In this episode of the McKinsey Global Institute’s Forward Thinking podcast, Janet Bush talks with Chad P. Bown. Bown is Reginald Jones Senior Fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. He’s also the host of Trade Talks, a podcast about the economics of international trade and policy. He previously served as senior economist for international trade and investment in the White House on the Council of Economic Advisers. He’s also been a lead economist at the World Bank, conducting research and advising governments of developing countries on international trade policy for seven years. He covers topics including:
- How contentious current trading relationships are in the context of history
- Is the world deglobalizing or not?
- The economic and human cost of decoupling
An edited transcript of this episode follows. Subscribe to the series on Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Janet Bush (co-host): Michael, if you look at the world economy today, what do you think people are most actively discussing? What topic?
Michael Chui (co-host): I think everyone has a different lens on it. But given my interest in technology, a lot of people are still talking about how technology is continuing to change our world and the dynamics of the economy. But beyond that, I guess the big question on everybody’s minds is what is happening with globalization. Are we entering a new era of decoupling or atomizing into more powerful regional blocs or something else?
Janet Bush: I think that’s spot on. And that’s why I am so excited that we have a leading trade economist as our guest today. It couldn’t be a better time to talk about trade—and actually he has his own podcast on trade which is really very well known.
Michael Chui: I am very much looking forward to hearing the conversation.
Janet Bush: Welcome to our podcast, Chad.
Chad P. Bown: Thanks for having me.
Janet Bush: We like to start with a little bit about you. Where were you raised and how did you come to be an economist?
Chad P. Bown: I grew up in a very small town in New England, in rural northwestern Connecticut. We got our first traffic light, I think, my senior year of high school, so extraordinarily small town. And with the exception of one year when I was 11 years old, my family moved to the UK, but aside from that basically I just grew up in this tiny town.
I went to a small liberal arts college for university, my undergraduate. And there I had really good professors and fell in love with economics and decided that I wanted to be, initially, an economics professor when I grew up. When I went to graduate school, then I fell in love with research.
I really had decided that trade was going to be the thing that I wanted to study. It was primarily because I thought trade was really hard. I didn’t understand it as I was studying it. So I thought, “Hey, you know, this is something I could spend my life trying to figure out.” And that’s basically what I’ve been trying to do since, is—spend my life trying to figure out international trade.
Janet Bush: Why is trade so hard?
Chad P. Bown: The thing that I really spend my time thinking about is actually less about why countries trade and more about governments and when it is that they can and can’t get along. When it is that countries can cooperate and when it is that they have to fight about things, when they negotiate, when they dispute.
I really focus on the intersection of cooperation and fighting. And for me, that’s where all the action is, but I think it’s really—governments have incentives to do things that are in their unilateral self-interest, but it is kind of not good for the world globally.
The initial time that this really came up was in the 1930s. The United States did the Smoot–Hawley Tariff, the rest of the world retaliated, and there were all these beggar-thy-neighbor policies, and it was really kind of recognition that from there that if we all stopped doing this to each other, we could all be better off.
And that then led to, ultimately, the creation of the GATT, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, after the Second World War. The first multilateral trade agreement, where countries agreed to take on commitments not to do certain things, like tariffs toward each other, if their trading partners would also agree to do the same thing.
And we still have domestic political pressures and sometimes economic pressures to want to do things like tariffs, but we’re involved in these trade agreements where we all sort of agree not to. And that’s what I’ve spent my entire life trying to figure out, when those types of challenges break down, when governments really are overcome by the need to break the rules that they’ve signed up to, and things like that.
Janet Bush: Very relevant, of course, to now. But you were quite prescient, weren’t you, to see that trade was highly political—an arm of politics, if you like.
Chad P. Bown: The funny thing for me was when I was doing my undergraduate studies and then my PhD. It was in the mid-1990s, and here in the United States this was coming off of the major conflict at the time, between the United States and Japan.
