Tag: Mexico

What’s Wrong with Imported Oil?

In a speech today at Georgetown University, President Obama called for a goal of cutting America’s oil imports by one-third within a decade. Like all efforts to wean Americans from big, bad imports, such a policy will mean we will all pay more than we need to for the energy that helps to power our economy.

I’ll leave it to my able Cato colleagues to dissect the president’s proposal in terms of energy policy, but in terms of trade policy, this is about as bad as it gets.

We Americans benefit tremendously from our relatively free trade in petroleum products. Like all forms of trade, the importation of oil produced abroad allows us to acquire it at a price far lower than we would pay if we had to rely more heavily on domestic oil supplies.

The money we save buying oil more cheaply on global markets allows our whole economy to operate more efficiently. Oil is the ultimate upstream input that virtually all U.S. producers use to make their final products, either in the product itself or for shipping. If U.S. manufacturers and other sectors are forced to pay sharply higher prices for petroleum products because of import restrictions, their final goods will cost more and will be less competitive in global markets. If households are forced to pay more for gasoline and heating oil, consumer will have less to spend on domestic goods and services.

The president talked in the speech about the goal of not being “dependent” on foreign suppliers, but most of our oil imports come from countries that are either friendly or at least not in any way an adversary. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, one third of our oil imports in 2010 came from our two closest neighbors and NAFTA partners, Canada and Mexico. Another third came from the problematic providers in the Arab Middle East and Venezuela (none from Iran, less than one-third of 1 percent from Libya.) The rest came from places such as Nigeria, Angola, Colombia, Brazil, Russia, Ecuador and Great Britain.

Even if, by the force of government, we could reduce our imports by a third, there is no reason to expect that the reduction would be concentrated in the problematic providers. In fact, oil is generally cheaper to extract in the Middle East, so a blanket reduction would probably tilt our imports away from our friends and toward our real and potential adversaries.

In one speech, the president has managed to state a policy goal that is bad trade policy, bad security policy, and bad foreign policy.

Tuesday Links

  • Shifting America’s focus away from individual liberty is waging war on the future, not winning it.
  • U.N. “authorization” is the Emperor’s new fig leaf for war with Libya.
  • Why are we fighting Mexico’s drug war?
  • David Boaz remembers Geraldine Ferraro, who helped advance the war against gender discrimination in politics.
  • Chris Preble eulogizes the Weinberger/Powell doctrine against the backdrop of the Libyan war:


Obama’s Trip to Latin America

As Ted Carpenter notes below, President Obama is departing on an important trip to Latin America. The countries that he will visit exemplify the macroeconomic stability and advancement of democratic institutions now found in much of the region.

Brazil, by far the largest Latin American economy, has enjoyed almost a decade of sound growth and poverty reduction. Chile is the most developed country in the region thanks to decades of economic liberalization, a process that has also made it Latin America’s most mature democracy. And El Salvador is undergoing a delicate period in its transition to becoming a full-fledged democracy with its first left-of-center president since the end of the civil war in 1992.

In an era when most Latin American nations are moving in the right direction—albeit at different speeds, with some setbacks, and with notable exceptions—the United States can serve as a catalyst of change by contributing to more economic integration and the consolidation of the rule of law in the region.

Unfortunately, despite President Obama’s assurances that he’s interested in strengthening economic ties with Latin America, his administration is still delaying the ratification of two important free trade agreements with Colombia and Panama. President Obama also continues to support a failed war on drugs that significantly exacerbates violence and institutional frailty in the region, particularly in Mexico and Central America.

It’s good that President Obama’s trip will highlight significant progress in Latin America, but his administration’s policy actions still don’t match the U.S. goals of encouraging economic growth and sound institutional development in the region.

Obama’s Latin America Trip

President Obama’s trip to Latin America is likely to focus on economic topics, but two security issues deserve scrutiny during his stops in Brazil and El Salvador. 

