The Mutual Benefits of Free Trade Explained by an Austin Dinner Party

Meet David and Peter, roommates living on the outskirts of Austin, TX.

David is a software engineer working at a bitcoin startup with an efficiency obsession. He’s built voice-activated mindstorm robots to automate virtually every home task. His bedroom looks like the opening sequence in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. As he leaves each morning, he gives three ritual taps to an engraved plaque which reads “PTF? GTD!” Translation: “The Path to Fun? Get Things Done!”

Peter, a vocal locavore, works at home selling organic produce from their backyard semi-urban garden. “If you only sell and never buy, in a bed of cash you’ll happily die” is Peter’s creepy bumper sticker motto on wealth. Technically, it’s a sticker on his old bike, because Peter really does try to live by this mercantile mantra. Peter happily toils away 80 hours a week keeping his little garden growing and selling its fruits through the Austin CSA.

Tonight is a big night.

Tim Harris, productivity guru and author of acclaimed book The 1 Hour Work Day is coming over for David and Peter’s traditional Saturday dinner party. David met Tim, his hero, at a work event and the two, of course, hit it off. Typically, the dinner is made entirely from Peter’s garden; but tonight, David wants to lay out an extra special spread. Peter’s produce is great, but the variety is limited by the size of the garden, the types of produce that will grow in Austin’s climate, and Peter’s skill as a young farmer.

David snaps awake Saturday morning from the sound of Peter’s garden rooster crowing. “Alexa, it’s coffee time!” he shouts, triggering his API-powered LEGO contraption to come to life. The exact amount of fresh beans needed for one 24 oz serving is released into a grinder, which then dumps the perfectly ground, medium roast into a custom french press, mixing with hot water piped from a push-button hot/cold water filter. The coffee steeps then presses as David finishes getting dressed, and is poured into his Klean Kanteen just as he’s ready to leave for Whole Foods.

Heading for the door, David is stopped by a still-groggy Peter, wearing his homemade robe and nursing some homemade “Herba Mate” (Yerba only grows south of the border): “off you go to steal my job and impoverish our house…”

“What?!?” David replies.

Peter continues, “Look man, I’m slaving away to grow our own food. When you buy it from the grocery store, it’s not fair. I can’t compete with their prices! Besides, all you’re doing is making that company rich, giving them all of your money when you could be keeping it at home like I do.”

David shoots back: “But the whole point of me working to earn money is so that I can spend it on the things I want. I can’t eat money. But those Mexican avocados? Yum. Dinner is at 5. To be continued, okay?”

“Fine…traitor,” Peter mutters, only half in jest.

A few hours later, David and Peter are prepping dinner. While Peter roasts tomatoes for a homemade sauce, David is whipping up some guacamole.

“About the whole ‘traitor’ thing earlier…” Peter starts.

David cuts him off: “No problem. I get it. I see how hard you work in that garden.”

“It’s not just about my job. I’m just trying to protect our whole community, you know? Maybe it’s not efficient in that Harvard MBA kinda way, but being self-sufficient means we don’t have to rely on other states or other countries to provide for us. We get to keep our money in the community.”

Before David can reply, the doorbell rings. It’s Tim Harris and a few other guests.

As the group sits around the table, Peter serves up the cavatelli. “Wait ‘til you try his cavis, Tim. They’re out of this world!” says a guest. Peter beams. “I rolled them this morning. Sauce?” Tim nods as Peter ladles a full cup of sauce onto his plate. He digs in and is not disappointed.

“So Tim, perhaps you can help us settle a little debate Peter and I were having earlier,” David begins. “Peter believes that the path to wealth is being self-sufficient: doing as much yourself as possible; selling your surplus and keeping the proceeds.”

“You buy, you die!” Peter clarifies.

“I, on the other hand, love all variety of options you get at the store. I can get virtually any product, regardless of the season, at an affordable price. If I had to grow all of this food, we wouldn’t have half of what we’re eating tonight and I wouldn’t have the time to be a software engineer either. The whole point of having a job is so I can buy the things I want. And trust me, I’m a much better programmer than farmer. These thumbs were meant for typing.”

Tim takes a moment to finish his pasta. “The sauce is amazing, Peter. I can see why you love what you do.” Peter nods in thanks. “But, is it really fair to expect David to give up his dreams so that you can pursue yours?”

Peter’s smile recedes as he mulls that over.

“I just feel like some things need to be protected.”

Peter continues: “Some jobs are too important. Like growing food, or producing steel. If everyone went to the grocery store and bought imported food, there’d be no farmers left. Where would that leave us?”

