Tag: competition

Getting Serious about Antidumping Reform in 2011

The U.S. antidumping law still enjoys broad bipartisan support in Congress and within pockets of the executive branch. Although some of that support can be chalked up to politicians representing the narrow interests of influential constituencies that have mastered the use of antidumping as a bludgeon to cripple the competition, much more support stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose, history, mechanics, and consequences of the law.

Too many policymakers passively accept the anachronistic rationalizations proffered by the steel industry, labor unions, other big antidumping users, and their hired guns in Washington. Too many buy into the idealized imagery of a patriotic, upstanding American producer working tirelessly to ensure the preservation of well-paying jobs for hard-working Americans, but is suffering the ravages of unscrupulous, predatory foreign traders intent on destroying U.S. firms and monopolizing the U.S. market. What politician could oppose a law presumed to protect that kind of a company against that kind of a scourge?

But when the curtain is peeled back, exposing the reality of the operation of the U.S. antidumping law, one discerns a very different reality.  Antidumping measures always raise the costs of firms in downstream industries that rely on the affected imports.  The law routinely claims domestic firms as victims.  The law is often used as a tool by domestic firms waging battle for supremacy over other domestic firms.  Sometimes foreign-owned firms are the petitioners and U.S-owned firms are the respondents.  Rarely does the law lead to job creation or job restoration in the domestic industry.  And never is the allegation of “unfair trade” substantiated, or even investigated.  Myth and misinformation explains the persistence of the U.S. antidumping regime.

Over the next few months, the Cato Institute’s Center for Trade Policy Studies will shine the spotlight on  U.S. antidumping policy and update its large body of research on the subject by publishing some new papers and hosting discussions about the prospects for meaningful antidumping reform. The new Congress should pay attention.  After all, if renewed talk about completing the Doha Round in 2011 is to become action, so must antidumping reform.

The first of those studies is now available on the Cato home page. That paper describes the evolution of U.S. antidumping policy from an obscure offshoot of competition law into the predominant instrument of contingent protection that it is today and provides an account of some of the crucial statutory and administrative changes that have occurred over the decades. Its purpose is to demonstrate that the increase in antidumping activity reflects several developments that have nothing to do with foreign behavior whatsoever, including a progressive expansion of the definition of dumping, relaxation of evidentiary standards, and a pro-domestic-industry bias in the law’s administration at the U.S. Department of Commerce. The arcane mix of statutory rules and discretionary whims that emerged as contemporary antidumping policy is a far cry from the first antidumping law—in practice and intent. Today, antidumping is little more than an elaborate excuse for run-of-the-mill protectionism. And overwhelmingly, U.S. businesses and consumers are its victims.

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Postmaster General Stepping Down

Postmaster General John Potter has announced that he is stepping down. The Washington Post speculates on the reason for Potter’s departure:

It is not immediately clear why Potter decided to step down, though USPS staffers and others in the postal community – a wide fraternity including the shipping industry, labor unions and large retailers – signaled recently that he was likely to go after another record year of financial losses and failing to earn greater management flexibilities from Congress.

When Potter testified before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing in March on the USPS’s desire to drop Saturday delivery, I noted that his comments indicated the need to privatize the U.S. Postal Service.

In his testimony, Potter stated:

If the Postal Service were provided with the flexibilities used by businesses in the marketplace to streamline their operations and reduce costs, we would become a more efficient and effective organization. Such a change would also allow us to more quickly adapt to meet the evolving needs, demands, and activities of our customers, now and in the future.

Of course, Congress has shown virtually no interest in giving the USPS, which is bleeding red ink, the greater flexibility it needs. This makes me wonder if Potter will reach the same conclusion that his predecessor, William Henderson, reached following his departure from the USPS.

Three short months after Henderson stepped down as postmaster general in June 2001, he penned an op-ed in the Washington Post that called for the USPS to be privatized.

Henderson wrote:

But for all the ways in which the Postal Service already resembles a private company, it lacks the advantages of any other corporation, such as being able to turn on a dime when it comes to rate changes, perhaps raising prices at times of high demand and lowering prices to entice customers during traditionally slow times, which for the Postal Service means summer. Today, a price change requires the permission of the Postal Rate Commission – a yearlong process.

And unlike a private company, the Postal Service has a universal service obligation, meaning it must deliver everywhere, six days a week, at a regularly scheduled time, making the delivery even for a single piece of mail, which is not cost-effective. And it means delivering in the Grand Canyon and in rural Alaska and in high-risk neighborhoods and lots of other places where delivery is not cost-effective.

The trade-off is that the Postal Service gets monopoly protection; no private company is allowed to compete with it head to head by carrying letter mail or using the mailbox. It should give up that protection for the greater benefits of privatization.

Henderson’s conclusion still rings true almost ten years later:

I can’t believe that 25 years from now the Postal Service will still be owned by the federal government. But the point is that, as with any government asset, this one needs to be maximized. And that means we need to free ourselves from the usual discussion about controlling costs or keeping rates stable or mailing more, all of which is simply a form of denial about the real issue. The model itself is not going to work for the long haul: It must be changed.

