Tag: trade

Obama’s SOTU Export Promise: Bold and Unrealistic

In his State of the Union speech, President Obama vowed to double U.S. exports in five years to (all together now) “create jobs.”

Exports are dandy, and they do support higher-paying jobs, but the president’s pledge was unrealistic and raises false hopes that it will make any dent in the unemployment rate.

U.S. exports have not doubled in dollar terms during a five-year period since the inflation-plagued 1970s, not exactly a golden era for the U.S. economy. In real terms, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, exports have not come close to doubling during any five-year stretch in the past 40 years. The fastest growth in inflation-adjusted exports came in the second half of the 1980s, when they grew by two-thirds from 1985 to 1990. Other periods of robust growth were the mid-1990s, and during the second term of George W. Bush, when five-year export growth approached 50 percent.

Export growth is certainly enhanced by a weaker dollar and lower trade barriers abroad, but the primary driver of export growth is rising GDP and demand abroad, and that is something outside even this president’s direct control. The key to reducing U.S. unemployment is not primarily selling more to growing markets abroad, but selling more in a robustly growing market at home.

Other Obama policies will actually make it more difficult to achieve his export pledge. The president renewed his misguided pledge last night to raise taxes on U.S. multinational companies that “ship jobs overseas.” Yet, as I pointed out in a Free Trade Bulletin last year, U.S.-owned affiliates in other countries sold $4 trillion worth of U.S. branded goods and services in 2006. A large chunk of our exports go to those affiliates to help them make their final products for sale. Forcing U.S. firms to cut back their foreign operations will douse an important source of demand for U.S. exports.

The only major foreign market that has recently doubled its demand for U.S. exports in a five-year span is China. Yet President Obama has needlessly antagonized potential customers in our fourth-largest export market by imposing tariffs on Chinese tire imports and threatening other trade-reducing actions.

We can best promote more open markets abroad by setting a good example ourselves.

Wednesday Links

  • David Boaz on Obama’s first year: “From this libertarian, Obama’s first year looks grim. …He may well end up like Lyndon Johnson, with an ambitious domestic agenda eventually bogged down by endless war. But I don’t think his wished-for FDR model — a transformative agenda that is both popular and long-lasting — is in the cards.”
  • The message from Massachusetts: “There can be no denying that this election was a clear cut rejection of the Democratic health care bills.”

Someone in Europe Is Talking Sense on Carbon Tariffs

The nominee for EU Trade Commissioner Karel de Gucht has taken the brave step of opposing carbon tariffs, called for by many European politicians (including, notably, French President Nicolas Sarkozy).

In the first day of his confirmation hearings, Mr. de Gucht expressed concern that carbon tariffs were a possible first step in a “trade war” and implied that they were in any event inconsistent with current trade law. (I agree.) He also called for abolishing tariffs on goods beneficial to the environment as a trade-friendly way to reduce greenhouse gases, and expressed support for the Doha round of multilateral trade talks. (More here.) While the Trade Commissioner’s influence over actual trade policy in the EU is arguably limited, it is good to have someone in the post who is instinctively suspicious of green protectionism and friendly towards the WTO.

The European Parliament is due to vote on the European Commission nominees (en masse) on January 26.

Mainstream Media’s Trade Gap

In a post at the Enterprise Blog two days ago, economist Mark Perry deftly parodies a typical mainstream media account of trade protectionism by editing the story in redline to contrast its original presentation with its true significance. I recommend reading the whole thing, but here’s the first paragraph:

WASHINGTON POST (Reuters) - A U.S. trade panel gave final approval on Wednesday to duties taxes ranging from 10 to 16 percent on cost-conscious firms in the U.S. who purchase low-priced Chinese-made steel pipe rather than high-price domestic pipe, in the biggest U.S. trade case to date against China American companies (and their shareholders, employees, and customers) who shop globally for their inputs and find the best value in China.

Perry’s point—and I share his frustration—is that the mainstream media typically fail to convey even a sense of the costs of U.S. protectionism to U.S. interests even though Americans (and non-Americans living in the U.S.) bear the greatest burden of that protectionism. When the U.S. government imposes duties on Chinese steel, it is imposing taxes on U.S. consuming industries, their employees, their shareholders, and their customers.

Considering that more than half of the value of all U.S. imports in a typical year is raw materials and intermediate goods (i.e., inputs for producers operating in the United States, who employ people, transact with other businesses, and pay taxes in the United States), the number of U.S. victims of U.S. import taxes is much larger than one can ever glean from a typical media account. Taxes on Chinese-made ”Oil Country Tubular Goods” or OCTG (the subject in the article Perry edits), which are used for oil exploration and transport, will raise costs in the energy industry, which are likely to be passed onto consumers in the form of higher energy prices.

As described in this paper, trade is no longer a competition between “Us and Them.” There is competition between entities that—because of the proliferation of cross-border investment and transnational production and supply chains—often defy any meaningful national identification. But that competition is preceded by collaboration and cooperation between entities in different countries. The factory floor has broken through its walls and now spans borders and oceans—a fact that renders U.S. workers and workers in other countries complementary in more and more cases, and a fact that amplifies the cost of trade barriers.

