Tag: tpa

Could Vice President Biden Help Save the Administration’s Trade Agenda?

Francisco Sanchez, former undersecretary of Commerce for international trade in President Obama’s first term, commented on the administration’s trade efforts in a March 21 article in Politico.  His view is that the president will need to get directly involved in making the case for liberalization if he wants his trade agenda to succeed.  Presidential leadership no doubt will be essential.  Certainly few congressional Democrats would be eager to stick their necks out on behalf of freer trade, if they think the president might leave them high and dry by backing away from his commitment to Trade Promotion Authority (TPA or “fast track”), the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

But as I noted in a recent paper, it seems unlikely that the president is sufficiently committed to his trade agenda.  It also is unclear whether developments elsewhere in the world would permit him to devote the time and energy to trade issues that Mr. Sanchez correctly argues is needed.  That raises the question of whether other senior officials in the administration might be able to augment the president’s efforts. 

Would it be feasible for Vice President Joe Biden to play a useful role in achieving the administration’s trade objectives?  Biden knows Congress well and cast many trade votes during his career in the Senate.  He consistently voted in favor of trade liberalization in his early years, starting with the Trade Act of 1974.  Perhaps the Senate was a happier place then, with both parties placing relatively greater emphasis on keeping the United States actively engaged in strengthening the global economy.  Biden’s pro-trade voting record continued throughout the 1990s on behalf of trade policy initiatives – including NAFTA and the Uruguay Round – supported by President Clinton.  However, his approach appears to have changed rather abruptly when George W. Bush became president.  Since then Biden’s only pro-trade votes on major issues were to support the FTAs with Australia and Morocco in 2004.  He wrapped up his Senate career by voting against DR-CAFTA, Oman and Peru.

This background may position Biden to provide helpful outreach to members of Congress who have doubts about the administration’s trade agenda.  Since he has found himself voting both for and against market-opening initiatives, perhaps he would have credibility in explaining why liberalization is the right choice now.

Congress Likes at Least One Type of Fast Track

Seasoned observers of U.S. trade policy have been chagrined with the reluctance of Congress to pass fast-track negotiating authority. However, a small glimmer of hope appeared on March 25. That day, a statue honoring Dr. Norman E. Borlaug, recipient of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize, was installed in Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol. His work in developing high-yielding grains is credited with enabling billions of people to eat better and to achieve higher living standards, objectives strongly supported by Cato. (See this 2009 post by Cato Executive Vice President David Boaz honoring the life of Dr. Borlaug.)

Capitol visitors who were fortunate to be associated with the state in which he was born (Iowa), the school where he studied (University of Minnesota), or where he spent the final years of his career (Texas A&M), were able to receive special tickets to enter Statuary Hall. These tickets were designated “Fast-Track Viewing,” which enabled the holders to bypass the long lines normally associated with a visit to the Capitol’s interior. It is gratifying to learn that Congress is willing to utilize fast-track procedures in some circumstances. Let’s hope they soon decide to apply the concept more broadly.

 

Or, is the incurable optimist in me wanting to ignore another possible interpretation? After all, a “viewing” is sometimes associated with paying respects to the deceased. Is it possible that “fast-track viewing” means that Congress thinks the concept is dead and that those who wish to pursue trade reform should do so through other means? Might be best not to overanalyze this issue.

Fast Track Fallacies Knee-Capping the Trade Agenda

Media have been reporting lately about the public’s burgeoning opposition to the Congress granting President Obama fast track trade negotiating authority. Among the evidence of this alleged opposition is a frequently cited survey, which finds that 62 percent of Americans oppose granting fast track to President Obama.
 
Considering that the survey producing that figure was commissioned by a triumvirate of anti-trade activist groups – the Communication Workers of America, the Sierra Club, and the U.S. Business and Industry Council – I had my doubts about the accuracy of that claim. After all, would lobbyists who devote so much of their efforts to derailing the trade agenda risk funding a survey that might produce results contrary to their objectives?
 