“Rich!” Tim replies. “If you go back in history, most people worked in agriculture—and so did their kids, from an early age. In fact, one of the main reasons people had large families was to have more help on the family farm. And despite that, many families struggled to have enough food to eat. Farmers were one bad season away from bankruptcy, or even starvation. Self sufficiency doesn’t make you strong. It makes you vulnerable.”

“But that’s not true today. There’s plenty of food!” One of the guests observes.

“Right, that’s because we outsourced food production,” Tim explains. “Less than 2% of Americans work in agriculture today—mostly due to tractors, combines and automation—but also due to international trade. Virtually every American ‘outsources’ their food to the grocery store. We all run a trade deficit with the supermarket. And as a result, each of us is freed to pursue other things, like software engineering, or teaching, or medicine, or you name it.”

David adds: “I make much more money as a software developer than I ever could trying to grow my own food.”

Peter is incensed. “But I suck at math. Always have. But I love to farm. Am I supposed to sacrifice my love to the god of global trade?”

Tim turns to Peter and asks, “are you making a living?”

“Well, yes.”

“And how much do you charge for these tomatoes at the farmer’s market?”

“About $5 per pound. But that’s because they’re heirloom!” Peter says defensively.

“And people buy them, right? Because they’re delicious.” Tim says warmly. “And because your customers, most of whom don’t farm, have the extra money to spend. They have that money precisely because, like David, they’re working in jobs where they are more productive, which means there’s more of everything else to go around.”

“Not everyone has a green thumb.”

Tim goes on: “Some thumbs are meant for wielding a hammer. Some a paintbrush. Some a scalpel. And some thumbs, like David’s, are meant for the spacebar. Each of us has unique skills and capabilities. The only way we get to explore them and expand the endless possibilities of our own potential, and the goods and services we all have access to, is to outsource what we’re not good at doing so that we have the time and energy to find what we’re great at. And clearly, Peter, you’re great at fresh arrabiata.”

One of the guests, Jennifer, takes exception. “Yeah, that’s all well and good, Tim. But I’ve seen the downside of free trade. My dad worked at Bethlehem Steel and was totally devastated when he lost his job in the 90s as the company was going bankrupt. He was in his 50s. He was never the same. All thanks to lower prices from foreign steel.”

Tim nods empathetically. “I’m sorry. That really sucks.”

“Thanks,” Jennifer replies.

“May I ask what you do for a living, Jennifer?”

“I have my own company buying digital ads for small businesses. I sometimes drive Uber on the side”.

“Do you love what you do?”

“I do actually. I feel like I’m designing my own life, warts and all.”

“And is your dad proud of you?”

“Definitely.”

“I bet he’d do anything for his daughter.”

“No question about it.”

“Neither of your jobs existed 10 years ago.”

“And in pre-internet 1990, Jennifer, they’d have sounded like utter nonsense. Yet if I told your dad that the same global competition that lead Bethlehem steel to go under was also essential to the development of new industries that would eventually employ his daughter…do you think he’d have sacrificed your future career for protection of his present job?”

Jennifer only needs one second to mull that over. “No. He’d do it all over again. He’d take a pay cut at a new job with a boss half his age so that he could put me through school. Because that’s what he did.”

David nods. “I’ve met Jen’s dad. He’s amazing.”

“Clearly,” Tim says. “Look, this stuff is hard because change is hard.”

“Trying to protect us from competition doesn’t make us safer or wealthier or happier.”

“And there’s no guarantee it saves the jobs people think they’re protecting, even as it eliminates countless others in the process. Work is an important source of purpose for all of us. But the real satisfaction of work comes from getting the job done. That’s the point. The job isn’t an end to itself, it’s a means to an end. We don’t live to work, right? We work to live.”

The whole table takes in that last idea. Peter steps in with dessert: “homemade cannoli anyone?”

As everyone’s leaving, Peter hands Tim his jacket. “Very interesting conversation, Tim. You gave me a lot to think about.”

Tim replies with a sly smile. “You got to hear me blather, and in return I got to enjoy your cooking. I’d say I won in that deal.” Peter grins and replies, “I’d say it was a mutual gain.”

David washes the dishes as Peter clears the table. “How about Jen’s dad? I didn’t realize what a hard time their family had. It’s easy to forget the human story when you’re obsessed with efficiency.” Peter agrees and adds: “Yeah. And I never considered all the unintended consequences from trying to protect certain jobs from competition.”

“…and done,” David says as he shuts off the sink and puts the last dish away.

Peter shoots back with a smirk: “Thanks, man. That’s one less job for me to do! Maybe we can finally agree on buying a dishwasher?”

David responds, “one step at a time, buddy.”

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