Tag: consumer

Mainstream Media’s Trade Gap

In a post at the Enterprise Blog two days ago, economist Mark Perry deftly parodies a typical mainstream media account of trade protectionism by editing the story in redline to contrast its original presentation with its true significance. I recommend reading the whole thing, but here’s the first paragraph:

WASHINGTON POST (Reuters) - A U.S. trade panel gave final approval on Wednesday to duties taxes ranging from 10 to 16 percent on cost-conscious firms in the U.S. who purchase low-priced Chinese-made steel pipe rather than high-price domestic pipe, in the biggest U.S. trade case to date against China American companies (and their shareholders, employees, and customers) who shop globally for their inputs and find the best value in China.

Perry’s point—and I share his frustration—is that the mainstream media typically fail to convey even a sense of the costs of U.S. protectionism to U.S. interests even though Americans (and non-Americans living in the U.S.) bear the greatest burden of that protectionism. When the U.S. government imposes duties on Chinese steel, it is imposing taxes on U.S. consuming industries, their employees, their shareholders, and their customers.

Considering that more than half of the value of all U.S. imports in a typical year is raw materials and intermediate goods (i.e., inputs for producers operating in the United States, who employ people, transact with other businesses, and pay taxes in the United States), the number of U.S. victims of U.S. import taxes is much larger than one can ever glean from a typical media account. Taxes on Chinese-made ”Oil Country Tubular Goods” or OCTG (the subject in the article Perry edits), which are used for oil exploration and transport, will raise costs in the energy industry, which are likely to be passed onto consumers in the form of higher energy prices.

As described in this paper, trade is no longer a competition between “Us and Them.” There is competition between entities that—because of the proliferation of cross-border investment and transnational production and supply chains—often defy any meaningful national identification. But that competition is preceded by collaboration and cooperation between entities in different countries. The factory floor has broken through its walls and now spans borders and oceans—a fact that renders U.S. workers and workers in other countries complementary in more and more cases, and a fact that amplifies the cost of trade barriers.

But media—chained to the false “Us versus Them” paradigm—describe protectionist policies as actions taken by one national monolith against another, and convey the impression that American readers should be cheering for Team America. It is a worldview that conflates the well-being of “our producers” with some homogenized conception of “the national interest.” It is the same misguided scoreboard mentality that colors reporting of the trade account, where exports are deemed “good” and imports “bad.”  And, it is this simplistic, misleading characterization that, in my opinion, is most responsible for withering public opinion about trade and globalization over the past decade.

I look forward to more of Dr. Perry’s editing projects.

Thursday Links

  • Why Copenhagen is all pain and no gain. Meanwhile, Brookings finds that  “meeting the Waxman-Markey emissions targets would result in a loss of personal consumption from $1 trillion to $2 trillion; GDP would be lower by 2.5 percent by 2050; and there would be 1.7 million fewer jobs.”

Is Trade Policy Obsolete?

That is one of the conclusions in my new paper, “Made on Earth: How Global Economic Integration Renders Trade Policy Obsolete.”

For hundreds of years, trade policy has been premised on the assumptions that exports are good, imports are bad, and the interests of domestic producers are tantamount to the “national interest.” Though that mercantilist worldview has never been accurate, its persistence as a pillar of trade policy into the 21st century is especially confounding given the emergence and proliferation of disaggregated production processes, transnational supply chains, and cross-border investment. Those trends have blurred any meaningful distinctions between “our” producers and “their” producers and speak to a long chain of interdependent economic interests between product conception and consumption.

Still, trade policy places the interests of domestic producers above all else even though the definition of a domestic producer is elusive and even though actions on behalf of producers often harm interests along the product continuum, which include engineers, designers, financiers, processors, assemblers, marketers, shippers, retailers, consumers, and others.

