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Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Exporting and Importing at the University

Politician's nostrums for the “national household” are a product of the mental sloth that always ensues when people spend other people’s money for the supposed benefit of someone else.

I’ve been an economics professor at public universities for going on 40 years—the last 30 at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. In the parlance of economics, this means I’ve been a long-time “exporter” of economics knowledge. Those paying my salary—students, parents, and taxpayers—have been “importers.” Students and parents import voluntarily. Taxpayers less than voluntarily.

Considerable effort goes into these exports. Noble and self-sacrificing on my part? Hardly. Rather, economics exports are a means to an end for me, a self-serving end no less. To wit, my exports enable me to buy—that is, import—things produced by others. An amazing array of things. Things ranging from life-sustaining necessities to frivolous amenities (including leisure activities). Far more of these things, in fact, than I could ever obtain were I producing them myself. The bottom line is that I export in order to import.

Many of my university colleagues, especially liberal arts/humanities professors, indignantly object to an export-to-import description of their efforts. Not surprising. Universities abound with folks whose avocation, if not part-time occupation, is parading their above-the-economic-fray demeanors. Export in order to import? Mercy, that smacks of commercialism, and we’re above that, say these self-styled pillars of economic piety.

If cornered into explaining their motivation, these piety pillars wrap themselves in platitudes such as, “I do what I do for the joy of watching young minds develop” or “The affirmation that comes from pushing back the frontiers of knowledge is what motivates me.” Export/import terminology only applies to them, they intone, if you label them importers of “joy” and “affirmation.”

While high sounding, such labels are disingenuous, if not stupid. Take away these folks’ imported housing, clothing, food, medical care, entertainment, education, along with the countless other things that go into living, and they’re ill-housed, ill-clad, and ill-fed—if not dead—professors. Again, the benefits people reap from the marketplace appear when they import things produced by others. Only workaholics see intrinsic value in their exports.

Does this have implications for “national households”? You bet, even though nations are not literal households. A “national household’s” economic activity is nothing more than a summary of the actions of its residents, each responding to the incentives he or she faces. The question here is whether the foregoing applies with equal force to export/import activity between members of different “national households.” The answer, again, is: most assuredly. Or as Adam Smith put it in his 1776 classic, The Wealth of Nations: “What is prudence in the conduct of every private family, can scarce be folly in that of a great kingdom.”

What a “national household” exports corresponds to what its citizens give up in order to import things of greater value from their counterparts in other “national households.” U.S. soybean exports to China, for example, represent forsaken animal feed (meat) for Americans. The exports are worth the forgone meat to the extent they make it possible for Americans to buy yet-more-valuable Chinese-produced goods, say, umbrellas. The worst-case scenario for Americans, in fact, would be exporting without importing—in the soybean case, less meat and no umbrellas.

Connecting the Dots

Unfortunately, pundits and politicians never connect the dots between personal households, including their own, and the “national household.” The result is a business and political culture saturated with advocacy of national workaholism—extolling exports and damning imports. Who hasn’t heard pundit/politician sloganeering about how exports are “good” and imports are “bad?” You know, exports “create” and imports “destroy” jobs? Ditto for imports being “dumped” on Americans or likening imports to “invading foreign armies.” Tracing low-priced imports to “tilted economic playing fields” is another slogan.

But the quintessential connect-the-dot failure, at least to my thinking, is how the pundit/political class describes international negotiations ostensibly designed to increase international trade. To wit, actions that increase Americans’ access to imports are labeled U.S. negotiating “concessions.” That is, permitting Americans to import more is a bargaining chip to secure comparable foreign “concessions” for U.S. exports. That’s like my reluctantly accepting the housing, food, and clothing that my economics exports make possible. Make sense? Yeah, if you’re a workaholic.

So whom should we believe—pundit/politicians at home or pundit/politicians in the public square? At home these opinion makers export in order to import, while suggesting the “national household” imports in order to export. My fifth-grade teacher used to scold me about my actions speaking so loudly that she couldn’t hear what I was saying. The same applies to pundit/politicians. Look at what they do at home. After all, that’s where their own living standards are on the line, a consideration long noted for focusing attention on essentials. Their nostrums for the “national household” are a product of the mental sloth that always ensues when people spend other people’s money for the supposed benefit of someone else.

  • T. Norman Van Cott, professor of economics, received his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 1969. Before joining Ball State in 1977, he taught at University of New Mexico (1968-1972) and West Georgia College (1972-1977). He was the department chairperson from 1985 to 1999. His fields of interest include microeconomic theory, public finance, and international economics. Van Cott's current research is the economics of constitutions.