Washington’s diplomatic relationship with Brazil has become somewhat frosty, especially over the past year.  U.S. leaders did not appreciate Brazil’s joint effort with Turkey to craft a compromise policy toward Iran’s nuclear program.  The Obama administration regarded that diplomatic initiative as unhelpful freelancing.  And when Brazil joined Turkey in voting against a UN Security Council resolution imposing stronger sanctions on Tehran, the administration’s resentment deepened.  Obama should not only try to soothe tensions, he should shift Washington’s policy, express appreciation for Brazil’s innovative efforts to end the impasse on the Iranian nuclear issue, and consider whether the milder approach that the Turkish and Brazilian governments advocate has merit.

In El Salvador, worries about Mexico’s spreading drug-related violence into Central America are likely to come up.  El Salvador and other Central American countries are seeking a bigger slice of Washington’s anti-drug aid in the multi-billion-dollar, multiyear Merida Initiative.  President Obama should not only resist such blandishments, he should use the visit to announce a policy shift away from a strict prohibitionist strategy that has filled the coffers of the Mexican drug cartels and sowed so much violence in Mexico, and now increasingly in Central America as well.  Prohibition didn’t work with alcohol and it’s not working any better with currently illegal drugs.

Another Dubious Record in Mexico’s Drug War

Mexico ends 2010 with 15,000 illicit drug-related murders for the year—a record for the Calderon administration that began its term four years ago by declaring an all-out war on drug trafficking. Drug war violence skyrocketed since Calderon took office, claiming more than 30,000 lives. Though it is an unwinnable war whose consequences also include the rise of corruption and the weakening of the institutions of civil society, it is being used by drug warriors and skeptics alike to push for pet projects ranging from increased development aid to more military cooperation.

A recent example comes from the Washington Post this week. It editorialized in favor of an Obama administration plan to stem the flow of arms to Mexico, and it ran a story the same day citing the claim that 90 percent of guns in Mexico’s drug war come from the United States (though the Post also noted that the Mexican and U.S. governments refuse to release the results of their weapons traces). My colleague David Rittgers notes here that the proposed gun regulation is unlawful and here he has explained that a more realistic figure for guns of U.S. provenance is about 17 percent. In a Cato bulletin earlier this year, former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castañeda calculated a similar figure and explained why attempts at controlling the trade in U.S. arms are a waste of time:

In fact, we only know with certainty that about 18 percent of guns come from the United States, according to Mexican and U.S. sources. The rest is surely coming from Central America, countries of the former Soviet Union, and beyond. And as countries as diverse as Brazil, Paraguay, Somalia, and Sudan attest — all countries with a higher arms per capita than Mexico — you don’t need a border with the United States to gain easy access to guns. Nevertheless, the possibilities of really limiting the sales of weapons in the United States is not imminent, to put it mildly. Moreover, asking the United States to stop arms trafficking from north to south is like asking Mexico to control its border from south to north, whether it is for drugs, people, or anything else. It’s not going to happen.

Mexican Retaliation for U.S. Truck Ban is Proper

The Mexican government announced yesterday that it will expand the list of U.S. products subject to punitive import duties in retaliation for a brazen, 15-year-long refusal of the United States to honor its NAFTA commitment to allow Mexican long-haul trucks to compete in the U.S. market.  Given continued U.S. intransigence on the issue, Mexico’s decision is understandable, if not laudable.

The dispute is not very complicated.  Under the terms of the deal, Mexican trucks were to have been able to compete in U.S. border states by 1995, and throughout the United States by 2000.  But President Clinton, at the behest of the Teamsters union, suspended implementation of the trucking provision on the grounds that Mexican trucks weren’t safe enough for U.S. highways.

By 1998, the Mexicans had had enough, and brought a formal complaint under the NAFTA dispute settlement system, and in 2001, prevailed with a unanimous panel decision that found the United States in violation of the agreement, and ruled that Mexican trucks meeting U.S. safety standards had to be given access to the U.S. market.

