Tag: fta

Without Free Trade, U.S. Consumer Interests Best Represented by EU Negotiators in the Transatlantic Trade Talks

Today marks the official commencement of the much anticipated Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations in Washington. An eventual agreement could eliminate tariffs and curb superfluous rules and regulations that impede commerce and raise costs for businesses and consumers in the world’s largest economies. Those prospects make the effort worthy of our attention and, possibly, our support, but one thing should be clear from the outset: the negotiations are less about free trade than they are the latest rejection of its virtue.

Among economists, businesspeople, and policy scholars, there is near unanimity that international trade is a good thing. Many even call themselves “free traders.” But self-identifying as a free trader in Washington usually means that one supports free trade over there (in other countries), and not necessarily over here, in the United States. What passes for free trade advocacy these days is endorsing the USTR’s official negotiating objectives, which condition liberalization at home on the foreign market access gains obtained for U.S exporters. And that ain’t free trade.

U.S.-EU Free Trade Agreement? A Pep Talk or Overhaul at USTR Is the Place to Start

In its first 49 months, the Obama adminstration has paid lip service to trade liberalization. There have been the announcements, the platitudes, the initiatives, the task forces, and the interminable negotiations, but no new trade agreements. Not one. Still, in his State of the Union speech tonight, the president will offer assurances that his rhetorical commitment to trade liberalization remains steadfast, when he announces grand plans to pursue a trans-Atlantic free trade deal. Of course, rhetorical commitments and pursuing free trade don’t exactly get the job done.

Whether anything comes of prospective U.S.-EU trade negotiations or the still-brewing Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations depends, more than anything else, on whether President Obama believes his own rhetoric. Of course, actions speak louder than words and on that score things don’t look especially promising.

Exhibit A is the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, where employee morale has gone from bad to worse. In a 2012 OPM survey of 29 small federal agencies published in a report titled “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government,” USTR ranked dead last. The results showed employee dissatisfaction with their jobs, their organization, and their senior leadership.

The overall weighted index score of 32.7 (out of a possible 100) in 2012 is the latest point in a continuous and steep decline in satisfaction, which was 74.2 in 2009, 57.4 in 2010, and 47.7 in 2011. The sub-index for “Effective Leadership - Senior Leaders” declined from 71.2 to 49.7 to 37.5 to 18.6 over those same four years. Only 17.7 percent of the 101 USTR respondents said they had a high level of respect for their organization’s senior leaders, while 62.1 dissented from that view. Only 12.8 percent of 102 USTR respondents said their organization’s leaders generate high levels of motivation and commitment in the workforce, while 67.3 dissented.

These are some profound rebukes of U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, and by extension, President Obama.

TAA Reversal on Grand Bargain

On Monday, a group of 41 Senate Democrats, led by Sen. Debbie Stabenow (MI) sent a letter to President Obama, praising his administration’s recent decision to abandon its erstwhile promotion of the three pending trade deals as “job creators” and instead warn Congress it won’t submit the pacts for a vote unless they can be assured that a stimulus-enhanced version of trade adjustment assistance will be renewed.

The letter contains much about the benefits of the program, with little mention of its costs to taxpayers and even less concern shown for the innocent consumers whose pockets have been picked for decades to maintain the jobs lost when trade is allowed to flow more freely. That’s pretty standard fare for protectionists, who rely on the hidden and dispersed nature of the costs to get support for their policies. What’s new about this situation is the ratchet effect – the base TAA program is still in place, so what they are asking for is a renewal of part of the stimulus as a pre-condition for supporting trade liberalization. Note that the stimulus changes included a removal of the requirement that job losses be linked to a trade agreement (a feature, not a bug of the program, according to the Senators).

Wait, did I say a renewal of TAA-plus would be a pre-condition for supporting trade agreements? Not necessarily. Note this telling paragraph of the letter:

While we the undersigned may have differing views on elements of the trade agenda - with some of us looking forward to supporting the pending trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama, and others skeptical of the impact of the agreements -we are unified in our belief that the first order of business, before we should consider any FTA, is securing a long-term TAA extension.  [emphasis added]

As I’ve said repeatedly, I understand (even if I don’t support) the political calculation that TAA is necessary – and worth it– if it secures votes for trade liberalization. But reading between the lines, some of the letter signers have no intention voting for the trade agreements, even if the mega-TAA is approved.  What we have here is a reversal of the grand bargain on trade liberalization, that gave extra welfare to workers who lost their job because of freer trade in exchange for support for trade agreements that lowered trade barriers. That ‘grand bargain’ has been tenuous for years now, of course – witness the complete lack of movement on the trade agreements even after the 2009 enhancement of TAA, at least until recent months. But now, rather than using TAA to buy votes for trade liberalization, the administration and their allies appear to using pretty-much-assured votes for trade liberalization to buy TAA. As a Wall Street Journal editorial said on Friday, it’s extortion.

O’Grady on the US-Colombia FTA

Mary Anastasia O’Grady has an excellent article in today’s Wall Street Journal on the Obama administration’s failure to push the U.S.-Colombia preferential trade agreement.  She rightly points out that the terms of the agreement should be especially favorable to mercantalists, since the agreement would see no reductions in the tariffs the United States places on Colombian goods – most of which already enter duty-free under the terms of the Andean Trade Preference Act – but will oblige Colombia to open its markets to those U.S. exports the administration is always banging on about.

More on the Colombia FTA from Cato analysts here and here.