In 2008, foreign nameplate automobile producers, employing American workers, paying American taxes, and supporting American businesses, communities, and charities, accounted for almost half of all U.S. light vehicle production. The largest “U.S.” steel producer, Arcelor-Mittal, is a majority-Indian-owned company with headquarters in Luxembourg and Hong Kong. The largest “German” producer, Thyssen-Krupp, is completing a $3.7 billion green-field investment in steel production facilities in Alabama, which will create an estimated 2,700 jobs in that state.

So, who are “we”? And who are “they”?

Are these foreign-named or –headquartered companies not “our” producers because some of the profits they earn are repatriated or invested in operations outside the United States? If so, then shouldn’t we consider U.S. Steel Corporation, which earned 25 percent of its revenue last year on steel produced in Slovakia and Serbia, and General Motors, which has had success producing and selling cars in China, to be “their” producers? Why should U.S. Steel, General Motors, and the unions that organize workers at those companies dictate the parameters of U.S. trade policy, while Toyota, Thyssen and their non-union workers have no input? Why should trade policy reflect a bias in favor of producers—or worse, particular producers—at all? That bias hurts other interests—both foreign-based and domestic—in the supply chain.

Global commerce isn’t a competition between “us” and “them.” It is instead a competition between entities that defy national identification because of cross-border investment or because the final good or service comprises value added from many different countries. This reality demands openness in both directions, which flies in the face of conventional trade policy wisdom, which seeks to maximize access for domestic producers abroad while minimizing access for foreign producers at home.

It is only for simplicity’s sake that a container full of iPods shipped from China and unloaded in Seattle registers as imports from China. But the fact is that only a few dollars of the $150 cost to produce an iPod is Chinese value-added. The rest is mostly value attributable to Japanese, Korean, Singaporean, Taiwanese, and American components and labor. Then iPods retail for about $300 and most of the mark-up accrues to Apple, which uses the profits to support innovation and higher paying jobs in the United States.

From a trade policy perspective, each iPod imported from China adds $150 to our bilateral deficit in “high tech” goods. It is regarded as a problem to solve. The temptation is to restrict.

But from a commercial perspective, each imported iPod supports U.S. economic activity up the value chain. Without access to lower-cost labor abroad—if rudimentary component manufacturing and assembly operations were required to take place in the United States—ideas hatched in American labs would be far less likely to make it beyond the white board. Much higher costs would make it far more difficult to create these ubiquitous devices that have, in turn, spawned new ideas and industries.

Essentially, the factory floor has broken through its walls and today spans borders and oceans, making Chinese and American labor complementary in this and many other industries. Yet, despite all of this integration, despite the reliance of producers in the United States and abroad on imported raw materials, components, and capital equipment, trade policy still pretends that access to the domestic market is a favor to grant or a privilege to revoke. Trade policy is officially ignorant of commercial reality.

Openness to trade in both directions is an imperative in the 21st century. Policies that do not try to channel incentives for the benefit of specific groups but rather provide the greatest opportunities for citizens to participate most effectively in our increasingly integrated global economy are the ones that will maximize economic growth and national welfare. People in other countries should be thought of more as customers, suppliers, and potential collaborators instead of competitive threats.

In the 21st century, instead of serving the exclusive interests of domestic producers, trade policy should be about welcoming investment and attracting and cultivating the human capital necessary to make the United States the location of choice for the world’s highest value economic activities.

Ask Consumers if They Like a Weak Dollar

According to a Washington Post story today, “the weak dollar is one problem the United States loves to have.” The story reports how the fall of the dollar against the euro and other currencies in the past year has boosted U.S. exports and discouraged imports, cutting the trade deficit and allegedly boosting the U.S. economy. A weaker dollar has spurred complaints in Europe and elsewhere, but here at home the Post story leaves the impression the approval is practically unanimous.

Nowhere in the 1,058-word story is the impact on consumers ever mentioned. But it is American consumers who pay the biggest price when the dollars we earn buy less on global markets. We are paying more for oil, which not coincidentally has zoomed toward $80 as the dollar flounders. A weaker dollar means higher prices than we would pay otherwise for a range of goods, from imported shoes and clothing to food, that loom large in the budgets of American families struggling to make ends meet in this difficult economy.

