Trade liberalisation is the great unsung hero of the global economy
Some months ago the Wall Street Journal reported that 862 container ships were being broken up in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India. The good news is that this task was being carried out in three poor countries. The bad is that it was happening at all.
These giant vessels have played a major role in one of the great success stories of recent years, enabling production of various goods to be relocated from rich to poor countries. As a result, hundreds of millions of people in China and elsewhere in East Asia have been able to start working themselves out of poverty - so much so that rising wages in some of these countries have caused production to be shifted to even poorer places, such as Vietnam.
Of course, millions in China and elsewhere are still very poor. But whereas more than 88% of Chinese lived below the lowest poverty line in 1981, the proportion today is in single digits. Economic liberalisation in China, combined with the lowering of trade barriers in the US and elsewhere, enabled China to export its way to greater prosperity. The same is true of other countries in Asia.
The turning of the giant container ships into scrap metal symbolises the great risks that now face the global economy thanks to rising protectionist pressures, notably in the US, which has led the global movement towards trade liberalisation since shortly after the end of the Second World War. President Donald Trump's withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership with 11 other nations is a serious blow to their hopes of gaining easier access to the enormous American market. It will probably undermine their attractiveness as locations for companies building factories to export into that market.
Nor is Mr Trump the only protectionist now running a major country. His "buy American" attitude is echoed by the calls of the new French president, Emmanuel Macron, to "buy European".