Unfortunately, Congress is still in denial. In commenting on Potter’s departure, Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) offered the vacuous statement that his successor “must strengthen the Postal Service by cutting costs, enticing more customers and putting this vital institution on a sound financial footing.” Instead, Sen. Collins and her colleagues need to recognize that the USPS model “is not going to work for the long haul” so long as politicians ultimately remain in charge.

Would the Schools Work Better If They Outlawed All Competitors?

In the Washington Post, columnist Courtland Milloy praises the “profound egalitarian insights” and “radical oneness” of D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee (and billionaire Warren Buffett):

“I believe we can solve the problems of urban education in our lifetimes and actualize education’s power to reverse generational poverty,” Rhee wrote. “But I am learning that it is a radical concept to even suggest this. Warren Buffett [the billionaire investor] framed the problem for me once in a way that clarified how basic our most stubborn obstacles are. He said it would be easy to solve today’s problems in urban education. ‘Make private schools illegal,’ he said, ‘and assign every child to a public school by random lottery.’ “

Milloy’s not satisfied that Rhee is taking on entrenched interests, firing principals and teachers who aren’t doing a good job, and apparently actually improving the schools in the District of Columbia. No, he’s attracted to the “radical concept” of outlawing private schools and forcing everyone in the District into the same schools, with no hope of escape. There would be one method of escape, of course: moving to the suburbs.  And you can bet that lots more people would do that if Milloy and Rhee got their way.

I wonder what a total government monopoly on education would look like. Are Buffett and Rhee right that a government monopoly forced on every citizen would work well? Would work so well that it would “solve the problems of urban education … and reverse generational poverty”?

Well, one answer might be glimpsed on the same page B3 where part of Milloy’s column appeared. In an adjacent column, columnist John Kelly discussed his “Kafkaesque” five-hour visit to the state of Maryland’s Motor Vehicle Administration:

I was at the MVA. I was in Hell.

I know that complaining about the MVA or the DMV is the last refuge of a scoundrel columnist, but I don’t care. You don’t know what it was like. You weren’t there, man. I spent five hours at the Beltsville MVA on Thursday. Five hours. I could have driven to New York in that time….

I thought: Can this really be happening? Can I really have stepped into a Kafka story? Shouldn’t every counter be filled with employees working as fast as possible? Shouldn’t management be out there helping, and Maryland state troopers, too? This is the Katrina of waiting, people.

The MVA, of course, is a monopoly government bureaucracy. Everyone must go there – CEOs, diplomats, even Washington Post columnists. And yet, somehow, that has not led to the MVA equivalent of solving problems and reversing poverty. Five hours to get a drivers’ license just might be worse performance than that of the public schools.

It’s the system, Mr. Milloy and Ms. Rhee. Monopolies don’t have much incentive to improve. Give everyone the chance to go to a different supplier, and then you’ll see improvement. Giant Food wouldn’t last long if it took five hours to buy your groceries – because it has competitors. But as long as the schools are a near-monopoly, and the MVA or DMV is a total monopoly, don’t expect real improvement.

Well-Worn Ideological Grooves II

The Consumerist relates the story of a potential Verizon customer who grew frustrated with his inability to get its high-speed FiOS Internet service. After resorting to emailing the CEO of the company, his service was promptly installed.

“Verizon is a corporation who cares about their customers and not only about the bottom line,” wrote the newly happy customer.

Now ask yourself: Just how separable are “caring for customers” and “the bottom line”?

It’s interesting that many people’s ideological grooves have these concepts in opposition. But business owners know how much time they spend slavishly trying to please customers—because that affects their bottom lines. When big businesses do it badly, that affects their bottom lines and invites competition.

(Needless to say, the telecommunications area needs more competition, to bring customer service and bottom lines closer together).

See also: Well-Worn Ideological Grooves I

Cell Phones and Ingratitude

When I was a kid in the 1960s and we came back from a visit to my grandmother’s, my mother used to call my grandmother, let the phone ring twice, and then hang up. It was important for my grandmother to know that we’d arrived home safely, but long-distance telephone calls were too expensive to indulge in unnecessarily. When I entered Vanderbilt University in 1971, my parents had to decide whether to pay for a telephone in my dorm room. They decided to do so, but most of the thoroughly upper-middle-class students on my floor did not have phones. Phones cost real money back then. Then came the breakup of the AT&T monopoly in 1984. Phone technology and competitive service provision exploded. In 1982, Motorola produced the first portable mobile phone. It weighed about 2 pounds and cost $3995. Within a very few years they were much smaller, much cheaper, and selling like hotcakes.

Today there are some 4.6 billion mobile phones in the world, and counting, or about 67 per every 100 people in the world. The newer ones allow you to carry in your hand more computing power than the computers that put Apollo 11 on the moon.  You can cruise the internet, find your location with GPS, read books, send texts, pay bills, process credit cards, watch video, record video, stream video to the web, take and send photos – oh, and make phone calls from just about anywhere. Unimaginable just a few years ago.

And to celebrate this incredible achievement, Slate and the New America Foundation are holding a forum titled “Can You Hear Me Now? Why Your Cell Phone is So Terrible.”