We had trade wars back then over steel, semiconductors, cars. What you learn is the industries never go away. They’re the same ones we’re fighting about today, just maybe different countries. I studied all that stuff. I wrote my dissertation about all that stuff, learned about all the laws that were being used to implement all kinds of crazy, exciting trade policies at the time.
But then what happened is governments stopped using those policies, for the most part. The United States then became very quiet with its active trade policy. From, say, the late 1990s through 2016, through the election of Donald Trump. So all of the human capital that I had built up in graduate school, about trade disputes and governments fighting and all these trade laws, then disappeared for 20 years.
So I wouldn’t say it was prescient. It was basically I was, I think, the last one who studied that stuff in graduate school before governments stopped doing it. And as the last one who had bothered to learn that stuff, when governments started doing it again, 2016, 2017 or so, I was the last one who had learned it, and so I was first up to try to remind the world about what those laws and policies were and the last time that we had seen them actually being used.
Janet Bush: And now you’ve hit prime time, as it were. We are in, now, a very contentious period in terms of trade. How contentious is it in your experience, in the history of what you’ve studied?
Chad P. Bown: This is certainly the most exciting, contentious, uncertain time when it comes to trade policy, certainly in my lifetime. And I just had one of those big, round number—half century—birthdays, and so I’ve been around for a fairly long period of time.
There is a debate about how disruptive some of the policy actions are that we’re going to see today relative to, say, the 1930s, when we did have those Smoot–Hawley tariffs that were very high in the United States.
Other governments responded by retaliating, forming trade blocs of their own. Obviously we had a world war. I think we’re still pretty far away from that, though there’s a lot of things happening, both in terms of policy actions on the ground, but then a lot happening in terms of geopolitics as well. Who’s to say what the world is going to look like five, ten years from now?
What I’ve learned over the last couple years is I’m not good at predicting where things are necessarily going to go, but it definitely is certainly an exciting time to be working in the area of international trade policy.
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Janet Bush: The big question everybody’s asking at the moment—and we ourselves had a stab at it in a recent report that we’ve just written—is, “Is the world deglobalizing or not?” What’s your take on that?
Chad P. Bown: It’s complicated. There’s definitely something happening. Trying to figure out exactly what is happening and how it’s happening, it’s still too early to say. Deglobalization, first of all, for me, as an economist, I would want to be precise with first defining what it is that we mean by that.
If deglobalization means doing more stuff at home, maybe. But I don’t think that the evidence is necessarily there to support that yet. If deglobalization means less nondiscriminatory trade policies, most all the major economies of the world are members of the World Trade Organization. And one of the fundamental rules, pillars, of the World Trade Organization is the most-favored-nation, MFN, rule. You’re supposed to apply nondiscriminatory policy, basically the same tariffs toward everyone. Well, that is now changing.
We saw that really beginning to change in 2018, 2019, in the context of the US–China trade war, where those two countries went from having tariffs toward each other that were the nondiscriminatory types that they applied toward trading partners in the rest of the world.
US toward China was about 3 percent. China toward the US was about 8 percent. Well, nowadays those countries are applying tariffs on the order of 20, 21 percent toward each other. Toward everyone else they’re still in the 3 to 8 percent range, so still relatively low. But they’re very much applying discriminatory trade policies, tariffs, toward one another.
With the conflict, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we have seen not only financial sanctions but a number of countries, the United States, EU, UK, Canada, the G-7, applying much higher tariffs against Russia. Discriminating, essentially breaking one of the central tenets of the WTO system—now, for good reason, obviously. But if that is what we mean by deglobalization, meaning no longer applying nondiscriminatory policies toward each other, trying to shape economic activity for noneconomic reasons, say, I do think some of that is going on.
At the end of all of that, we still may have just as much trade as we had before, just as much cross-border movement of goods and services, but the patterns of that may look fundamentally different than the way it was before all this new stuff started happening over the last four or five years.