But media—chained to the false “Us versus Them” paradigm—describe protectionist policies as actions taken by one national monolith against another, and convey the impression that American readers should be cheering for Team America. It is a worldview that conflates the well-being of “our producers” with some homogenized conception of “the national interest.” It is the same misguided scoreboard mentality that colors reporting of the trade account, where exports are deemed “good” and imports “bad.”  And, it is this simplistic, misleading characterization that, in my opinion, is most responsible for withering public opinion about trade and globalization over the past decade.

I look forward to more of Dr. Perry’s editing projects.

Tuesday Links

  • Afghanistan: A war we cannot afford. “Democrats say raise taxes. Republicans say no worries. The best policy would be to scale back America’s international commitments.”

Thursday Links

  • Why Copenhagen is all pain and no gain. Meanwhile, Brookings finds that  “meeting the Waxman-Markey emissions targets would result in a loss of personal consumption from $1 trillion to $2 trillion; GDP would be lower by 2.5 percent by 2050; and there would be 1.7 million fewer jobs.”

Is Trade Policy Obsolete?

That is one of the conclusions in my new paper, “Made on Earth: How Global Economic Integration Renders Trade Policy Obsolete.”

For hundreds of years, trade policy has been premised on the assumptions that exports are good, imports are bad, and the interests of domestic producers are tantamount to the “national interest.” Though that mercantilist worldview has never been accurate, its persistence as a pillar of trade policy into the 21st century is especially confounding given the emergence and proliferation of disaggregated production processes, transnational supply chains, and cross-border investment. Those trends have blurred any meaningful distinctions between “our” producers and “their” producers and speak to a long chain of interdependent economic interests between product conception and consumption.

Still, trade policy places the interests of domestic producers above all else even though the definition of a domestic producer is elusive and even though actions on behalf of producers often harm interests along the product continuum, which include engineers, designers, financiers, processors, assemblers, marketers, shippers, retailers, consumers, and others.

In 2008, foreign nameplate automobile producers, employing American workers, paying American taxes, and supporting American businesses, communities, and charities, accounted for almost half of all U.S. light vehicle production. The largest “U.S.” steel producer, Arcelor-Mittal, is a majority-Indian-owned company with headquarters in Luxembourg and Hong Kong. The largest “German” producer, Thyssen-Krupp, is completing a $3.7 billion green-field investment in steel production facilities in Alabama, which will create an estimated 2,700 jobs in that state.

So, who are “we”? And who are “they”?

Are these foreign-named or –headquartered companies not “our” producers because some of the profits they earn are repatriated or invested in operations outside the United States? If so, then shouldn’t we consider U.S. Steel Corporation, which earned 25 percent of its revenue last year on steel produced in Slovakia and Serbia, and General Motors, which has had success producing and selling cars in China, to be “their” producers? Why should U.S. Steel, General Motors, and the unions that organize workers at those companies dictate the parameters of U.S. trade policy, while Toyota, Thyssen and their non-union workers have no input? Why should trade policy reflect a bias in favor of producers—or worse, particular producers—at all? That bias hurts other interests—both foreign-based and domestic—in the supply chain.

Global commerce isn’t a competition between “us” and “them.” It is instead a competition between entities that defy national identification because of cross-border investment or because the final good or service comprises value added from many different countries. This reality demands openness in both directions, which flies in the face of conventional trade policy wisdom, which seeks to maximize access for domestic producers abroad while minimizing access for foreign producers at home.

It is only for simplicity’s sake that a container full of iPods shipped from China and unloaded in Seattle registers as imports from China. But the fact is that only a few dollars of the $150 cost to produce an iPod is Chinese value-added. The rest is mostly value attributable to Japanese, Korean, Singaporean, Taiwanese, and American components and labor. Then iPods retail for about $300 and most of the mark-up accrues to Apple, which uses the profits to support innovation and higher paying jobs in the United States.

From a trade policy perspective, each iPod imported from China adds $150 to our bilateral deficit in “high tech” goods. It is regarded as a problem to solve. The temptation is to restrict.

But from a commercial perspective, each imported iPod supports U.S. economic activity up the value chain. Without access to lower-cost labor abroad—if rudimentary component manufacturing and assembly operations were required to take place in the United States—ideas hatched in American labs would be far less likely to make it beyond the white board. Much higher costs would make it far more difficult to create these ubiquitous devices that have, in turn, spawned new ideas and industries.

Essentially, the factory floor has broken through its walls and today spans borders and oceans, making Chinese and American labor complementary in this and many other industries. Yet, despite all of this integration, despite the reliance of producers in the United States and abroad on imported raw materials, components, and capital equipment, trade policy still pretends that access to the domestic market is a favor to grant or a privilege to revoke. Trade policy is officially ignorant of commercial reality.

Openness to trade in both directions is an imperative in the 21st century. Policies that do not try to channel incentives for the benefit of specific groups but rather provide the greatest opportunities for citizens to participate most effectively in our increasingly integrated global economy are the ones that will maximize economic growth and national welfare. People in other countries should be thought of more as customers, suppliers, and potential collaborators instead of competitive threats.

In the 21st century, instead of serving the exclusive interests of domestic producers, trade policy should be about welcoming investment and attracting and cultivating the human capital necessary to make the United States the location of choice for the world’s highest value economic activities.