Tag: economy

Copenhagen: Let the Games Begin!

25,000 bureaucrats, factota, hangers on, and representatives of various environmental organizations have just converged on Copenhagen for the UN’s latest “Conference of the Parties (COP) to its infamous 1992 climate treaty. Expect a lot of heat, not much light, and a punt right into our next election.

President Obama says that the US will agree to a “politically binding” reduction of our emissions of carbon dioxide to a mere 17% of 2005 levels by 2050. This will allow the average American the carbon dioxide emission of the average citizen in 1867. Obama’s pronouncement has stepped all over the toes of the US Senate, which really doesn’t want to vote on similar legislation this election year. Jim Webb, a democrat heretofore very loyal to the President recently wrote Obama a very tersely worded note reminding him that the power to commit the nation to such a regulation lies with the Senate, not with the Commander-in-Chief.

The UN’s own climate models show that even if every nation that has obligations under the failed Kyoto Protocol (which is supposed to be replaced by the Copenhagen Protocol) did what Obama wants, that only 7% of prospective warming would be prevented by 2100. The world’s largest emitter—China—was exempt then, and won’t agree to these reductions now.

Instead they will agree to reduce “carbon intensity”—the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per unit GDP—by 20% per decade. This is nothing but business as usual for a developing or robust economy. In fact, when President George W. Bush said that was our global warming policy, he was roundly booed. The Chinese announcement—already telegraphed, is being greeted with unmitigated praise by the same environmentalists who beat on Bush for the exact same policy. India has just announced that there is no way that they will agree to any emission reductions unless we pay them lotsa money. Obama thinks that’s a good idea, too. Polling data, anyone?

Since there’s no way that India and China will agree to large reductions, the real result of Copenhagen is that the climate can will be kicked down the road to the next COP, which begins on November 8, 2010, right down the road in Mexico City. That’s six days after our Congressional election, guaranteeing that cap-and-tax will be on the voters’ minds when they close the curtain on the current Congress.

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.

Monday Links

  • Michael D. Tanner on the Senate Sell-Outs: “At a time of 10.2 percent unemployment, they voted to make it more expensive to hire workers, especially low-wage workers. With the economy struggling, they voted for $485 billion in tax hikes. They voted to raise the payroll tax, limit your flexible spending account, and tax your health insurance plan. This is moderation?”

Homeownership Myths

In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Professor Joseph Gyourko, chair of the Wharton School’s Real Estate Department, lists what he sees as the five biggest myths about homeownership. Given the central role of federal housing policy, particularly Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, in our recent financial crisis, it is worth following Professor Gyourko’s suggestion and question whether a national policy of ownership, all the time for everyone, really makes sense.

Professor Gyourko’s five myths:

1.  Housing is a great long-term investment.

2.  The homebuyer tax credit makes buying a house more affordable.

3.  Homeowners are better citizens.

4.  It’s safe to buy a house with a very low downpayment.

5.  Owning is always cheaper than renting.

You’ll have to read the op-ed to see his explanations.  An important qualification on his analysis is that in many cases what can be good for the buyer, such as putting no money down, may not be good for the economy if it results in additional foreclosures.

Public Housing for the Dead

The HUD Inspector General’s Office released an audit earlier this week on the department’s progress in making sure local public housing agencies aren’t subsidizing the deceased. According to the report, local “agencies made an estimated $15.2 million in payments on behalf of deceased tenants that they should have identified and corrected.”

The audit found the following “significant weaknesses:”

  • HUD and local agencies did not have effective policies related to deceased tenants.
  • Local agencies did not provide accurate and reliable information to HUD.
  • HUD and local agencies did not safeguard assets to ensure correct assistance payments.

This report is a small illustration of the fundamental problems with the federal government subsidizing local governments. The local public housing agencies are supposed to be monitoring how money is spent and reporting to HUD. HUD is supposed to be monitoring the local public housing agencies. But no one does a very good monitoring job, despite the piles of regulations and paperwork that every level of government has to deal with for such subsidies. The muddled web of responsibilities also makes it easy for fraud artists to take advantage.

