Tag: economy

Two Cheers for the U.S. Economy

Two articles in today’s Wall Street Journal deal with the housing sector.  They complement each other. Journal reporters note that “Industry Speeds Recovery, And Housing Slows It Down.”  The story notes that that “ground-breaking for new homes and applications for building permits both plunged last month.”  Meanwhile, U.S. industrial output showed strong growth in May.

Bravo for both numbers, which are inter-related.  The headline (over which reporters have no control) reflects conceptual confusion.  U.S. industrial production is strong at least in part because construction of new homes is weak.   The bloated home sector is no longer absorbing a disproportionate share of economic resources.  The new homeowners tax credit has mercifully expired, ending that bit of misguided stimulus.

David Wessel’s article, “Rethinking Home Ownership,” further clarifies the reallocation of resources taking place in the U.S. economy.  Beginning in the 1990s, the federal government adopted a number of policies to stimulate home ownership.  As Wessel makes clear, it was a bipartisan effort.  Home ownership rates rose from around 65% to a peak of 69.4% in 2004.  It was an unsustainable policy, a true asset bubble.

Home ownership rates have now fallen back to where they began, or even below.  The experience of the 1990s and early 2000s in housing demonstrates why government stimulus is not a permanent source of demand, nor the path to sustainable economic growth. Lest we forget, the folly of these programs is measured not just in housing numbers, but in shattered dreams and hopes and ruined lives. And the terrible financial crisis to which these programs contributed

Fiscal Imbalance and Global Power

Over at National Journal’s National Security Experts blog, this week’s question revolves around the health of the U.S. economy, and its relationship to U.S. power. 

The editors ask

How serious a threat is the mounting debt to the nation’s standing as the world’s only superpower? Can the U.S. continue to spend more than all other countries combined on its military forces given burdensome debt levels? In what other ways does the mounting debt undermine the country’s strategic position? […]

My response:

Our long-term fiscal imbalance, which increasingly amounts to a massive intergenerational wealth transfer, is clearly a sign of our decline. But it is a decline that has been a long time coming. (I first wrote about the insolvency of the Social Security system as a college sophomore, 23 years ago.) As such, it is tempting for people to assume that we’ll figure our way out of this mess before a complete collapse. Let’s call them, at the risk of a double negative, the declinist naysayers. And, even if they are willing to admit to the problem in the abstract, the naysayers can point to the more serious, and urgent, imbalances between pensioners and those who pay the pensions in Europe or Japan and say “At least we aren’t them.”

That is a pretty shoddy argument, but it seems to be ruling the day. We can talk about the obvious unsustainability of using taxes on current workers to pay benefits for retirees until we’re blue in the face. And my second grader can do the math on a system that was designed when workers outnumbered beneficiaries by 16.5 to 1, and in which, by 2030, that ratio will fall to 2 to 1. It simply doesn’t add up. (For more on this, much more, see my colleague Jagadeesh Gokhale’s latest.)

But this isn’t a math problem; this is a political problem. The incentive to kick the can down the road is overwhelming. The pain in attempting to deal with the problem in the here and now is, well, painful. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that members of Congress / Parliament / Bundestag / Diet, etc, have become very good at avoiding the issue altogether. And many of those who have chosen to tackle it are “spending more time with their families.”

What does all this mean for the United States’s standing as the world superpower? Less than you might think. Our difficulties in two medium-sized countries in SW/Central Asia have done more to puncture the illusion of American power than our political inability to deal with domestic problems. Our fiscal insolvency might convince other countries to play a larger role, if they genuinely feared for their safety. But other countries, especially our allies, are cutting military spending, while Uncle Sam continues to bear the weight of the world on his shoulders. In other words, our ability to maintain our global superpower status isn’t driven by our economic problems. But it is strategically stupid.

It is here that I take issue with Ron Marks’s contention that we spend less today than during the Cold War. While technically accurate, measuring military spending as a share of GDP is utterly misleading (as I’ve argued elsewhere.) If the point is to argue that we could spend more, I agree. But the measure doesn’t address whether we should do so.

We should think of military spending not as a share of the American economy, but rather relative to the threats we face. In real terms (constant current dollars), we spend today more than when we were facing down a nuclear-armed adversary with a massive army stationed in Eastern Europe and a navy that plied the seven seas from Cam Ranh Bay to Cuba. We spend more than during the height of the Vietnam or Korean Wars. Today, terrorist leaders are hunkered down in safe houses somewhere in, well, somewhere. In other words, what we spend is utterly disconnected from the threats we face, a point that is easily obscured when one focuses on military spending as a share of total output.

