Tag: economic growth

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.

GAO: Dept. of Ed. Suffers Oversight Deficiencies

A report released today by the federal government’s non-partisan General Accounting Office finds deficits in the Department of Education’s financial and program oversight. According to the GAO, “These shortcomings can lead to weaknesses in program implementation that ultimately result in failure to effectively serve the students, parents, teachers, and administrators those programs were designed to help.”

The GAO’s findings are consistent with the longstanding pattern: for forty years, Americans have steadily increased spending on public schools without any resulting improvement in student performance by the end of high school (see the figures here and here).

The Obama administration has touted its $100 billion in education stimulus spending as a key to long term economic growth. What the data show, however, is that higher spending on public schools over the past two generations has not improved academic outcomes. And economists such as Stanford’s Eric Hanushek have shown that it is improved academic achievement, not higher public school spending, that accelerates economic growth.

So if the administration is serious in wanting education to boost the American economy, it must support reforms that are proven to significantly raise achievement, such as those that bring to bear real market freedoms and incentives – programs like the DC private school choice program that the administration has decided to kill despite its proven effectiveness.

Feds Giveth Jobs & Cars, Then Taketh Away Again

The bad news this morning on the impact of both the federal stimulus and the Cash for Clunkers program should not come as a surprise to anyone who has paid attention to the history of government intervention in the economy.

New data that the jobs created by the stimulus have been overstated by thousands is compelling, but it’s really a secondary issue. The primary issue is that the government cannot “create” anything without hurting something else. To “create” jobs, the government must first extract wealth from the economy via taxation, or raise the money by issuing debt. Regardless of whether the burden is borne by present or future taxpayers, the result is the same: job creation and economic growth are inhibited.

At the same time the government is taking undeserved credit for “creating jobs,” a new analysis of the Cash for Clunkers program by Edmunds.com shows that most cars bought with taxpayer help would have been purchased anyhow. The same analysis finds the post-Clunker car sales would have been higher in the absence of the program, which proves that the program merely altered the timing of auto purchases.

Once again, the government claims to have “created” economic growth, but the reality is that Cash for Clunkers had no positive long-term effect and actually destroyed wealth in the process.

Right now businesses and entrepreneurs are hesitant to make investments or add new workers because they’re worried about what Washington’s interventions could mean for their bottom lines. The potential for higher taxes, health care mandates, and costly climate change legislation are all being cited by businesspeople as reasons why further investment or hiring is on hold. Unless this “regime uncertainty” subsides, the U.S. economy could be in for sluggish growth for a long time to come.

For more on the topic of regime uncertainty and economic growth, please see the Downsizing Government blog.

Nothing Good about The Higher Ed Pricing Game

On Tuesday I noted that the College Board had released its annual reports on college prices and student aid. At the time I wrote the post I hadn’t yet been able to download the reports, but was planning to provide a rundown of their major findings once I’d read them. I’ve now done the latter, but it turns out that Ben Miller over at the Quick and the ED has already posted a pretty good summary of the most important findings. Go there if you want the highlights. Don’t go there, though, if you want to know what the highlights mean, at least for anyone other than students. For that, you’ll have to read on here….

The big news is that net college prices – what students pay after aid– have actually decreased over the last 15 years. While sticker prices were rising much faster than incomes and inflation, what students were actually paying dropped. The implication of this is so obvious that Mr. Magoo couldn’t mistake it: Student aid, much of which comes through taxpayers, enables schools to charge ever-higher prices with near impunity.

Back to the Quick and the ED. To some degree, Miller sees declining net price as a triumph for federal aid, making college more affordable even as prices explode:

This story should be encouraging for legislators that fought hard to win Pell Grant increases over the last few years. The steepest decreases in net price occur beginning in the 2007-2008 academic year, the same time Congress began passing legislation that boosted the maximum Pell Grant award several times. This at least suggests that the money spent on the program did play some role in lessening the financial burden for students and was not completely eaten up by sticker price increases.

On the flip side, Miller at least acknowledges that:

The net price figure also lessens the pressure on schools to actually take proactive steps to lower their costs. If the price you list isn’t actually what you charge, then why should anyone care what the listed price is and how high it gets? Net price thus serves as a kind of smokescreen that gets colleges at least partially off fo[r] charging an arm and a leg.

So what’s wrong with this analysis? 

Most important is that Miller softpedals the aid effect, suggesting that the main negative consequence of  ever-increasing assistance is that it bleeds off a bit of the pressure for schools to lower costs. But it likely has a much more destructive effect than that, not just curbing efficiency pressures, but enabling schools to constantly charge and spend more.  It’s a likelihood that student-aid defenders try to dispel by citing studies that cover very short periods of time, or that simply pronounce that we don’t know that it happens. That it probably happens, however, has been borne out empirically, and it’s readily ackowledged by prominent higher educators including former Harvard president Derek Bok, former Stanford vice president William F. Massy, and former University of Iowa president Howard Bowen. Indeed, the latter’s “law” couldn’t be more blunt: “Universities will raise all the money they can and spend all the money they raise.”

Miller’s other major failing is that he completely ignores that all this aid has to come from somwhere, and that “somewhere” is largely taxpayers. (OK, first it’s China.) Just to give you a sense of the impact on taxpayers, College Board data show that between the 1998-99 and 2008-09 academic years, total federal aid – including grant money recipients don’t have to pay back, and loans they (sometimes) do – rose from $61.1 billion to $116.8 billion. Add state aid to that, and the total goes from $66.6 billion to $126.2 billion.

And what are some of the major downsides of these forced third-party payments? Miller mentions a few pricing difficulties for students, but makes no mention of the potentially huge negative consequences for the nation: Encouraging lots of people to attend college who simply aren’t prepared for it; cranking out many more degrees than the job market demands; and potentially slowing economic growth by taking funds from productive uses and giving it to efficiency-averse colleges and students. 

