Tag: trade

Instead of Free Trade, Have the Transatlantic Trade Talks

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.

Trade-Skeptical Harold Meyerson Makes One Valid Point

Harold Meyerson, with whom I’ve rarely found occasion to agree, makes one point in today’s column (“Go Slower on Free Trade”) that didn’t cause my eyes to roll: that the Obama administration has been relentlessly secretive about the goings-on in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations.

I cannot corroborate Meyerson’s claim that the administration has granted access to the negotiators and the negotiating text to “roughly 600 trade ‘advisers’ from big businesses,” but has excluded everyone else, including Congress. It may be true, but then again… Certainly, Congress (by which I mean Congress, and not just a few Senate Democrats) is very much in the dark about the details of these negotiations, and that presents an enormous logistical problem.

Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution vests power in the Congress “To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations,” which covers trade agreements. Traditionally, Congress has temporarily extended that authority to the executive branch, given the impracticability of having 535 trade representatives with 535 different agendas negotiating with foreign governments. That temporary grant of “fast track” or “trade promotion” authority is not a blank check. It comes with a list of congressional demands – items that can, cannot, must, and must not be included in the agreement. It is like doing the legislative process in reverse in the sense that amendments are articulated as conditions BEFORE the agreement is reached. Ideally, those congressional demands would be formalized before the negotiations BEGIN so that there are no false starts.

But with the administration still aiming to conclude negotiations in October, no fast track legislation in sight, and anti-trade legislation metastasizing in a Congress that has largely been excluded from shaping the deal’s terms, there are long battles ahead.  Meyerson’s counsel that we “go slower on free trade” is probably already a done deal.

As to the rest of Meyerson’s claims that trade is a boon for big business, which comes at the expense of workers and consumers, we have harvested countless forests here at Cato explaining why that is just false. The most persistent U.S. trade barriers are imposed on food (tariffs and tariff-rate quotas), clothing (tariffs), and shelter (trade remedies restrictions on lumber, steel, cement, paint, nails, appliances, flooring, furniture, etc.), making them the most regressive taxes in the U.S. system.  Lower-income Americans (those for whom Meyerson claims to speak) devote larger shares of their budgets to these basic necessities than do white-collar fat cats.

I’ll leave you with these three charts, which demonstrate positive relationships between import and jobs, price decreases over time for heavily traded items, and price increases over time for less frequently traded services, all exposing the errors of Meyerson’s claims.

Senators Levin and McCain: Two Peas All Up in our iPods

Earlier this year, Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) announced that he will be retiring after many, many, many decades of lawmaking when his term expires in January 2015. But he doesn’t intend to make for the exits without sealing his legacy of disdain for America’s wealth creators. After holding hearings last September to shed light on the “loopholes and gimmicks” employed by U.S. multinational companies to avoid paying their “fair share” of taxes, Levin resumed his inquisition today by holding a hearing intended to publically shame one of America’s most successful and most bountiful companies:

Apple sought the Holy Grail of tax avoidance. It has created offshore entities holding tens of billions of dollars, while claiming to be tax resident nowhere. We intend to highlight that gimmick and other Apple offshore tax avoidance tactics so that American working families who pay their share of taxes understand how offshore tax loopholes raise their tax burden, add to the federal deficit and ought to be closed.

Man, the spite in those words is palpable.

At the outset, it is important to note that no illegalities have been alleged, nor have any likely been committed. Like most other U.S.-based multinational corporations, who face tax rates of 35 percent on profits repatriated from abroad, Apple has tax avoidance specialists on its payroll to figure out the most effective ways to minimize their tax burden. They’d be sued for corporate malfeasance by their shareholders if they didn’t.

Unlike foreign-based multinationals whose governments don’t tax their profits earned abroad (or do so very lightly), U.S multinationals are subject to double taxation—first in the foreign countries where they operate at local tax rates and then by the IRS, at up to 35 percent, when profits are brought home. Well guess what? That system discourages profit repatriation, depriving the economy of working capital, and it encourages elaborate, legal tax avoidance schemes.