We spend so much today not because we are facing down one very scary adversary, but because we are facing down dozens or hundreds of small adversaries that should be confronted by others. After the Cold War ended, our strategy expanded to justify a massive military. Since 9/11, it has expanded further. Our fiscal crisis alone won’t force a reevaluation of our grand strategy. It will take sound strategic judgement, and a bit of political courage, to turn things around.

In the cover letter to his just-released National Security Strategy, President Obama acknowledged that it doesn’t make sense for any one country to attempt to police the entire planet, irrespective of the costs. Unfortunately, the document fails to outline a mechanism for transferring some of the burdens of global governance to others who benefit from a peaceful and prosperous world order. We should assume, therefore, that the U.S. military will continue to be the go-to force for cleaning up all manner of problems, and that the U.S. taxpayers will be stuck with the bill.

U.S. Antidumping Regime Restrains U.S. Export Growth

In honor of World Trade Week—and for its decreed purpose of educating Americans about trade—this post is about U.S. trade policy working at cross-purposes with other policies or goals of the administration. So numerous are these examples of trade policy dissonance, that a committed wonk could devote an entire website to the task of documenting them.

If the administration were serious about making trade policy work—rather than just paying it lip service—it would compile its own exhaustive list of laws, regulations, policies, and practices that actually undermine its stated objectives of facilitating economic growth, investment, and job creation through expanded trade opportunities. Then, it would make the changes necessary to ensure that our policies are paddling in the same direction. But that is not happening—at least as far as I can see.

At the beginning of the year, President Obama announced his goal of doubling U.S. exports in five years. He even formalized the goal by granting it an official name—the National Export Initiative. Well, I see no imminent harm in setting the ambitious goal of reaching $3 billion in exports by 2015 (although I am wary of the tactics under consideration and the evocation of Soviet Five-Year Plans). But it betrays a lack of true commitment to that goal when nothing is being done to reduce the competitive burdens imposed on U.S. exporters by our own myopic, anachronistic trade remedies regime. The president exhorts U.S. exporters to win a global race, yet he overlooks the fact that Congress has tied many of their shoes together.

The costs of the U.S. Antidumping and Countervailing Duty laws on U.S. exporters are manifest in various forms, but this post concerns the burdens imposed on U.S. producer/exporters who rely on the raw materials and other industrial inputs that are subject to AD and CVD measures. Indeed, most of the products subject to the 300 U.S. AD and CVD orders currently in effect (like steel and chemicals) are, in fact, inputs to downstream U.S. producers, many of whom compete (or try to compete) in foreign markets. (Just take a look at this list and decide for yourself whether these are products that you’d buy at the store or if they are inputs a U.S. producer would use to produce something else that you might buy at a store.)

AD and CVD duties squeeze these U.S. producer/exporters’ profits, first by raising their input costs and then by depriving them of revenues lost to foreign competitors, who, by producing outside of the United States, have access to that crucial input at lower world-market prices, and can themselves price more competitively. This is not hypothetical. It is a routine hindrance for U.S. exporters. And one that has eluded the president’s attention, despite his soaring rhetoric about the economic importance of U.S. exports.

Consider the case of Spartan Light Metal Products, a small Midwestern producer of aluminum and magnesium engine parts (and other mechanical parts), which presented its story to Obama administration officials, who were dispatched across the country earlier this year to get input from manufacturers about the problems they confronted in export markets.

Beginning in the early-1990s, Spartan shifted its emphasis from aluminum to magnesium die-cast production because magnesium is much lighter and more durable than aluminum, and Spartan’s biggest customers, including Ford, GM, Honda, Mazda, and Toyota were looking to reduce the weight of their vehicles to improve fuel efficiency. Among other products, Spartan produced magnesium intake manifolds for Honda V-6 engines; transmission end and pump covers for GM engines; and oil pans for all of Toyota’s V-8 truck and SUV engines.

Spartan was also exporting various magnesium-cast parts (engine valve covers, cam covers, wheel armatures, console brackets, etc.) to Canada, Mexico, Germany, Spain, France, and Japan. Global demand for magnesium components was on the rise.

But then all of a sudden, in February 2004, an antidumping petition against imports of magnesium from China and Russia was filed by the U.S. industry, which comprised just one producer, U.S. Magnesium Corp. of Utah with about 370 employees. Prices of magnesium alloy rose from slightly more than $1 per pound in February 2004 to about $1.50 per pound one year later, when the U.S. International Trade Commission issued its final determination in the antidumping investigation. By mid-2008, with a dramatic reduction of Chinese and Russian magnesium in the U.S. market, the U.S. price rose to $3.25 per pound (before dropping in 2009 on account of the economic recession).

