Tag: growth

Springtime for U.S. Trade Policy?

In a Cato paper to be released on April 28 (here’s a link to related policy forum), Scott Lincicome and I explain how President Obama can help restore the pro-trade consensus in America. “How?” is one question, but a skeptic might also ask: Why would the president want to do that given his anti-trade campaign rhetoric and the preferences of many fellow Democrats in Congress for a moratorium on trade liberalization and a focus on enforcement?

The answer is quite simple: we believe the president understands the importance of both trade and U.S. trade leadership to the broader objectives of economic growth and good will among nations.  Since he is inevitably going to alienate some of the constituencies who helped get him elected by embracing trade openness, he could be forgiven for his perceived apostasy if he can articulate his rationale convincingly.

The most comprehensive and convincing articulation would begin with the moral case for free trade: that every American has the right to transact with whomever he chooses, regardless of the nationality or location of the other party.  Voluntary exchange between consenting parties is inherently fair, while government coercion in that process on behalf of some citizens at the expense of others is inherently unfair, inefficient, and subversive of the rule of law. We are not holding our breath that this president will make this principled case for free trade.  But his articulation of other pro-trade arguments, after so many years of hyperbole, myth-making and fear-mongering from his colleagues on Capitol Hill, could go a long way toward correcting and reversing Americans’ artificially-induced aversion to trade.

Why are we so sure that President Obama is going to embrace trade openness? Well, we’re not so sure, but it’s more than a hunch. Here are two broad reasons:

First, like all presidents in the modern era, Obama takes a national perspective on economic matters, and not a local or regional perspective, as most members of Congress do. Unlike a candidate or a member of the opposition party in Congress who is free to criticize the incumbent administration’s policy errors without having to seriously consider the pros and cons of the alternatives, the president has to concern himself with the consequences of policy changes. It’s potentially his mess to clean up. As a senator and presidential candidate, Obama promised to aggressively pursue remedies to China’s alleged currency manipulation. As president, Obama declined to act accordingly when given the explicit opportunity, knowing that provocation in that regard would inject more uncertainty into financial markets and could spark retaliation. A protectionist measure that briefly benefits producers in Illinois (which is why a Senator Obama might support it) could have consequences that penalize an array of interests across the country (which is why a President Obama might oppose it).

Second, President Obama—like all Democratic and Republican presidents in the post-WWII era—sees trade policy as a tool of foreign policy. And from his early trips abroad, Obama has learned that to many countries around the world, U.S. trade policy is the most consequential aspect of U.S. foreign policy. So a president who appears determined to repair the damage caused by eight years of unilateralist foreign policy can only embrace trade openness.

In our paper, Scott and I present several other reasons why we are “audaciously hopeful” that the president will help restore the pro-trade consensus. But some nascent support for our audacity can be found in the following examples:

1. President Obama spoke out against the protectionist Buy American provisions in the original “stimulus” package, and Congress subsequently removed its most egregiously protectionist aspects.

2. The president has encouraged Congress to resolve the Mexican trucking ban and bring the United States into compliance with its NAFTA commitments.

3. The Obama Treasury declined to label China a currency manipulator in its first semi-annual report on the topic

4. The president informed Mexican president Calderon last week that he did not think NAFTA would need to be reopened—contrary to his campaign rhetoric.

5. The president said as much to Canadian PM Stephen Harper back in February.

6. There are increasing signs of interest and promise from the White House and Congress that the long-frozen bilateral trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea could start moving soon.

The pro-trade environment is not certain, and it could be fleeting, but there’s a case to be made that it’s not as dire as some predicted it would be. If the president intends to facilitate a liberal trade agenda, he should start laying the groundwork with strong pro-trade arguments now.

Week in Review: Tax Day, Pirates and Cuba

Tax Day: The Nightmare from Which There’s No Waking Up

Cato scholars were busy exposing the burden of the American tax system on Wednesday, the deadline to file 2008 tax returns.

At CNSNews.com, tax analyst Chris Edwards argued that policymakers should give Americans the simple and low-rate tax code they deserve:

The outlook for American taxpayers is pretty grim. The federal tax code is getting more complex, the president is proposing tax hikes on high-earners, businesses, and energy consumers; and huge deficits may create pressure for further increases down the road…

The solution to all these problems is to rip out the income tax and replace it with a low-rate flat tax, as two dozen other nations have done.