My skepticism – it turns out – was warranted. The 62 percent who allegedly “oppose giving the president fast-track authority for TPP [the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement]” actually oppose giving the president a definition of fast track that is woefully inaccurate. The graphic below shows the question and response tally, as presented in the report showing the survey’s results, which is here.  Read the question that begins with “As you may know…”
 
 

Should Free Traders Support Free Trade Agreements?

With the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations allegedly near completion, the transatlantic talks kicking into higher gear, and debate in Congress over U.S. trade policy objectives about to intensify, 2014 is shaping up to be the most consequential year for the trade agenda in a long time. Whether real free traders should rejoice over these developments depends on the emerging details, as well as the ability to avoid making the perfect the enemy of the good.

Real free traders abhor domestic trade barriers and want them removed regardless of whether other governments remove their own barriers. The benefits of trade are the imports we obtain, not the exports we give up. The immediate benefits are measured by the value of imports that can be purchased for a given unit of exports – the more, the better – and domestic barriers reduce those terms of trade. Of course, there are also the secondary benefits of imports, which include greater variety, lower prices, more competition, better quality, and the innovation spawned by those and other factors.

The process of U.S. trade policy formulation has never been particularly accommodating of free traders’ perspectives. Free trade views have been marginalized by their being subsumed within a broader category of views labelled “pro-trade,” which is dominated by business lobbies and other “pro-export” mercantilists. As the definition of free trade has been expanded to mean pro-trade, the definition of protectionism has been narrowed to exclude views, such as: “I’m not a protectionist; I just want a level playing field,” or; “I’m for free trade, as long as it’s fair trade.” Those are the clichés of protectionists, who are now popularly grouped under the pro-trade umbrella.

So, today’s trade debate (framed as it is by media, lobbyists, and politicians) does not feature free-traders on one side and protectionists on the other. Instead, one is either pro-trade or anti-trade, supports corporations or their workers, and believes free trade agreements are either good or evil. In a world with these binary choices, nuance gets squeezed out. Where do you fit if you support the tariff reductions in a trade agreement, but are unhappy with the corporate welfare it bestows on particular industries? What if you know that trade liberalization is good for both corporations and their workers alike? What if you’re pro-market, but not pro-business?

Given these and other ambiguities, should free traders support free trade agreements? Let me lay down a marker for free trade – “real” free trade, that is.

Free markets are essential to our prosperity, and free trade is the extension of free markets across political borders. Making markets freer and expanding them to integrate more buyers, sellers, investors, and workers deepens and broadens that prosperity. When goods, services, capital, and labor flow freely across borders, Americans can take full advantage of the opportunities of the international marketplace. Free trade provides benefits to consumers and taxpayers in the form of lower prices, greater variety, and better quality. And, it enables businesses and workers to reap the benefits of innovation, specialization, and economies of scale that larger markets afford. Countless studies have shown that economies that are more open grow faster and achieve higher incomes than those that are relatively closed.

Damning Trade with Faint Praise

A Washington Post editorial today pushes back against the argument that a Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement would exacerbate income inequality. Amen, I suppose. But in making its case, the editorial burns the village to save it by conceding as fact certain destructive myths that undergird broad skepticism about trade and unify its opponents.

“All else being equal,” the editorial reads, “firms move where labor is cheapest.”  Presumably, by “all else being equal,” the editorial board means: if the quality of the factors of production were the same; if skill sets were identical; if workers were endowed with the same capital; if all production locations had equal access to ports and rail; if the proximity of large markets and other nodes in the supply chain were the same; if institutions supporting the rule of law were comparably rigorous or lax; if the risks of asset expropriation were the same; if regulations and taxes were identical; and so on, the final determinant in the production location decision would be the cost of labor. Fair enough. That untestable premise may be correct.

But back in reality, none of those conditions is equal. And what do we see? We see investment flowing (sometimes in the form of “firms mov[ing],” but more often in the form of firms supplementing domestic activities) to rich countries, not poor. In this recent study, I reported statistics from the Bureau of Economic Analysis revealing that:

Nearly three quarters of the $5.2 trillion stock of U.S.-owned direct investment abroad is concentrated in Europe, Canada, Japan, Australia, and Singapore. Contrary to persistent rumors, only 1.3 percent of the value of U.S.-outward FDI [foreign direct investment] was in China at the end of 2011.