Tag: Peterson Institute

International Trade Policy’s Fatal Conceit

Two recent economic studies purporting to estimate the impact of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement on the U.S. economy have sparked a kerfuffle between the deal’s advocates and detractors. One study, published by the Peterson Institute for International Economics, estimates increases to U.S. income of 0.5 percent by 2030 with gains to labor accruing slightly more than gains to capital.  The other, published by Tufts University’s Global Development and Environment Institute, estimates that the TPP would reduce U.S. income by 0.5 percent, reduce employment by almost half a million jobs, and increase income inequality.  The findings of each study are being trumpeted as dispositive by their respective constituencies. Who’s right?

In a recent blog post, PIIE-affiliated economist Robert Lawrence wrote that to judge the credibility of these models, three questions should be asked: Is the model used appropriate for exploring trade policy? Does the model depict TPP sensibly? Are the results credible? Lawrence then goes on to explain why he answers “yes” to each question regarding the PIIE study and “no” to each regarding the Tufts study. Well sure, Bob, at a minimum, those criteria are important. And they help distinguish the PIIE model as relatively credible – that is, relative to the Tufts model. But what about relative to reality?  

A model might depict TPP sensibly, but incompletely and imprecisely.  How can we be sure those imperfections don’t have a large impact on the results?  And even if the results are credible, in that they don’t deviate dramatically from expectations, their purpose – or, at least, the weight assigned to these studies in the public’s mind – is to produce reasonable estimates, not to corroborate the model’s capacity to process reasonable expectations.

With apologies to my trade economist friends, anyone who treats the estimates produced by economic models as mathematical truths is, well, part of the problem. Lawrence doesn’t do that, but too many trade policy combatants do. Certainly, some models are more rigorous than others, but all rely on assumptions. The greater the number and complexity of exogenous policy changes being modeled, the greater the number of estimates and assumptions to incorporate, and the further removed from reality the results will be. Sometimes the estimates are merely best guesses and sometimes the assumptions have no better than a 50 percent probability of occurrence.  For example, many of the economic benefits of TPP will derive from reductions in non-tariff barriers to trade, such as regulatory opaqueness.  How does one model the increase in regulatory transparency?  How does one account for stricter environmental or labor or intellectual property regulations? How does one assign numeric values to rules limiting restrictions on cross-border data flows?

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On What Planet Is Lindsey Graham a Free-Trader?

I’ve just started reading a new article by economists at the World Bank and the Peterson Insititute. The gist of the paper is that greenhouse gas emission targets will have little effect on “carbon leakage”, the apparently-largely-theoretical phenomenon whereby carbon-intensive industries move to less regulated jurisdictions in response to stringent emissions regulations in their original home.  So we can strike that off our list of worries.

The authors do reach the conclusion, though, that output of energy-intensive products will decline in response to emissions caps and the political temptation for “carbon tariffs” will be strong (see here why that is a bad idea). Basing the carbon tariffs on the carbon content of imports–as opposed to, say, the carbon content of domestic production displaced– will lead to significant falls in developing country exports. Music to protectionists’ ears, perhaps, but not exactly a recipe for international cooperation or global prosperity.

I’m still digesting the substance of the paper, but I was struck by what I think is a pretty large oversight/mischaracterization in the second paragraph.  The authors refer to the “internationally-minded” Sen. John Kerry (true in the serves-on-the-foreign-relations-committee-and-speaks-French sense, I guess) and the “free-trade oriented” Senator Lindsey Graham (R, SC).

Huh? A cursory glance at Senator Graham’s record indicates that in no serious sense could he be deemed “free-trade oriented.” Senator Graham has voted to lower trade barriers less than half (43 percent) of the time and has taken only 20 percent of opportunities to cut subsidies. That puts him in the “interventionist/internationalist” camp. Maybe the authors didn’t know about the Center for Trade Policy Studies’ “Free Trade, Free Markets: Rating Congress” tool, but surely Senator Graham’s co-sponsorship of the notorious Schumer-Graham legislation, among other transgressions, should have tipped them off.

The Odd Couple

Well, here’s an interesting pair. Today’s Washington Post contains an op-ed on climate change and trade, written jointly by Fred Bergsten, director of the Peterson Institute of International Economics, and Lori Wallach, director of Global Trade Watch at Public Citizen. 

The authors readily admit, quite early in the piece, that they are usually on opposing sides of the trade debate.  The Peterson Institute scholars are well-known and well-respected advocates of freer international trade. Global Trade Watch, and Wallach in particular? Not so much. She has called NAFTA a “disastrous experiment” and has a special section on her website calling on people to Take Action! on trade (example: by hosting a house party to celebrate the tenth anniversary of ” the historic 1999 Seattle protest victory of people power over corporate rule.”)

Yet here they are, claiming to agree on “a suprising number of aspects of the climate change debate and on the related need to overhaul global trade negotiations.” I am still trying to make sense of the op-ed, because it lurches around a bit, and to work out exactly how deep the agreement of these strange bedfellows really is. But for now, let me comment briefly on what I think is the main thrust of their op-ed: a proposal for launching a new round of trade talks.

The authors point out that a new treaty on global warming would “require new trade rules in intellectual property, services, government procurement and product standards.” So, hey, why not combine that into trade talks?The Obama Round (as if Obama-worship has not gone far enough) “would include, as a centerpiece, addressing these potential commercial and climate trade-offs and updating the negotiating agenda.”

That, quite frankly, would be fatal for the World Trade Organization. Developing countries, now in the majority in the WTO, are in general very resistant to the idea of bringing extraneous issues into its agenda (witness constant struggles over linking trade to labor and environment issues, to name just two). More to the point, we already have a round in progress. The Doha round has been struggling over old-fashioned trade concerns like tariffs and subsidies (remember them?)  since launching in 2001. The risks of overburdening the WTO agenda are, in my opinion, far greater than the possible benefits. It’s fairly clear to me why Wallach would advocate a new round full of poison pills, but not so clear why Bergsten would put his name to such a suggestion.

It’s not even clear to me that such an approach would “help the environment.” Why the optimism about the possibility of agreement under the auspices of the WTO when negotiations in forums designed explicitly and solely for the purpose of halting climate change have been unsuccessful?

( Speaking of which, expectations for a breakthrough at the upcoming Copenhagen conference on climate change are being rapidly scaled back, with talk of an “interim” agreement — likely some anodyne political statement — rather than the final deal that environmental groups had hoped for. The international diplomacy circus rolls on, though: conferences are planned for Mexico and South Africa — talk about a carbon footprint! — next year.)

For my take on the climate change and trade debate, the solution to which does not involve launching an Obama Round, see here.