At Townhall, Dan Mitchell excoriated the complexity of the current tax code:

Beginning as a simple two-page form in 1913, the Internal Revenue Code has morphed into a complex nightmare that simultaneously hinders compliance by honest people and rewards cheating by Washington insiders and other dishonest people.

But that is just the tip of the iceberg. The tax code also penalizes economic growth, distorts taxpayer behavior, undermines American competitiveness, invites corruption and promotes inefficiency.

Mitchell appeared on MSNBC, arguing that every American will soon see massive tax hikes, despite Washington rhetoric.

Don’t miss the new Cato video that highlights just how troubling the American tax code really is.

U.S. Navy Rescues Captain Held Hostage by Somali Pirates

gallery-somali-pirates-pi-003USA Today reports that the captain of a merchant vessel that was attacked by Somali pirates was freed Monday when Navy SEAL sharpshooters killed the pirates. The episode raises a larger question: How should the United States respond to the growing threat of piracy in the region?

Writing shortly after Capt. Richard Phillips was freed, foreign policy expert Benjamin Friedman explained the reasons behind the increase in piracy:

It’s worth noting the current level of American concern about piracy is overblown. As Peter Van Doren pointed out to me the other day, the right way to think about this problem is that pirates are imposing a tax on shipping in their area. They are a bit like a pseudo-government, as Alexander the Great apparently learned. The tax amounts to $20-40 million a year, which is, as Ken Menkhaus put it in this Washington Post online forum, a “nuisance tax for global shipping.”

The reason ships are being hijacked along the Somali coast is because there are still ships sailing down the Somali coast. Piracy is evidently not a big enough problem to encourage many shippers to use alternative shipping routes. In addition, shippers apparently find it cheaper to pay ransom than to pay insurance for armed guards and deal with the added legal hassle in port. The provision of naval vessels to the region is an attempted subsidy to the shippers, and ultimately consumers of their goods, albeit one governments have traditionally paid. Whether or not that subsidy is cheaper than letting the market actors sort it out remains unclear to me.

Appearing on Russia Today, Friedman discussed the implications of the increased threat and what ships can do to avoid future incidents with Somali pirates.

Since the problems at sea are related to problems on Somali land, what can Western nations do to decrease poverty and lawlessness on the African continent? Dambisa Moyo, author of Dead Aid, argued at a Cato Policy Forum last week that the best way to combat these issues is to halt government-to-government aid, and proposed an “aid-free solution” to development based on the experience of successful African countries.

Obama Lifts Some Travel Bans on Cuba

The Washington Post reports:

President Obama is lifting some restrictions on Cuban Americans’ contact with Cuba and allowing U.S. telecom companies to operate there, opening up the communist island nation to more cellular and satellite service… The decision does not lift the trade embargo on Cuba but eases the prohibitions that have restricted Cuban Americans from visiting their relatives and has limited what they can send back home.

In the new Cato Handbook for Policymakers, Juan Carlos Hidalgo and Ian Vasquez recommend a number of policy initiatives for future relations with Cuba, including ending all trade sanctions on Cuba and allowing U.S. citizens and companies to visit and establish businesses as they see fit; and moving toward the normalization of diplomatic relations with the island nation.

While Obama’s plan is a small step in the right direction, Hidalgo argues in a Cato Daily Podcast that Obama should take further steps to lift the travel ban and open Cuba to all Americans.

Topics:

New at Cato, Tax Day Edition

tax-dayHere are a couple of dishes Cato Institute scholars cooked up for Tax Day:

  • Writing for National Review Online, Chris Edwards warns against the dangers of rapidly increasing government spending:

    When filling out your tax forms, you might want to think for a second about where all that money is going. After federal spending roughly doubled in the Bush years, it is growing by leaps and bounds under President Obama. What’s more, the federal government is increasing the scope of its activities — it is intervening in many areas that used to be left to state and local governments, businesses, charities, and individuals.

    There are now a staggering 1,804 subsidy programs in the federal budget. Hundreds of programs were added this decade, and the recent stimulus bill added even more. The result is that we are in the midst of the largest federal gold rush at taxpayer expense since the 1960s.

