Confessions of a Hoosier Exporter-Importer

December 10, 2007

Indiana Writers Group column for Dec. 12 and thereafter (743 words)

by Dr. T. Norman Van Cott

I’ve been an economics professor at public universities going on 40 years, the last 30 at Ball State University in Muncie. In the parlance of economics, this means I’ve been a long-time “exporter” of economic 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, but are they noble and self-sacrificing on my part? Hardly. Economics exports are a means to an end for me, a self-serving end no less. My exports enable me to buy — that is, import — things produced by others. I import an amazing array of things. These things range from life-sustaining necessities to frivolous amenities (including leisure activities). I import 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 such an export-to-import description of their efforts. This is not surprising. Universities abound with folks whose avocation, if not part-time occupation, is parading around with the demeanor of someone above the economic fray. “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 professors wrap themselves in platitudes like “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 and education, along with the countless other things that go into living, and they’re ill-housed, ill-clad and ill-fed professors— 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 what economists call “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 for economists is whether this applies with equal force to export-import activity between members of different national households. The answer, again, is most assuredly yes. Or as Adam Smith put it: "(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.

Unfortunately, our political and opinion leaders rarely connect the dots between personal households, including their own, and these national households. The quintessential connect-the-dot failure is how these folks describe international negotiations ostensibly designed to increase international trade, i.e., actions that increase Americans’ access to imports are labeled U.S. negotiating “concessions.” That is, permitting Americans to import more is only a bargaining chip to secure comparable foreign “concessions” for U.S. exports. That’s like me reluctantly accepting all that housing, food, and clothing that my economics exports as a professor make possible.

So who should we believe — the politicians at home or the politicians in the public square? At home, these folks export in order to import, while suggesting the national household should import 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 politicians and opinion leaders. Look at what they do at home. After all, that’s where their own living standards are on the line (a predicament long known to focus attention on essentials). Their nostrums for the national household, in contrast, 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, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is a professor of economics at Ball State University. Contact him at tnvan_cott@inpolicy.org. A longer version of this article appeared in the quarterly journal of the Foundation for Economic Education.



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