Janet Bush: Our research found that there was not a single major region in the world that didn’t rely on some other region for at least one-quarter of something big that they need. So the world is incredibly interdependent. What decoupling you see is going to maybe take time or be a change of pattern, etcetera.
The other thing we figure is that policy is, as you say, coming much more into the frame, and that changes the patterns of trade. So I think that is one thing that we agree on. Why is there such a focus, beyond the obvious, of US–China? Is it broader than that? Is the tension broader than that?
Chad P. Bown: I think it’s important, first of all, to figure out what the source of the tension is in the US–China relationship and then maybe talk about how that spills over to other countries being drawn in and why they might need to be drawn in, or they could stay out of it.
There’s a multiple set of reasons why there were these tensions. One is because they’re very different economic systems. Even before the recent geopolitical tensions have escalated between the two, it had become clear that there were new challenges with the way China was engaging with the world.
China, a very non-market-oriented system, large state-owned enterprises, these five-year plans, industrial policy—that is just very, very different from the historical economic framework that the United States, countries in Europe, Canada, Japan, Australia, more market-oriented economies, were structuring their economic activity.
It became increasingly untenable to have those two different types of systems under the same tent in the WTO. The WTO really wasn’t designed as a trade agreement, as a set of international rules, really to accommodate the special nature of nonmarket economies.
And that was OK when the nonmarket economy may have been relatively small. But as it becomes bigger and bigger and generates more and more externalities for trading partners—meaning China does things, either through its own policies or through its economic activities, that really do spill over and change things in other countries—well, then other countries begin to get nervous.
They begin to wonder, “What new tools do we need? Is the system well designed to protect our interests? Is it fair?” That was one big fundamental point of contention that will ultimately need to be addressed and dealt with if ever we can get past the geopolitical tensions.
But then of course the second part is the geopolitical tensions. And China has become much more assertive, not only economically but in terms of its foreign policy, military aspirations in its region and globally. And that’s raised other concerns that have started to raise questions for policy makers in the United States, but I think increasingly in other capitals around the world as well, in Europe and certainly in its neighbors in Asia there about, “What do we need to do to protect ourselves from potential national security types of concerns?”
And combine that with what we, again, have seen with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The weaponization by Russia of energy supplies into Europe, revealing vulnerabilities and exposure of becoming interdependent with certain trading partners, has really heightened the concern and made countries wonder, “Well,” similarly with China, “where is it that we’re so interdependent that we could then be vulnerable to having decisions to cut off trade flows or otherwise impact trade flows really hurt us either economically, militarily, technology?”
In any case, it’s raised a whole host of new questions that I really do think governments are still trying to sort out. But I think part of the policy actions that you’re seeing take place now are best seen through that lens. There are very legitimate security, military concerns out there that are starting to drive some of the policy decisions that we’re actually seeing.
Janet Bush: Obviously we’re beginning to see resilience be a big theme. If you suddenly can’t get your energy, if you suddenly can’t get your wheat, and you realize how interdependent you are, then you have to change the game on that interdependence. What are you seeing, not just from policy but practically, with companies as well, as they try to protect themselves from that kind of dependency?
Chad P. Bown: I do think it’s important to talk about the companies, but I think it’s also important to talk about the policy, because companies respond to the policy environment that’s put in front of them. Arguably, many of the dependencies that have arisen make complete economic sense when you think about the policy environment that the companies were presented with.
Companies, their job is to reduce costs and provide goods and services to consumers for as low a price as possible. And if governments reduce trade barriers and make it seem as though trade relations with trading partners are secure, reduce uncertainty, then it makes sense for companies to make big investments and build supply chains to try to reduce those costs.
What we have seen happen is you do, at the end of the day, have certain types of goods where you do have really geographically concentrated sources of supply. Now, as we saw with the Europe energy case, that was in Russia. But there’s other examples, and not all of them are with countries of concern.