This is an old story. Markets, property rights, and the rule of law provide a framework in which technology and prosperity soar, and some people can only complain. I was reading some of Deirdre McCloskey’s forthcoming book Bourgeois Dignity this week. She points out that the average person lived on the equivalent of $3 a day in 1800. Today there are six and a half times as many people, but the average person earns and consumes 10 times as much, far more than that in the most capitalist countries. And yet some people, most leftist intellectuals, continue to ignore what McCloskey calls “the gigantic gains from bourgeois dignity and liberty” and to denounce the markets, economic liberalization, and globalization that have liberated billions of people from eons of back-breaking labor.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of consumer reporting and analysis, which is an important part of a robust marketplace. Competition and consumer reporting both help to keep prices low and quality improving. And there’s plenty of room for criticism of cell phone pricing, contracting, and service. But when a discussion like this is held by a public policy research organization and a public-affairs magazine as part of a program on public policy, then it’s not just consumer advice. It is presumably a discussion of what the sluggish, coercive institution of government can do to improve – or more likely impede – a fabulously dynamic, constantly improving consumer-directed industry. And that usually ends in tears.

Maybe we should hold a forum titled “Can You Hear Me Now? And Watch Me on Video? And Read My Book on Your Handheld Device? And Check Your Blood Pressure and Glucose? How Markets, Innovation, and Entrepreneurs Have Taken Cell Phone Technology from Clunker to Computer in Barely a Generation.”

Massachusetts Treasurer Blasts RomneyCare and, Equivalently, ObamaCare

Massachusetts state treasurer and recent Democrat Timothy Cahill has harsh words for the health plan foisted on his state and the identical plan that President Obama is trying to foist on the nation.  From The Boston Globe:

“If President Obama and the Democrats repeat the mistake of the health insurance reform here in Massachusetts on a national level, they will threaten to wipe out the American economy within four years,” Cahill said in a press conference in his office.

Echoing criticism leveled by congressional Republicans in recent weeks, Cahill said, “It is time for the president, the Democratic leadership, to go back to the drawing board and come up with a new plan that does not threaten to bankrupt this country.”

[T]he state’s health insurance law…Cahill said, “has nearly bankrupted the state.”

Cahill said the law is being sustained only with the help of federal aid, which he suggested that the Obama administration is funneling to Massachusetts to help the president make the case for a similar plan in Congress.

“The real problem is the sucking sound of money that has been going in to pay for this health care reform,” Cahill said. “And I would argue that we’re being propped up so that the federal government and the Obama administration can drive it through” Congress.

Commonwealth Connector, the independent state agency established to help residents find the health insurance, has “totally failed,” to create competition and connect people with affordable insurance, Cahill said, pointing out that 68 percent of the residents it serves receive subsidized care.

“We haven’t done anything about driving down costs,” Cahill said. “We haven’t helped small business. We haven’t changed the way we pay for health care and the way we deliver it.”…

Asked for solutions today, Cahill said he would seek to “level the playing field” between hospitals that charge different rates for similar procedures, seek to increase competition by allowing health insurance companies plans to sell plans across state lines, and would slash benefits mandated under state law.

For more on the Massachusetts health plan, see “The Massachusetts Health Plan: Much Pain, Little Gain.”

The Standards Themselves Are, Frankly, Irrelevant

Three days ago I reported that draft, grade-by-grade, national curricular standards would soon be released by the Common Core State Standards Initiative. Yesterday, they were. (If you want to get a sense for what the proposed standards are follow the link to them. Don’t bother with the appendices, though, unless you really want to get into the weeds.)

Naturally, in the coming days lots of people will be offering heaps of commentary about what the standards do or do not contain. That’s not my main concern (though reading through the English standards I am dubious that mastery of them could be easily or consistently assessed). You see, the content of the standards is largely irrelevant because the main problem isn’t what the standards are, but standardization itself.

As I’ve blathered about on numerous occasions, it makes little sense to expect all kids to master all the same things at the same rates. All kids are different – they have different talents, desires, and abilities – and to impose one, “best” progression on them is simply illogical.

Another problem with imposing a single standard nationwide – and yes, this will be imposed, unless states suddenly decide they don’t like getting their citizen’s tax dollars back from Uncle Sam – is that it prevents competition between curricula. And that, in turn, kills innovation, the lifeblood of progress. So unless these standards have achieved perfection – and I’m pretty sure they haven’t – it’s a very dangerous thing to make them the end-all and be-all.

Finally, no matter how brilliant the draft standards, there is no reason to believe that they will drive meaningful educational improvement. Government schools will still be government schools, and the people employed by them will still have very little incentive to push kids to excellence, and every incentive to game the system to make the standards toothless. And no one yet has offered a decent proposal, other than school-choice supporters, for getting around that very inconvenient, public-schooling truth.

All of these problems help to explain why there is no convincing empirical evidence that national standards drive superior educational outcomes. Unfortunately, most national-standards advocates will talk themselves blue in the face about what’s in the standards, but avoid at all costs the question of whether standardization makes sense in the first place.