  • At Townhall, Dan Mitchell rails against the current tax code:

    Beginning as a simple two-page form in 1913, the internal revenue code has morphed into a complex nightmare that simultaneously hinders compliance by honest people and rewards cheating by Washington insiders and other dishonest people.

    But that is just the tip of the iceberg. The tax code also penalizes economic growth, distorts taxpayer behavior, undermines American competitiveness, invites corruption and promotes inefficiency.

  • At CNSNews.com, Edwards argues that policymakers should give Americans the low and simple tax code that they deserve.
  • Also, don’t miss the new Cato video that reveals how troubling the American tax system really is.

Who’s Blogging about Cato

A few bloggers who wrote about Cato this week:

  • New York Times blogger Andrew C. Revkin wrote about Cato’s forthcoming full-page ad on climate change that will run in newspapers around the country next week.
  • Wes Messamore helped set the record straight: Cato scholars have criticized the growth of government regardless of who’s in power.
  • Brandon Dutcher posted Cato’s Monday podcast with Adam Schaeffer on universal pre-school.

Obama’s Spending Theory

President Obama focused on budget and economic issues in his press conference last night. One concern raised by reporters was that federal deficits were exploding and that Obama’s big spending plans would seem to make the problem worse.

Obama’s response was essentially that higher spending reduces the debt problem, which would strike most people as paradoxical to say the least:

Here’s what I do know: If we don’t tackle energy, if we don’t improve our education system, if we don’t drive down the costs of health care, if we’re not making serious investments in science and technology and our infrastructure, then we won’t grow [the economy by] 2.6 percent, we won’t grow 2.2 percent. We won’t grow. And so what we’ve said is, let’s make the investments that ensure that we meet our growth targets that put us on a pathway to growth as opposed to a situation in which we’re not making those investments and we still have trillion-dollar deficits.

First note that Obama’s budget would drive government health care costs up, not down. But aside from that technicality, the economics of Obama’s theory don’t make any sense.

Government spending on infrastructure, education, science and energy are already at high levels. For example, infrastructure spending today is as high as it was during the 1950s, and higher than it has been in recent decades. If government worked efficiently—as liberals believe it does—then all the highest-valued uses of taxpayer money would already be funded. At the margin, the only place for Obama’s new spending would be on low-value items of less economic importance.

Thus, Obama’s new college subsidies might induce some added young people to attend college, but most of those people are probably pretty marginal students because the high-quality students are already going to college. The marginal students might pick up some added skills, but at the cost of higher tax burdens and less economic output in the years when those folks are out of the workforce. Liberals assume that more spending on any activity they are interested in, whether public or private, is always better, but the real goal of economic policy is to find the optimum because all spending has a cost. (And the optimum level of government spending on most things is pretty darn low, or zero, in my view).

Obama is essentially claiming that even with federal, state and local spending at about one-third of GDP, there are government spending projects left over that are so powerful that “we won’t grow” if they don’t happen.

Serious economists know that that is nonsense. Most government activities have negative effects on growth, not positive effects. Take the largest federal program, Social Security, which will consume about $660 billion in taxpayer money this year. The program is a negative on economic growth because it suppresses personal savings and the taxes to fund it create large distortions. Lots of liberal economists support such transfer programs for non-economic or “social” reasons, but few economists would argue that they expand GDP on net.

Regulations vs. Rate Cuts

A set of stories in International Tax Review today illustrate the backwards nature of U.S. corporate tax policy. The first story discusses the high-profile chest-thumping in Washington over corporate “tax haven abuse.” The congressional response to greater international tax competition is to load even more regulations on American businesses.

The second story is entitled “Taiwan Slashes Corporate Tax Rate”:

Taiwan’s government has approved plans to cut the country’s corporate tax rate from 25% to 20%. Ministers hope the cut will encourage investment in the country and stimulate growth in the economy…

America is in the worst recession in decades and it desperately needs to cut its 40 percent corporate tax rate to reinvigorate business investment. Why are U.S. policymakers so clueless about the most obvious way to spur investment when that policy imperative is clear to leaders just about everywhere else?