Imagine the Chinese government decides to help the people of Kenya. To do this the Chinese government buys 5,000 wheeled loaders and excavators from Liugong Machinery and gives them for free to the Kenyan government, Kenyan construction firms, and groups of Kenyan citizens who want to build roads and stuff.

(Real world export subsidies are much smaller, of course, but the principle is the same. Foreign customers of a domestic exporter get taxpayer-subsidized discounts, not totally free stuff.)

Who wins? Kenyan customers and Liugong’s owners and employees, who now have a huge increase in demand for their product.

Who loses? Chinese taxpayers, who must foot the bill, and the owners and employees of Liugong’s Chinese and foreign competitors, who don’t have this generous taxpayer-subsidized benefit and can’t possibly compete with free.

Now let’s journey to America to meet an (imaginary) executive from Caterpillar, an American firm competing with Liugong to sell wheeled loaders and excavators to Kenyans. Caterpillar can’t give their product away, they need to sell it. This executive goes to a U.S. policymaker and asks for a similar export subsidy to what Liugong received from the Chinese government.

Imaginary Caterpillar executive: “Caterpillar is losing business in Kenya to our Chinese competitor Liugong. The Chinese government buys equipment from Liugong and gives it to Kenya. The U.S. government needs to do the same for us. If they don’t we’ll completely lose the Kenyan market to the Chinese. American taxpayers need to put up money to buy Caterpillar wheeled loaders and excavators and then give that machinery to Kenyans. If you don’t, we’ll lose that export business and American jobs.”

American policymaker: “Let me get this straight. We should take money from American taxpayers, use it to buy equipment from your company, and then give that equipment to the Kenyans, all because the Chinese are doing the same thing with your competitor?”

Cat exec: “I agree it sounds silly, but if you don’t do this we’ll lose American jobs. It would be better if neither China nor the U.S. did this, but as long as the Chinese do, you have to as well. Unless you want to put America at a competitive disadvantage and lose the Kenyan heavy equipment market…”

American policymaker: “There’s a difference between what’s good for America and what’s good for one firm in America. China’s policy puts one American company (yours) at a tremendous disadvantage in winning business in one foreign market. I feel bad about that, but I’m not sure the solution you propose makes things better for America as a whole. For instance, while I like Kenya, aren’t you asking me to have American taxpayers subsidize your Kenyan customers? That’s not my policy goal. If I wanted to help Caterpillar owners and employees, wouldn’t it be more efficient to just have the U.S. government write a check to Caterpillar? That way we wouldn’t dilute the help by giving most of it to foreigners.”

Cat exec: “Yes, that would be more efficient, but we both know there’s no way you could sell that to Congress or the American public.”

American policymaker: “So you want me to support a less efficient policy because the more efficient one would be unpopular. What about your American competitor John Deere? Wouldn’t I be giving you an unfair advantage over them?”

Cat exec: “Well, technically, yes, but…”

American policymaker: “Technically nothing. You’re asking me replace one tilted playing field with another. And what if China decides to do the same thing for the Rwandans? Do I have to match those subsidies as well?”

Cat exec: “Unless you want us to lose that business, sure…”

American policymaker: “What if Liugong got its subsidy from the Chinese government through less-than-noble means? What if a Liugong executive’s brother-in-law’s cousin is the guy who works for the key Chinese decision-maker? Are you saying that U.S. taxpayers should target American subsidies for American firms to match foreign subsidies determined by cronyism in a foreign government? Is that right? Where does it end?”

Cat exec: “Well, when you put it that way it doesn’t sound quite as attractive. But surely you don’t want America to unilaterally disarm.”

American policymaker: “Sorry, but I don’t buy your ‘disarmament’ analogy. China’s export subsidies of Liugong don’t only hurt Caterpillar, they also hurt Chinese taxpayers and Liugong’s Chinese competitors. They distort decisions and redistribute economic resources in China in ways that make their economy less efficient. While they undoubtedly help Liugong’s owners and employees, China’s export subsidies harm other parts of the Chinese economy. You’re asking me in turn to help your firm’s owners and employees at the expense of American taxpayers and the owners and employees of your American competitors. I don’t see why I should replicate their mistake here, even the alternative is that your firm loses the Kenyan market to Chinese subsidies. Seems to me the alternative you propose is better for Caterpillar but worse for America as a whole. A better analogy would be if you said I should not quit smoking until all my friends also quit. I should quit smoking if it’s healthier for me even if my friends continue to smoke. If China wants to harm itself, there’s no reason I should do the same just to match their mistake.”

Cat exec: “And therefore you’re going to force Caterpillar to compete on an unlevel playing field with Liugong. You’ll be responsible for the layoffs at Caterpillar that result because you refused to help us.”

American policymaker: “The alternative is that you want me to force American taxpayers to subsidize foreign consumers and the owners and employees of one American firm, and to create a new titled playing field at the expense of the owners and employees of your American competitors, based in part upon decisions made in foreign capitals that may have been determined by cronyism. You agree that this policy is less efficient than one that would be unpopular in the U.S., and you’re advocating this one because you think you can disguise that it’s a worse policy. No thank you.”

Cat exec: “How about if, rather than buying the equipment in total, you just give us a partial taxpayer subsidy? We can make it either a direct subsidy or a taxpayer-backed loan guarantee, and we can do it through the government run Export-Import Bank. That way nobody will understand it.”

My view

The U.S. government should not engage in industrial policy, choosing to help certain American firms and thereby indirectly punishing other American firms. Government should not be picking winners and losers.

American taxpayers should not be subsidizing any particular subset of American business owners and/or workers. American taxpayers should also not be subsidizing foreigners, even when they are foreign consumers of American exports.

Export subsidies are bad policy. Even when well-intentioned and designed to “level the playing field” to match other countries’ export subsidies, they create other tilted playing fields and do more harm to the economy as a whole than the problem they purport to solve for one firm. They also create opportunities for cronyism and other forms of influence-based rent-seeking.

Deep and liquid private credit markets exist today that did not exist when the Export-Import Bank was created in the 1930s. Ex-Im’s primary function now is to pass though implicit taxpayer subsidies to a select group of American firms.

Export subsidies should be eliminated and the Ex-Im Bank should be killed. Export credit finance should be done, without subsidies, by private markets.