Another one that we have seen is the semiconductor story, and high-end semiconductors in particular. For the United States, globally, the main [sources] of high-end semiconductors, the fastest, fanciest chips, are essentially Taiwan and South Korea.
Companies like TSMC and Samsung produce the vast majority of high-end semiconductors. For the United States, those are not countries or entities of concern. Those are places that are friends, allies.
And yet it doesn’t make a lot of sense in a new world where we have not just geopolitical shocks and concerns, but you’ve got pandemics and you’ve got climate-induced shocks. Whether that’s incredible storms, floods, droughts, it really doesn’t make sense to have incredibly geographically concentrated sources of supply, even though those may be incredibly economically efficient and may be the result of very good economic policies, which led firms to achieve economies of scale and build out really impressive supply chains.
But we now may live in a world where that’s just not what’s best for the world. To get companies to change their behavior, probably you need to induce that with policy. And so the policies that we’re now seeing, these days, are things like subsidies.
In the United States, industrial policy, the CHIPS Act and trying to shift some of that location of production out of East Asia—even though it’s with our friends in East Asia—to the United States, to Japan. Japan has been subsidizing as well. The European Union is talking about its own CHIPS Act. Maybe some of that production will move out of East Asia to countries in Europe as well.
For all those reasons, from America’s perspective, that would be beneficial. Additional geographic diversification could ultimately be beneficial.
Now, it may end up being more costly. There are massive economies of scale of having all of that production locally sourced there in Taiwan or in South Korea. And provided nothing ever goes wrong, then great. But the concern is, we now live in a world where we’re more likely to be exposed to things that could go wrong, and we have to plan for that accordingly. And we have to convince the companies to do more for their supply chains, and some of that likely needs to come about through policy.
Janet Bush: You just beautifully described the two-sided coin of concentration. It delivers efficiency, but if things start to get turbulent and difficult, you’re at risk. There are some goods that are needed for, say, the net-zero transition. Some minerals, key minerals that really are only found in certain places and could be found in other places, but there’s a lot of money and investment that would need to go into diversifying those sources of production, refined in even fewer places at the moment. How do you see that playing out in the years ahead?
Chad P. Bown: A good example of this is what’s taking place right now with electric vehicles, and the batteries that go into electric vehicles, and the critical minerals and components that are essential in the supply chains for those, that are essential for batteries.
What’s fascinating is if you look at the details of the recent piece of US legislation, the Inflation Reduction Act, that is trying to do many, many things in that space. First, and most important obviously, is to try to encourage American consumers to shift away from internal combustion engine vehicles and start buying electric vehicles.
They do that through these consumption subsidies, through consumer tax credits. But as part of that, what they have also done is to say, “There are additional tax credits available for electric vehicles that have batteries, where the batteries have supply chains that, essentially, don’t run through China.”
That exactly addressed the point that you just made. The source of geographic concentration in that particular instance is mostly China. So the big question is, “Well, how does that happen?”
There, we’ll see. The policy goal is laudable, from the US government. It’s trying to get firms to diversify, to create an additional supply chain so that they don’t themselves become too reliant on just one source for these critical inputs.
But how it is that they’re going to get there—are the tax credits going to be enough?—I think is not yet clear. Are there other policies that the United States could do? The first thing it could do [would] be to try to coordinate with other countries and other governments who have very similar concerns and try to encourage them to do something similar. Perhaps share the costs of some of these massive new investments in supply chains for either new mines or new refining capacity.
One of the reasons why this has ended up, historically, in China is these are very environmentally challenging products to produce. And China may have a greater tolerance for the environmental degradation and the pollution that comes out of these refining processes than do the United States or Canada or Europe.
We need to figure out how to deal with that and either just accept the fact that in order to refine those types of minerals in an environmentally safe way—it’s just going to be more costly and accept that and be willing to pay those costs. That’s probably what we ultimately need to have happen. But how you get there, I don’t know. Where is that refining capacity? Who’s going to be willing to do it, what country? Who is going to be willing to pay for it?