Last week, HUD’s IG reported that the department is sending $220 million in stimulus funds to local agencies already known to misspend taxpayer dollars.

From USA Today:

The government is sending millions of dollars in stimulus aid to communities and housing agencies that federal watchdogs have concluded are unable to spend it appropriately, increasing the risk that the money will be wasted.

Since July, auditors working for the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s inspector general have scrutinized at least 22 cities, counties and housing authorities in 15 states and Puerto Rico to measure whether they can handle stimulus funds effectively. Only six, they found, could do so.

The rest — in line to receive more than $220 million in stimulus aid — had shortcomings ranging from poor management to inadequate staffing that threatened their ability to spend the money quickly and appropriately, a series of audit reports show.

According to a HUD spokesperson, the department is “spending millions of dollars to help local officials spend stimulus money effectively.” Maybe that’s true, but all monitoring help is a pure loss to taxpayers and the private sector economy.

Even when the federal oversight does find problems, the money often keeps flowing anyway. As the article notes:

USA TODAY reported in April that HUD planned to send $300 million in stimulus money to public housing authorities that had been repeatedly faulted by outside auditors for mishandling other forms of federal aid. Congress gave the Obama administration permission to withhold stimulus money from some of those agencies, but HUD opted earlier this year not to do so.

For more on fraud and abuse in federal programs, including housing subsidies, see this essay.

Vikings and Pirates and Taxes, Oh My!

Today’s episode of “Hagar the Horrible” could be an epigraph for the new Fall 2009 issue of Cato Journal.

Hagar_The_HorribleThis issue includes Greek economists Michael Mitsopoulos and Theodore Pelagidis on “Vikings in Greece: Kleptocratic Interest Groups in a Closed, Rent-Seeking Economy” as well as Peter Leeson, author of The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates, writing (with David Skarbek) on the effects of foreign aid. As for taxes, well, editor Jim Dorn has assembled a number of useful papers:

  • Andrew T. Young on taxing, spending, and “fiscal illusion”
  • Michael J. New on the “starve the beast” hypothesis
  • Alan Reynolds on Paul Krugman’s misunderstanding of the monetary and fiscal lessons of the Great Depression and Japan’s lost decade

And on the general rapaciousness of the state, don’t miss Jason Kuznicki’s careful review of government racial discrimination from the end of Reconstruction until the civil rights movement.

Imports Wrongly Blamed for Unemployment

Import competition can throw Americans out of work. Even advocates of free trade like me will readily acknowledge that fact. And nobody needs to remind the people of Hickory, North Carolina.

On the front page of the Washington Post this morning, under the headline, “In N.C., damage not easily mended: Globalization drives unemployment to 15% in one corner of state,” the paper reports in detail how the people of that community are struggling to adjust to a more open U.S. economy:

The region has lost more of its jobs to international competition than just about anywhere else in the nation, according to federal trade-assistance statistics, as textile mills have closed, furniture factories have dwindled and even the fiber-optic plants have undergone mass layoffs. The unemployment rate is one of the highest in the nation–about 15 percent.

Nobody wants to lose their job involuntarily, but a story like this needs to be read in perspective. As I document in my new Cato book Mad about Trade, the large majority of Americans who lose their jobs each year are not displaced by trade. Technology is the great job disruptor, but Americans also lose their jobs because of domestic competition, changing consumer tastes, and recessions.

For every person who loses their job because of globalization, I estimate there are 30 who have lost their jobs for other reasons. I’m waiting for a front-page story on all the newspaper workers who have lost their jobs because of the Internet, or the 30,000 workers laid off by Kodak in the past 5 years because of the spread of digital cameras and plunging film sales, or the book stores and record stores that have shut down and laid off workers because of Amazon.com and iTunes.

Trade is not a cause of higher unemployment nationwide, either, as the Post story seems to imply. Imports have fallen sharply during the latest recession along with the trade deficit. In contrast, imports were rising at double-digit rates when the unemployment rate was below 5 percent. Like technology, trade can put people out of work, but it also creates new and generally better paying opportunities for employment, while raising our overall standard of living.