Ignoring consumer interests is widespread in reporting about trade. It reflects the strong bias of elected officials to see trade issues strictly through the lens of producers and never consumers. After all, it is producers who form trade groups and hire lobbyists to promote their exports or protect themselves from imports. Nobody in Washington represents the diffused, disorganized but much more numerous 100 million American households.

The dollar’s value should be set by markets, and I have no reason to believe the dollar is over- or undervalued. But pardon me if I dissent from the consensus that a falling dollar is unambiguously good news.

‘Net Neutrality’ Regs: Corporate Interests Do Battle

Some people have labored under the impression that “net neutrality” regulation was about the government stepping in to ensure that large corporations would not control the Internet. Now that the issue is truly joined, it is clear (as exhibited in this Wall Street Journal story) that the debate is about one set of corporate interests battling another set of corporate interests about the Internet, each seeking to protect or strengthen its business model. The FCC is surfing the debate pursuing a greater role for itself, meaning more budget and power.

Tim Lee’s paper, The Durable Internet, dispels the idea that owners of Internet infrastructure can actually control the Internet. The preferred approach to “net neutrality” is to let Internet users decide what they want from their ISPs and let ISPs and content companies do unmediated battle with one another to create and capture the greatest value from the Internet ecosystem.

If the FCC were to reduce its power by freeing up more wireless spectrum—either selling it as property or dedicating it to commons treatment—competition to provide Internet service would strengthen consumers’ hands.

Understanding the Consequences of Internet Regulation

In an effort to achieve “network neutrality” online, the FCC is starting to write new regulations for Internet providers.  Reuters reports:

U.S. communications regulators voted unanimously Thursday to support an open Internet rule that would prevent telecom network operators from barring or blocking content based on the revenue it generates.

The proposed rule now goes to the public for comment until Jan. 14, after which the Federal Communications Commissions will review the feedback and possibly seek more comment. A final rule is not expected until the spring of next year.

Cato Director of Information Policy Studies Jim Harper appeared on Fox News this week to discuss the FCC decision. “This is governmental tinkering with a market place that is working really well and growing right now,” said Harper. “The last thing we need is to cut that off.”

Watch:

There are ways to achieve net neutrality without regulation, says Timothy B. Lee:

An important reason for the Internet’s remarkable growth over the last quarter century is the “end-to-end” principle that networks should confine themselves to transmitting generic packets without worrying about their contents. Not only has this made deployment of internet infrastructure cheap and efficient, but it has created fertile ground for entrepreneurship. On a network that respects the end-to-end principle, prior approval from network owners is not needed to launch new applications, services, or content.

…Like these older regulatory regimes, network neutrality regulations are likely not to achieve their intended aims. Given the need for more competition in the broadband marketplace, policymakers should be especially wary of enacting regulations that could become a barrier to entry for new broadband firms.

Read the whole thing.

Regulation and Competition among Mortgage Brokers

With the House Financial Services Committee moving forward with a bill to increase the regulation of our consumer credit markets, particularly our mortgage market, it is worth asking the question:  what’s the best protection for consumers, regulation or competition?

Let’s take the example of mortgage brokers.  They’ve often been targeted as one  of the causes of the crisis.  The story goes that they just made the loans and passed it along to the lenders and/or Wall Street and so, didn’t care about the quality of the loan.

The response of government, first at the state then the federal level, has been to subject mortgage brokers to increased oversight and licensing, with the intent to keep the “bad actors” out of the marketplace.  How well did this all work out?

According to Professor Morris Kleiner and Minn Fed Economist Richard Todd, not exactly the way you’d want.  What the economists found was that tighter regulation on who can become a mortgage broker is actually associated ”with higher broker earnings, fewer brokers, fewer subprime mortgages, higher foreclosure rates, and a greater percentage of high-interest-rate mortgages.”

It seems the barrier to entry created by these licensing requirements reduced competition in a manner that caused far more harm to consumer than any protections provided by increasing the “quality” of mortgage brokers.