The good news is you don’t need to have every single other country have their own supply chain at the end of this thing. You don’t need both the United States, Canada, the UK, France, Germany, Japan, Italy to have—we don’t need ten different EV supply chains, battery supply chains coming out of this. But if we don’t coordinate, we may end up with none.
How it is that we get there is still to be determined. What’s happening right now between governments is a messy process where they’re hopefully talking about how to figure that out. But along the way, they’re getting upset with one another about various policies and incentives that they’re each generating. They’re not yet at the stage of ultimately cooperating. So we’re far away from where we need to end up being. And how it is that we’re all going to get to that end point I think is still to be determined.
Janet Bush: Are you seeing the same movement in that direction in other countries outside the US? You know the US very well. It’s your home country. But are you seeing it elsewhere, say, in Europe, in other large, advanced economies?
Chad P. Bown: I think Europe is really struggling at the moment. They really do want to continue to adhere to nondiscrimination, WTO rules, and the existing set of principles out there. I think some of what the United States has done has forced them to have to rethink that.
The key question for Europe is, do they agree with the United States on some of the underlying challenges, so the reason why we might want to deviate from basic rules, the basic WTO rules, in just this instance? Do they agree, for example, critical minerals and components for batteries in electric vehicles, that having a supply chain that is mostly going through China is a problem, a challenge? And are they willing to utilize discriminatory policies that might break the WTO rules in a way that they wouldn’t otherwise, in order to achieve a diversification objective there? That’s a question for Europe.
Or, maybe equivalently, will they be pushed, due to the Americans’ actions on subsidies for things like electric vehicles and these discriminatory local content requirements of those, to do something similar themselves?
That’s sort of where we are. There’s definitely political pressure heading in that direction. I think the key question is, is that where we’re going to end up, or is that a bargaining chip? And are they now talking with the Americans, trying to get the Americans to rein in some of the discriminatory aspects of their policies, say, for electric vehicles, make them slightly less discriminatory, more open to Europe and other friends, allies, trusted trading partners, and then they won’t feel the need to go down that path themselves?
These are the key questions that these other countries are now grappling with, and this is an important moment for the trading system and the countries that are trying to adhere to the rules to see how slippery this slope is going to get.
Janet Bush: With all that in mind, one incentive to keep the multilateral trading system together is simply that letting it fall apart is extraordinarily costly. Do you have a sense in your mind about how costly it could be?
Chad P. Bown: It’s really costly for the smaller and less powerful economies out there in the world. They’re the ones, because they don’t have the ability to credibly threaten to impose huge costs on the United States or Europe or something with tariffs; they really do rely on a rules-based system, lots of predictability, lots of certainty. And if the rules-based system disappears, if it’s replaced with something else that [doesn’t] have those features to it, then I think they could stand to lose.
Now, I am heartened by the fact that despite the fact that we really haven’t had a functioning dispute settlement system, for example, under the World Trade Organization, for three or four years now—the US has refused to appoint new members to this thing called the Appellate Body, the appeals process in the WTO, which basically means that any country can thwart a legal ruling.
There’s no more legal certainty anymore, so why bother bringing a dispute in the first place? Well, you could see how that could plausibly unravel. If I know I can’t be challenged through a dispute, then I could start to do bad things. So far most countries haven’t gone down that path. And so far most countries seem to be following the standard rules to the game.
I’m worried that that sometime could change. Maybe what happens is you elect a political leader that is much more nationalist. Or you go through some massive shock. I’m heartened by the pandemic, which is a pretty big shock that we all went through. The system didn’t unravel at that stage, but other kinds of shocks could happen, which could put pressure on governments to start acting differently.
