Last week a WTO dispute settlement panel ruled that certain Chinese restrictions on exports of “rare earth” minerals are inconsistent with China’s WTO obligations and recommended that the PRC government bring its policies into compliance with the rules. The decision was hardly surprising, as export restrictions are prohibited under the WTO agreements – except under certain limited circumstances, which were not demonstrated to exist.
Formal complaints about these export restrictions were lodged in the WTO by the United States, the European Union, and Japan, whose manufacturers require rare earth minerals for production of a variety of high tech products, including flat-screen televisions, smart phones, and hybrid automobile batteries. By restricting exports, the complainants alleged, China’s actions reduce supply and raise prices abroad, putting foreign downstream manufacturers at a disadvantage vis-à-vis China’s domestic rare earth-using companies, who enjoy the effective subsidies of greater supply and lower input prices.
The WTO decision was lauded across Washington, but more for its dig on China than for its basis in principle or sound economics. Emblematic of official sentiment was the following statement from arch-import-foe-temporarily-turned-globalization-advocate, House Ways and Means Committee Ranking Member Sander Levin (D-MI):
Through the aggressive efforts of the Obama Administration, the WTO has struck down China’s efforts to block our companies from having access to key inputs. Our high-tech industries, from smartphones to medical equipment to wind turbines, depend on access to these rare earths and other chemicals. Holding China accountable, and enforcing the rules of international trade are vital to U.S. businesses and workers and key to trade expansion efforts (emphasis added).
Between Paris and Brussels obstacles of many kinds exist. First of all, there is distance, which entails loss of time, and we must either submit to this ourselves, or pay another to submit to it. Then come rivers, marshes, accidents, bad roads, which are so many difficulties to be surmounted. We succeed in building bridges, in forming roads, and making them smoother by pavements, iron rails, etc. But all this is costly, and the commodity must be made to bear the cost. Then there are robbers who infest the roads, and a body of police must be kept up, etc.Now, among these obstacles there is one which we have ourselves set up, and at no little cost, too, between Brussels and Paris. There are men who lie in ambuscade along the frontier, armed to the teeth, and whose business it is to throw difficulties in the way of transporting merchandise from the one country to the other. They are called Customhouse officers, and they act in precisely the same way as ruts and bad roads.
Some things seem obvious: Puppies are cute. Freedom is good. Paying less for something is better than paying more.
Unless you live in the Tampa area and work for the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission (PTC). The PTC was created, ironically, to protect Tampa’s transportation customers. Apparently, that means protecting those customers from low prices.
This is not one of those stories about unintended consequences or safety regulations that, in the long run, result in higher prices and therefore unsafe practices. The PTC left the agencies that impose those sorts of economics-challenged agencies in its dust. Instead, the PTC actually passed a rule requiring Tampa’s sedan and limo drivers to overcharge their customers. The rule mandates that all drivers must charge at least $50 per ride – no matter how short the ride, and even when the driver is willing to charge much less.
Let me repeat: The PTC is expressly protecting customers from low prices. What’s next for the PTC? Protecting us from pillows that are too soft or food that’s too tasty? (Don’t give Michael Bloomberg any ideas.) There are many good things in this world that undoubtedly must be stopped, so the PTC is going to be quite busy.
That’s about how much the U.S. economy would gain from removing all sugar price supports and trade barriers right now.
But the sugar lobby, and their supporters in Congress and, sadly (not to mention confusingly), some conservative groups, are pushing a “Zero-for-Zero” sugar policy, which would essentially end U.S. sugar support programs only when other sugar-producing countries do the same. Seton Motley, president of Less Government puts it this way in an article for the Daily Caller:
It’s called zero-for-zero. Where we approach the planet and say “You get rid of your trade barriers, and we’ll get rid of ours.” In other words, we have zero protectionism — and so does everyone else. Right now, it’s being proposed for sugar…
“Consider that there are more than 100 sugar producing countries worldwide, and there are also basically 100 different sugar policies, each of which includes various forms of government intervention,” [a supply-chain management researcher in a recent study] continues. “[A] free market approach rewards the best and most efficient business people and not the most heavily subsidized producer,…[zero for zero] could stabilize domestic and ultimately world market sugar prices … [Getting] government out of markets creates free markets, and free markets lead to free and fair markets, and that, in the final analysis, is where world sugar needs to be.”
