Hey G-20! Here’s How You Curb Protectionism

Last week I recommended reading a new paper published by the Lowy Institute in Australia, which proposes an utterly sensible reform for the G-20, if curbing protectionism is a serious aim.

Using Australia’s own successful experience as an example, the authors recommend other countries adopt “domestic transparency” programs, which would essentially include analysis from an independent, apolitical board or agency that measures the real costs and benefits of proposed trade restrictions.

The findings of these independent reviews would be accessible to the public—and probably published in newspapers and other popular media—in advance of any decision to impose or reject the proposed trade restrictions. The findings wouldn’t legally bind the authorities to take any particular action, but would help chase from the shadows the real costs of protectionism, so that those ultimately making the decision know that the public at large is aware of the costs.

When a politician knows that he/she can benefit politically by imposing import duties, the costs of which are hidden in higher prices paid by consumers, who are unlikely to make the causal connection, there is a profound asymmetry of incentives and disincentives. The politician is much more likely to choose to secure the political benefit of imposing duties since the costs are hidden. But if light is shone on those costs, through domestic transparency initiatives, that asymmetry is reduced or eliminated. Politicians, under these circumstances, can go back to the special interests and say how much they’d like to help out with a tariff, but the costs don’t justify the measure. And the protection-seekers know the politician’s hands are tied because the public is aware of those costs.

Well, Alan Mitchell of the Australian Financial Review on Monday supposed how the presence of a domestic transparency regime would have affected President Obama’s tire tariff decision. It is very instructive:

The case of the Chinese tyres provides a striking example. The action was taken under a section of the US Trade Act popularly known as the “China-specific safeguard” provision. The act allows increased import duties if the imports cause, or even just threaten, material injury to US producers. If material injury is identified, the president must take action against the imports unless he determines that the “provision of such relief is not in the national economic interest.”

 The US International Trade Commission (ITC) publicly advises the president on the issue of material injury, and on the level of trade barriers needed to stop it, but not on the question of the national economic interest.

The president is left to determine that for himself. And the public is aware of nothing but the ITC-endorsed case for protection….

Suppose the ITC had been asked to also publicly advise the President on whether action against Chinese tyres was in the national economic interest. There is no doubt about what its advice would have been. The duties on Chinese tyres will save some jobs among US producers of low-cost tyres, but at the price of propping up uneconomic producers, and at the cost of jobs lost among US tyre retailers and in other sectors of the economy….

Had the ITC advised that action was against the national economic interest, the President would have been in a much stronger position to reject the demand, if he had wanted to. He may not have wanted to, of course….

The US action against Chinese tyres was initiated by a complaint from the unions that are an important part of Obama’s support base. But even if Obama had protected the tyre makers against the advice of the ITC, an important blow still would have been struck against protectionism. The American people would have heard the truth from an unimpeachable source: the protection of inefficient tyre makers is against the US economic interest….

It would have been a small but important step towards educating and changing public opinion. And, without that, multilateral trade reform will never gain the domestic political support it needs to bring down trade barriers in agriculture and services.

This is what could have been had ”domestic transparency” already been embraced in the United States.  See the point in such a reform?