Tag: manufacturing

Leveling the Playing Field?

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) introduced a bill on Wednesday called the “Leveling the Playing Field Act.” According to the accompanying press release, the proposal would “restore strength to antidumping and countervailing duty laws” via a “crack down on unfair foreign competition.” The bill includes several provisions relating to practices used by the Department of Commerce to determine dumping and subsidy margins (i.e., the extent to which imported products are unfairly underpriced). It also contains modest changes to procedures used by the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) in deciding whether domestic industries have been “materially injured” by imports.

Since I have had only indirect exposure to the role of Commerce in antidumping and countervailing duty (AD/CVD) investigations, I will leave analysis of those proposed changes to others. However, my 10 years of experience as chairman and commissioner at the ITC provide a reasonable basis for commenting on the bill’s suggested modifications to the injury determination.

The existing AD/CVD statutes instruct the ITC to “evaluate all relevant economic factors” that relate to the effects of imports on the industry under consideration. A number of those factors are specifically mentioned, including the industry’s profits. Not being satisfied with just having the commission examine profits in general, the Brown bill adds, “gross profits, operating profits, net profits, [and] ability to service debt.” As a practical matter, the commission already looks in detail at an industry’s profitability and its ability to repay debts, so this additional wording would contribute nothing of substance.

The Brown bill would add a provision to the effect that an improvement in the industry’s performance over the period of investigation (normally about three years) should not preclude a finding that the industry has been materially injured by imports. Yes, there can be circumstances in which an industry’s results are strengthening, yet it is still being held back by import competition. However, the commission’s existing practice already considers this possibility, so the new language would not really change anything.

The bill also adds a section addressing the possible effects of a recession on the ITC’s injury analysis. It states that the commission may extend its period of investigation to begin at least a year before the recession started, which would allow before and after comparisons of how the domestic industry has performed. The ITC already has authority to adjust the period of investigation under special circumstances, but it relatively seldom does so.

Enduring Myths that Obscure the Case for Free Trade

Most economists agree that free trade works better than restricted trade to increase the size of the economic pie. By enlarging markets to span national borders, free trade increases the pool of potential producers, consumers, partners, and investors, which permits greater specialization and economies of scale – both essential ingredients of per capita economic growth.

But, in practice, free trade remains elusive. It is the exception, not the rule. Sure, many tariffs and other border barriers have been reduced in the United States (and elsewhere) over the years, but protectionism persists in various guises. There are “Buy American” rules limiting government procurement spending to local firms and US-made products; heavily protected services industries; seemingly endless incarnations of agriculture subsidies; import quotas on sugar; green-energy and other industrial subsidies; shipbuilding and shipping restrictions; the Export-Import bank; antidumping duties; and, regulatory protectionism masquerading as public health and safety regulations, to list some. Ironically, protectionism is baked into our so-called free trade agreements. It takes the form of rules of origin requirements, local content mandates, intellectual property and investor protections, enforceable labor and environmental standards, and special carve-outs that shield entire products and industries from international competition.

Trade agreements may be the primary vehicle through which U.S. trade barriers are reduced, but they are predicated on the fallacy that protectionism is an asset to be dispensed with only if reciprocated, in roughly equal measure, by negotiators on the other side of the table. If the free trade consensus were meaningful outside of economics circles, trade negotiations would be unnecessary. They would have no purpose. If free trade were the rule, trade policy would have a purely domestic orientation and U.S. barriers would be removed without any need for negotiation because they would be recognized for what they are: taxes on domestic consumers and businesses.

The Myth of a Manufacturing Renaissance

Have you heard all the banter about a U.S. manufacturing renaissance? Numerous media reports in recent months have breathlessly described a return of manufacturing investment from foreign shores, mostly attributing the trend to rising wages in China and the natural gas boom in the United States, both of which have rendered manufacturing state-side more competitive. Today’s Washington Post includes a whole feature section titled “U.S. Manufacturing: A Special Report,” devoted entirely to the proposition that the manufacturing sector is back!

The myth of manufacturing decline begets the myth of manufacturing renaissance. This new mantra raises a question: How can there be a manufacturing renaissance if there was never a manufacturing “Dark Ages”?

Contrary to countless tales of its demise, U.S. manufacturing has always been strong relative to its own past and relative to other countries’ manufacturing sectors. With the exception of a handful of post-WWII recession years, U.S. manufacturing has achieved new records, year after year, with respect to output, value-added, revenues, return on investment, exports, imports, profits (usually), and numerous other metrics appropriate for evaluating the performance of the sector. The notion of U.S. manufacturing decline is simply one of the most pervasive economic myths of our time, sold to you by those who might benefit from manufacturing-friendly industrial policies with the abiding assistance of a media that sometimes struggles to distill fact from K Street speak.