We haven’t seen it yet, but those are the countries that I would be most worried about as not being able to stand up for themselves. They benefit from the existing system the most. The bigger countries, United States, Europe, China, are ultimately going to need to sit down together, come up with some new rules, some new systems, that allow them to get along with each other.
They need to figure it out. Whether they’ll figure it out inside the WTO, outside the WTO, I think is to be seen. These days it’s much more reliant on the question of geopolitics, and can they even, for political reasons, be seen getting in the room together and negotiating constructively about anything?
Janet Bush: Put it in terms of human lives. I know that you have talked about the tragedy of vaccine nationalism, and we all saw that. What other tragedies could happen to humanity because of a lack of cooperation over trade?
Chad P. Bown: I think the biggest one is on climate. There, it’s clear, like the pandemic, global health. The climate challenge is a global challenge. It’s a global externality. The United States couldn’t tackle it by itself even if it wanted to or had the will to politically. Europe can’t do so either, and neither can China.
Some of the most vulnerable countries most quickly, because of the climate crisis, are the poorest economies. They’re the ones that are going to be impacted, and hundreds of millions of people impacted, most quickly. And they have the least power to do anything about it.
That’s a really, really big concern. The lack of cooperation on anything at the moment. Trade is just one piece of this, but there’s very little international cooperation on anything. There’s certainly not cooperation on global public health.
Climate, yes, governments do get together periodically, but they’re not making nearly as much progress as they could be and they should be if they were really engaged and really seeking to work together and putting all of their other baggage to the side and really thinking about humanity.
Janet Bush: We’ve talked a lot about trade policy. In this rather febrile situation and very uncertain times, do you have something in your mind that would fix the situation?
Chad P. Bown: The big concern that I have is that trade policy nowadays is oftentimes being siloed in a bucket over here, while other folks are talking about a bucket over here, which may be national security. And the third set of folks are dealing with a bucket over here, which may be climate.
And in reality we need to put all of those things together and think about them in a combined fashion, if for no other reason [than] that there’s so much overlap between those things when it comes to global public goods, global externalities, humanity.
Right now a lot of the conversations about trade are taking place between very amazing people, very sharp people, but oftentimes folks that are very focused on the technical details of things, looking at it through their lens only of, maybe, what an existing WTO provision says. Not thinking at all about whether that makes sense, given the current geopolitical climate, security, pandemic, health, whatever, challenges that are most important right at this moment in time, both in the short term and in the long term.
That’s my concern, is that we all need to step back and think a little bit more broadly and wonder why it is that we’re doing this. And we don’t do trade for trade’s sake. The goal isn’t to maximize trade in the world. It really isn’t even to maximize economic efficiency, though as an economist it does pain me to say that.
Really we should see this as part of a bigger picture, and really we should see how we can use trade in a way that can enhance cooperation in the areas where we really need it for sustainability reasons. And there I’m talking about, obviously, climate, public health, and, increasingly, national security and global security as well.
Janet Bush: One slightly more specific question is services trade. Everybody thinks of trade, still, as goods, products, but increasingly trade is about data and intangibles and services and knowledge and ideas and people. How do you see that developing? Could that develop on a different track to the products? Could that just continue to do well, whereas product trade becomes more subject to strategic interest?
Chad P. Bown: It could. And I think we have seen that for the most part, with the exception of the pandemic when we saw, because of mobility restrictions, some particular parts of services trade just got completely shut down, whether we’re talking about business travel, tourism, those kinds of things.
At the same time, the ability to do remote work from everywhere in the world, Zoom from anywhere in the world, opened up new opportunities. And so I think there is definitely a bright future there. There does need to be a bit more public education about services right now, still in the domestic political economy context.
You put it well—all anybody ever cares about and all policy makers ever talk about is trade and goods. Part of that is because when people think services, they think retail, they think, in developing countries, the informal sector, low-quality jobs, quote-unquote.