By January 2010, the U.S. price was $2.30 per pound, while the average price for Spartan’s NAFTA competitors was $1.54. Meanwhile, European magnesium die-casters were paying $1.49 per pound and Chinese competitors were paying $1.36 per pound. According to Spartan’s presentation to Obama administration officials, magnesium accounts for about 40-60% of the total product cost in its industry. Thus, the price differential caused by the antidumping order bestowed a cost advantage of 19 percent on Chinese competitors, 17 percent on European competitors, and 16 percent on NAFTA competitors.

As sure as water runs downhill, several of Spartan’s U.S. competitors went out of business due to their inability to secure magnesium at competitive prices. According to the North American Die Casting Association, the downstream industry lost more than 1,675 manufacturing jobs–more than five-times the number of jobs that even exist in the entire magnesium producing industry!

Spartan’s  outlook is bleak, unless it can access magnesium at world market prices. Its customers have turned to imported magnesium die cast parts or have outsourced their own production to locations where they have access to competitively-priced magnesium parts, or they’ve switched to heavier cast materials, sacrificing ergonomics and fuel efficiency in the face of rapidly-approaching, federally-mandated 35.5 mile per gallon fuel efficiency standards.

And to add insult to injury, the Obama administration recently launched a WTO case against China for its restraints on exports of raw materials, including magnesium. Allegedly, since January 2008, the Chinese government has been imposing a 10 percent tax on magnesium exports. How dissonant, how incongruous, how absolutely imbecilic it is that, in the face of China’s own restraints on its exports (which the U.S. government officially opposes), the U.S. antidumping order against imported magnesium from China persists!  How stupid.  How short-sighted.

Spartan’s is not an isolated incident. Routinely, the U.S. antidumping law is more punitive toward U.S. manufacturers than it is to the presumed foreign targets. Routinely, U.S. producers of upstream products respond to their customers’ needs for better pricing, not by becoming more efficient or cooperative, but by working to cripple their access to foreign supplies. More and more frequently, that is how and why the antidumping law is used in the United States. Increasingly, it is a weapon used by American producers against their customers—other American producers, many of whom are exporters.

If President Obama really wants to see exports double, he must implore Congress to change the antidumping law to explicitly give standing to downstream industries so that their interests can be considered in trade remedies cases. He must implore Congress to include a public interest provision requiring the U.S. International Trade Commission to assess the costs of any duties on downstream industries and on the broader economy before imposing any such duties.

The imperative of U.S. export growth demands some degree of sanity be restored to our business-crippling trade remedies regime.

The Case for Auditing the Fed

Recently, the Federal Reserve has significantly altered the procedures and goals that it had followed for decades. Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) has introduced a bill calling for an audit of the Fed.

Remarkably, there is significant opposition to such oversight, and the political prospects for undertaking such an audit are relatively bleak. In a new paper, Cato scholar Arnold Kling examines the processes and outcomes on which an audit should focus, and looks at opposition to the audit:

We should document why the Fed took each step, what the expected results were, and whether those results were achieved. …The profit or loss of the Fed’s investments would provide a very helpful indicator of whether the Fed’s actions served the economy as a whole or merely transferred wealth from ordinary taxpayers to bank shareholders.

Read the whole thing.

Three Steps to Comprehensive Immigration Reform

Congress can and should pass comprehensive immigration reform in 2010. Any legislation worthy of the name would:

1) offer legalization to undocumented workers who have been here for several years, pass a security check, and pay a reasonable fine and back taxes;

2) create a temporary-visa program sufficient to meet future labor needs of a growing economy; and

3) enforce the law against those who still insist on working outside the system, but in a way that does not restrict the freedom of American citizens.

Reform would reduce illegal immigration by offering a legal alternative. It would tighten border security by allowing U.S. agents to focus on intercepting real criminals and terrorists, not dishwashers and gardeners. And it would expand output, investment, and job opportunities for middle-class Americans. Polls show a majority of Americans will accept the three-fold approach to reform. Recent elections confirm that support for reform is a modest plus with swing voters, and a huge plus with Hispanics.

This is an issue where both major parties can work together to fix our immigration system in a way that boosts the economy, enhances security, and expands liberty.

For more, see Cato’s research on immigration.

“Stimulus” = Education Funding Floor?

We were warned.

When Washington passed the so-called “stimulus” bill, with its tens-of-billions for K-12 education, we were warned that the money wouldn’t just provide a one-time infusion of supposedly economy-saving cash. No, it would furnish a towering new spending floor for already super-funded government schools and numerous other beneficiaries.

Well here come the sky lifts again. According to Education Week, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) is pushing legislation that would pile $23 billion in new federal funding into education once the stimulus cash dries up. And this money – which, of course, we don’t actually have – is intended not only to protect the jobs of teachers and other staff, but add even more employees to the obscene jobs program that is public schooling.

Would this be a good time to mention that the Constitution gives the federal government zero authority to fund or control education? Oh, who cares about that?