Well sure it does. The question is: what should the United States do while we are waiting for this nirvana to materialise, a process that would be very lengthy indeed? I would suggest that doing ourselves a favour and abandoning the terrible U.S. sugar policy—costing the economy billions of dollars a year through artificially high sugar prices and, now, government sugar purchases—is a good start. Let other countries distort their markets and subsidise sugar importers’ consumption, as is their wont. We don’t have to follow them, and American consumers and businesses would benefit from a freer domestic market in sugar.
Has the intellectual debate about free trade been won? The close-to-consensus answer among several scholars discussing that question at Cato last week is “yes.” The better answer is “wrong question.” After all, how much does it really matter that free traders have won the intellectual debate when, in practice, trade policy is distinctly anti-intellectual and free trade is the rare exception, not the rule, around the world?
Consider the just-launched Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations. If the free trade consensus were meaningful outside the ivory tower, these negotiations would not take place. At the heart of the talks rests 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. But 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 consumers and businesses. It really is that simple.
But the TTIP is shaping up to be the mother of all negotiations: an interminable feast of mercantilist horse-trading, self-serving press conferences, and ever-premature, congratulatory pronouncements all intended to aggrandize negotiators and politicians who thirst to be seen doing something to restore economic hope without having to shake their respective vested interests from their protected perches. It’s all quite nauseating, really, but at least it serves to remind us that free trade is the rare exception, and when all else fails…
Granted, U.S. tariffs are relatively low on average, most quotas have gone away, and most other countries have reduced barriers to trade over the past half century, which has contributed in no small part to improvements in per capita income and quality of life around the world. Why that cause and effect hasn’t reinforced the theory enough to drive a stake through the heart of protectionism is the better question.
In the United States, instead of free trade, we have protectionism in its many guises, including: “Buy American” rules for government procurement; heavily protected services industries; apparently inextinguishable farm subsidies; sugar quotas; green-energy subsidies; industrial policy; the Export-Import bank; antidumping duties; regulatory protectionism masquerading as public health and safety regulations, and; the protectionism euphemistically embedded in so-called free trade agreements in the forms of rules of origin, local content requirements, intellectual property and investment protections, enforceable labor and environmental standards, and special carve-outs that immunize products—even industries—from international competition. In fact, the entire enterprise of trade negotiations is a paean to protectionism, conducted with the utmost care to avoid unsettling, without recompense, the special privileges of the status quo.
How has an intellectual consensus for free trade coexisted with these numerous and metastasizing affronts to it? Protectionism slipped the noose, that’s how.
A number of my Cato colleagues have offered good criticisms of developments related to the latest farm bill here, here, here, here, here, and here. (That’s a lot of “heres,” but farm subsidies deserve a lot of criticism!) But there is one possible element of the farm bill that would actually count as “reform”: a proposal to take some of the protectionism out of food aid.
I discussed this issue here and here. As I noted, the way these programs work is that when giving aid to help with food shortages abroad, ”[i]nstead of simply giving money to people to buy food from the cheapest source, the U.S. government buys food from U.S. producers and requires that it be sent overseas on U.S. ships.” Not surprisingly, that’s not a very efficient way of doing things. As noted in an article in the Guardian newspaper, “50% of the US food aid budget is currently spent on shipping costs.”
To address this problem, a food aid reform act has been introduced in the House, and would eliminate the requirements that food assistance be grown in the U.S. and transported on U.S.-flagged ships. Currently, this act is a separate bill, but the article says that “many observers assume that it will probably be tied into the House farm bill eventually.” So, while there’s still plenty not to like about the farm bill, a fix to this long-standing example of economic nationalism would be welcome.
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