our own people. The protectionism set in motion by Trump is a blessing in disguise. It will force the Indian government to look inwards and secure welfare of our people instead of promoting the interests of MNCs. Formerly Professor of Economics at IIM Bengaluru
By Dr Bharat Jhunjhunwala