In response to the NAFTA decision, Congress stipulated 22 safety requirements that Mexican trucks had to satisfy in order to gain access to the U.S. market.  But before the U.S. Department of Transportation could grant any permits to Mexican truckers, in 2002, environmental and labor groups filed a lawsuit to block implementation on the grounds that the regulations violated U.S. environmental law.

In 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously struck down the truck ban, and soon after a government pilot program was developed to allow a limited number of Mexican trucks to serve the U.S. market.  But funding for the pilot program was cut off by a Teamsters-friendly Congress in 2008, which effectively put the U.S. market off limits to Mexican trucks once again—and the United States squarely in violation of its NAFTA obligations, again.

In August 2009, after it became apparent that the administration and Congress preferred the economic cost of the trucking ban to the political cost of crossing the Teamsters, the Mexican government tried to change the equation by imposing $2.4 billion in retaliatory duties on about 90 U.S. products.  A Mexican trucking association also filed a $6-billion lawsuit against the U.S. government.

But with no discernible progress toward resolution over the past year, the Mexican government announced yesterday that it will expand the list of U.S. products subject to punitive, retaliatory duties in an effort to convince Congress and the administration to finally live up to America’s word.

The Mexican government is right to retaliate—and to expand the list of products subject to punitive duties.  Of course, retaliation hurts innocents, like U.S. businesses and workers, and Mexican businesses and consumers, who have nothing to do with the central dispute.  And it increases the amount of red tape and the role of governments in international trade.  But retaliation—when authorized by agreement and properly targeted—can also be an effective tool in promoting trade liberalization, reducing red tape, and diminishing the impositions of government.

It is by changing the political calculus that retaliation can be effective.  Thus far, U.S. politicians have found the economic costs of the Mexican trucking ban and the retaliation to be tolerable (for themselves)—at least relative to the expected political costs from doing the right thing by ending the ban.  By expanding the list to include other products, like oranges, the Mexicans hope to impress upon other U.S. interests, like the citrus industry in a very important swing state, that they have dogs in this fight as well.

Between the rising costs on the economic side of the equation and the diminishing political benefits on the other, support among politicians for the truck ban should dissipate.

The Obama administration’s failure to connect the dots is surprising.  Its fealty to the Teamsters directly undermines the lofty goals of its National Export Initiative—which seeks to double U.S. exports in five years.  On trade policy, the administration appears yet to fully grasp that the hip bone’s connected to the thigh bone, the thigh bone’s connected to the knee bone, the knee bone’s connected to the ankle bone, etc.  When you restrict imports (in the immediate case, imports of Mexican trucking services), you restrict exports.

The rising economic and political costs of the truck ban suggest that something’s going to have to give soon.  By amplifying the stakes, the Mexicans are right to hasten that day.

President of Mexico Calls for Debate on Legalization of Drugs

For the first time ever, Mexican President Felipe Calderón said yesterday that it was “fundamental” to have a debate on the legalization of drugs. Calderon, from the conservative National Action Party (PAN), had until now been reluctant to pay heed to the growing calls in Mexico and Latin America for a hemispheric debate on drug legalization. Once they left office, two of Calderón’s predecessors—Ernesto Zedillo and Vicente Fox—have also engaged in the debate, calling for the need to legalize drugs as a way to battle the drug violence that is crippling Mexico. Others, such as Jorge Castaneda, former foreign minister of Mexico, have also called for an end to prohibition.

In today’s edition, El Universal newspaper in Mexico City claims [in Spanish] that Calderón’s turn around had something to do with a meeting he had a few days ago with Juan Manuel Santos, president-elect of Colombia. According to the newspaper’s sources, Santos told Calderón that drug trafficking is not under control in Colombian territory and that Mexico should be the country leading a public debate on legalization or decriminalization of drugs.

As I’ve written before, there is a growing consensus within Latin America about the failure of the war on drugs and the need to implement a sensible approach to drug policy. The question remains: Is anyone in Washington paying attention?