Does the U.S. Economy Need More Boeings or More Facebooks?

Remember the story of that once-great nation that sacrificed its well-paying manufacturing jobs for low-wage, burger-flipping jobs at the altar of free trade? At one time, that story was a popular rejoinder of manufacturing unions and their apologists to the inconvenient facts that, despite manufacturing employment attrition, the economy was producing an average of 1.84 million net new jobs per year every year between 1983 and 2007, a quarter century during which the real value of U.S. trade increased five-fold and real GDP more than doubled.

The claim that service-sector jobs are uniformly inferior to manufacturing jobs lost credibility, as average wages in the two broad sectors converged in 2005 and have been consistently higher in services ever since. In 2011, the average service sector wage stood at $19.18 per hour, as compared to $18.94 in manufacturing. (But I don’t recall buying any $25-$30 hamburgers last year.)

One reason for U.S. manufacturing wages being higher than services wages in the past is that manufacturing labor unions “succeeded” at winning concessions from management that turned out to be unsustainable. The value of manufacturing labor didn’t justify its exorbitant costs, which encouraged producers to substitute other inputs for labor and to adopt more efficient techniques and technologies.

With the superiority-of-manufacturing-wages argument discredited, new arguments have emerged attempting to make the case that there is something special – even sacred – about the manufacturing sector that should afford it special policy consideration. Many of those arguments, however, conflate the meanings of manufacturing sector employment and manufacturing sector health or they rely on statistics that don’t support their arguments or they become irrelevant by losing sight of the fact that resources are scarce and must be used efficiently. And too often the prescriptions offered would place the economy on the slippery slope that descends into industrial policy.

I recently submitted this rebuttal to this essay by an environmental sciences professor by the name of Vaclav Smil, who commits those errors. (Judging from the tone of his mostly evasive response to my rebuttal, Smil doesn’t seem to have much tolerance for views that differ from his own.) Perhaps most noteworthy among Smil’s slew of questionable arguments is his claim that manufacturing companies, like Boeing, valued at $50 billion, are better for the economy than service companies like Facebook, which is also valued at $50 billion because

[i]n terms of job creation there is no comparison… Boeing employs some 160,000 people, whereas Facebook only employs 2,000.

Granted, Boeing’s operations support more jobs. But is that better for the economy than a company that provides the same value using 1/80th the amount of labor resources? Of course not. We need economic growth in the United States to create wealth and increase living standards. Economic growth and employment are not one and the same thing. In fact, the essence of growth is creating more value with fewer inputs (or at lower input cost). Creating jobs is easy. Instead of bulldozers, mandate shovels; instead of shovels, require spoons. Inefficient production techniques can create more jobs than efficient ones, but they don’t create value, which is the economic goal.

With 2,000 workers producing the same value as 160,000 – one producing the same value as 80 – Facebook is 80 times more productive than Boeing, freeing up 158,000 workers for other more productive endeavors (perhaps 79 more Facebook-type operations). If those companies were individual countries, the per capita GDP in Facebookland would be $25 million, but only $3.125 million in Boeingia. Where would you rather live?

Smil calls my assessment a cruel joke, presumably for its failure to empathize with unemployed and underemployed Americans, by considering value before job creation.  But policies designed to encourage more Boeing’s, as Smil supports (or, in fairness, any businesses that employ at least X number of people or meet this requirement or that) would likely retard the establishment of firms, like Facebook, that produce the goods and services that people want to consume. The provision of goods and services that people want to buy – rather than those that policymakers in Washington think people want to buy (or are happy to force them to buy) – is the essence of value creation.

Thus, policies should incentivize (or, at least not discourage) the kind of innovation and entrepreneurship needed to create more Facebooks? This kind of business formation occurs in environments where the rule of law is clear and abided; where there is greater certainty to the business and political climate; where the specter of asset expropriation is negligible; where physical and administrative infrastructure is in good shape; where the local work force is productive; where skilled foreigners aren’t chased back to their own shores; where there are limited physical, political, and administrative frictions; and so on. In other words, restraining the role of government to its proper functions and nothing more would create the environment most likely to produce more Facebooks in both the manufacturing and services sectors.

American Manufacturing Continues to Thrive in a Global Economy

University of Michigan economist and American Enterprise Institute scholar Mark Perry has an excellent oped in today’s Wall Street Journal [$] about how U.S. manufacturing is thriving.  It can’t be emphasized enough how important it is to present such illuminating, factual, compelling analyses to a public that is starved for the truth and routinely subject to lies, half-baked assertions, and irresponsibly outlandish claims about the state of American manufacturing.

The truth matters because U.S. trade and economic policies—your pocketbook—hang in the balance.

For more data, facts, and background about the true state of U.S. manufacturing, please see this Cato policy analysis and these opeds (one, two, three).