The big finding in the latest College Board data, which the Quick and the ED nails, is that net college prices have been going down. The important story, however, is that this is bad news for the country. Unfortunately, the Quick and the Ed misses that almost completely.

The Tire Tariff and the Invertebrate President: A Fable

Anyone still inclined to minimize the meaning of President Obama’s Chinese tire tariff decision should read George Will’s column today.

It is not only the direct costs of this particular decision, which are numerous and tallied in the article (and in this paper), that should concern us. Will’s bigger concern is the foreshadowing of more protectionism from a president who has proven to have no qualms about looking straight into other people’s eyes and claiming that his administration opposes protectionism, favors free trade, and is working to advance pending trade agreements through Congress, all while remaining “invertebrate as he invariably is when organized labor barks.”

Is this a sign of schizophrenia? No, it’s worse. What we have here is a president who views trade policy as nothing more than a tool to advance his own political standing with groups that are hostile to commerce. Since groups on the left have grown disenchanted that some of the most socialist elements of the health care debate might be left on the cutting room floor, why not try to placate them with anti-business, anti-consumer, anti-globalization protectionism? Will makes the link between tire tariffs and the health care debate in his concluding sentence.

A president who fancies himself economically enlightened and internationalist would treat trade policy as a means to promoting economic growth and sound foreign relations. This president, regrettably, views trade policy as a sacrificial pawn in the service of politics as usual.

Taking Over Everything

“My critics say that I’m taking over every sector of the economy,” President Obama sighed to George Stephanopoulos during his Sunday media blitz.

Not every sector. Just

This president and his Ivy League advisers believe that they know how an economy should develop better than hundreds of millions of market participants spending their own money every day. That is what F. A. Hayek called the “fatal conceit,” the idea that smart people can design a real economy on the basis of their abstract ideas.

This is not quite socialism. In most of these cases, President Obama doesn’t propose to actually nationalize the means of production. (In the case of the automobile companies, he clearly did.) He just wants to use government money and government regulations to extend political control over all these sectors of the economy. And the more political control achieves, the more we can expect political favoritism, corruption, uneconomic decisions, and slower economic growth.

Pakistan: More Aid, More Waste, More Fraud?

Pakistan long has tottered on the edge of being a failed state:  created amidst a bloody partition from India, suffered under ineffective democratic rule and disastrous military rule, destabilized through military suppression of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) by dominant West Pakistan, dismembered in a losing war with India, misgoverned by a corrupt and wastrel government, linked to the most extremist Afghan factions during the Soviet occupation, allied with the later Taliban regime, and now destabilized by the war in Afghanistan.  Along the way the regime built nuclear weapons, turned a blind eye to A.Q. Khan’s proliferation market, suppressed democracy, tolerated religious persecution, elected Asif Ali “Mr. Ten Percent” Zardari as president, and wasted billions of dollars in foreign (and especially American) aid.

Still the aid continues to flow.  But even the Obama administration has some concerns about ensuring that history does not repeat itself.  Reports the New York Times:

As the United States prepares to triple its aid package to Pakistan — to a proposed $1.5 billion over the next year — Obama administration officials are debating how much of the assistance should go directly to a government that has been widely accused of corruption, American and Pakistani officials say. A procession of Obama administration economic experts have visited Islamabad, the capital, in recent weeks to try to ensure both that the money will not be wasted by the government and that it will be more effective in winning the good will of a public increasingly hostile to the United States, according to officials involved with the project.

…The overhaul of American assistance, led by the State Department, comes amid increased urgency about an economic crisis that is intensifying social unrest in Pakistan, and about the willingness of the government there to sustain its fight against a raging insurgency in the northwest. It follows an assessment within the Obama administration that the amount of nonmilitary aid to the country in the past few years was inadequate and favored American contractors rather than Pakistani recipients, according to several of the American officials involved.

Rather than pouring more good money after bad, the U.S. should lift tariff barriers on Pakistani goods.  What the Pakistani people need is not more misnamed “foreign aid” funneled through corrupt and inefficient bureaucracies, but jobs.  Trade, not aid, will help create real, productive work, rather than political patronage positions.

Second, Islamabad needs to liberalize its own economy.  As P.T. Bauer presciently first argued decades ago–and as is widely recognized today–the greatest barriers to development in poorer states is internal.  Countries like Pakistan make entrepreneurship, business formation, and job creation well-nigh impossible.  Business success requires political influence.  The result is poverty and, understandably, political and social unrest.  More than a half century experience with foreign “aid” demonstrates that money from abroad at best masks the consequences of underdevelopment.  More often such transfers actually hinder development, by strengthening the very governments and policies which stand in the way of economic growth.

Even military assistance has been misused.  Reported the New York Times two years ago:

After the United States has spent more than $5 billion in a largely failed effort to bolster the Pakistani military effort against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, some American officials now acknowledge that there were too few controls over the money. The strategy to improve the Pakistani military, they said, needs to be completely revamped. In interviews in Islamabad and Washington, Bush administration and military officials said they believed that much of the American money was not making its way to frontline Pakistani units. Money has been diverted to help finance weapons systems designed to counter India, not Al Qaeda or the Taliban, the officials said, adding that the United States has paid tens of millions of dollars in inflated Pakistani reimbursement claims for fuel, ammunition and other costs.

Writing blank checks to regimes like that in Pakistan is counterproductive in the long term.  Extremists pose a threat less because they offer an attractive alternative and more because people are fed up with decades of misrule by the existing authorities.  Alas, U.S. “aid” not only buttresses those authorities, but ties America to them, transferring their unpopularity to Washington.  The administration needs do better than simply toss more money at the same people while hoping that they will do better this time.