Partly what we need to do is rebrand services to make it seem sexier somehow, so that it’s clear that in a lot of places that we’re talking about, these are actually high-value-added parts of the economy. It’s not bad to move from a manufacturing job to this kind of services job, to this kind of services sector. It’s actually better for you. It’s got a brighter future. For you, it’s more exciting, it’s more interesting, maybe it’s safer.
I don’t mean to put it so crudely as to say that it just needs to be rebranding, but I do think the public really doesn’t understand a lot about services, certainly services trade. And a lot of that just comes back to data. Trade in goods is something that we have really amazing data for, and we can track and see and measure really, really precisely, whereas trade in services, you’ve done an amazing job at McKinsey over the years trying to shed increasing light on that, trying to explain through data what’s actually been happening.
For the broader public, it’s much harder for them to see it. And until we can make the case with them through data, that may continue.
Janet Bush: I cannot stop talking to you without mentioning your podcast. You have a Trade Talks fleece on, and it makes me jealous because I want a Forward Thinking one. But tell me, why did you start your podcast and what do you love about it?
Chad P. Bown: There were essentially three reasons why Soumaya Keynes and I started the Trade Talks podcast back in 2017. For anybody who doesn’t know her, she’s a journalist and a writer at The Economist.
We started it, at the time, partially because this was the height of the trade war, or the beginnings of the ramp-up of the trade war, I guess I should say. And one, I personally needed something to kind of get my creative juices out when there was so much negative stuff happening in my world, so much really bad trade policy stuff that was happening. A podcast was a way to be creative and sort of positive.
Second was actually pure efficiency. There was so much going on at that moment in time. I work at a think tank, and part of your job at a think tank is to explain to the public what’s happening. And explaining to the public oftentimes means speaking with journalists and explaining things to them. And what the Trump administration was doing was so new and so different, there was so much explaining that had to happen, I literally could’ve spent ten hours every day with different journalists explaining what was going on. And so I thought a more efficient way to do that would be to do it once a week as a podcast.
But then the third thing, honestly, was Soumaya. She is absolutely just amazing, and she really taught me everything that I know about podcasting. And unfortunately, a year ago she had to stop doing Trade Talks with me. Her beat at The Economist shifted. She now covers the British economy, no longer covers trade. So I’m off doing it by myself. But hopefully I’ve been able to take some of the lessons that she taught me over our years together and have continued to do a reasonably OK job trying to explain trade to the world.
Janet Bush: What would you have done if you hadn’t been an economist and a trade economist?
Chad P. Bown: Wow. I’ve wanted to be a trade economist for so long that I honestly haven’t thought about that question. Honestly, trade is—unfortunately for my wife, certainly—kind of all I think about. And I think about it way too much, but it just fascinates me to such a great extent that I have a hard time thinking about anything else.
I wanted to be a professional basketball player when I was in high school, and that was probably the last time I ever thought about a career outside of being a trade economist. And I imagined myself playing for the Boston Celtics—you know, with Larry Bird. I have the height. I’m relatively, awkwardly, geekily tall, but unfortunately none of the rest of the skills that you need to actually be able to play basketball effectively.
Janet Bush: And finally, if you had one piece of advice for the listeners to our podcast, what would it be?
Chad P. Bown: Never forget that trade is super complicated, and please don’t try to oversimplify it. Trade is nuanced. There are hugely positive things associated with trade, but there also are negative things associated with trade, and unintended consequences.
Any positive trade and any policy change has winners and losers. I think as trade geeks, we lose credibility when we only talk about the positive, the upside parts of trade. And I understand why we do it. There’s so much negativity about trade that sometimes we feel as though we need to overdo it. But in the long run, that ends up hurting us and our credibility. And I think it’s better for us to be honest and really to explain to the world that, indeed, trade is complicated.
Janet Bush: Well, thanks very much, Chad. It’s been absolutely fascinating—and what a time to speak to a leading trade economist. Thank you so much.
Chad P. Bown: Thanks for having me.