Oddly, Senator Levin’s problem is not with these perverse incentives, but with the act of following them. Thank you, sir, may I have another! But even worse, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) acknowledges the faults and disincentives of the system, but still casts the blame on those following Congress’s incentive structure:

I have long advocated for modernizing our broken and uncompetitive tax code, but that cannot and must not be an excuse for turning a blind eye to the highly questionable tax strategies that corporations like Apple use to avoid paying taxes in America. The proper place for the bulk of Apple’s creative energy ought to go into its innovative products and services, not in its tax department.

A company that found remarkable success by harnessing American ingenuity and the opportunities afforded by the U.S. economy should not be shifting its profits overseas to avoid the payment of U.S. tax, purposefully depriving the American people of revenue. It is important to understand Apple’s byzantine tax structure so that we can effectively close the loopholes utilized by many U.S. multinational companies, particularly in this era of sequestration.

Apple’s byzantine tax structure?

Should Apple be blamed for optimizing according to the legal incentives created by the likes of Senators Levin and McCain? Rather, the public would be better served if Senators Levin and McCain were hauled before a public panel to explain why the tax system they helped create and have failed to reform penalizes U.S. companies, and discourages domestic reinvestment.

No Time for Mercantilist Posturing in Transatlantic Trade Talks

Pitched as a cure for Europe’s woes, salvation for the multilateral trading system, and the last best chance to restrain the Chinese juggernaut, the stakes are high for the upcoming Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations. Of course the primary objective of the TTIP is to reduce nagging impediments to commerce between the United States and the European Union. But success is far from a sure bet.

Given the numerous bilateral trade frictions that have eluded resolution for many years, the goal of a “comprehensive” agreement by the end of 2014 – the current target – is simply not credible. Success would require negotiators to lay down their calculators and spreadsheets, disavow the “exports good, imports bad” mantra of mercantilist doctrine on which they were raised, and act on behalf of their citizens instead of their domestic producer lobbies.

That outcome would be too good to be true, but there may be a certain genius to the tight timeframe: it will demand that negotiators forego excessive posturing and will limit the potential for ever-shifting political calculations to subvert progress. Regardless, success can only take the form of a less comprehensive agreement or, perhaps, a two-phased agreement where the first phase meets the 2014 deadline by achieving accord on relatively agreeable matters, while the tougher issues are relegated to a later train.

A recent paper co-published by the Atlantic Council and the Bertelsmann Foundation presented the results of a survey of American and European trade policy experts about the prospects for a successful TTIP agreement. More than half thought the negotiations would produce a “moderate agreement,” and most thought the agreement would take effect by the end of 2015 or 2016.

Do New Cybersecurity Restrictions Amount to Regulatory Protectionism?

Protectionism masquerading as regulation in the public interest is the subject of an excellent new paper by my colleagues Bill Watson and Sallie James.  As tariffs and other border barriers to trade have declined, rent-seeking domestic interests have turned increasingly to regulations with noble sounding purposes – protecting Flipper from the indiscriminating nets of tuna fishermen, fighting the tobacco industry’s efforts to entice children with grape-flavored cigarettes, keeping U.S. highways safe from recklessly-driven, dilapidated, smoke-emitting Mexican trucks, and so on – in order to reduce competition and secure artificial market advantages over you, the consumer.

The paper documents numerous examples of this “bootleggers and Baptists” phenomenon, where the causes of perhaps well-intentioned advocates of health and safety regulation were infiltrated or commandeered by domestic producer interests with more nefarious, protectionist motives, and advises policymakers to:

be skeptical of regulatory proposals backed by the target domestic industry and of proposals that lack a plausible theory of market failure. These are red flags that the proposal is the product of privilege-seeking special interests disguised as altruistic consumer advocates.

After reading this incisive paper, you might consider whether a new law restricting U.S. government purchases of Chinese-produced information technology systems in the name of cybersecurity fits the profile of regulatory protectionism.  A two paragraph section of the 574-page “Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act of 2013,” signed into law last week, prohibits federal agency purchases of IT equipment “produced, manufactured or assembled” by entities “owned, directed, or subsidized by the People’s Republic of China” unless the head of the purchasing agency consults with the FBI and determines that the purchase is “in the national interest of the United States” and then conveys that determination in writing to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees.

Obama’s Trade Policy Should Be Judged on Its Accomplishments, Not Its Promise

There has been more buzz about the prospects for trade liberalization this year than at any time since the first term of the second president Bush. It appears that some may be mistaking the chatter for actual accomplishment.

For example, trade policy made the front page of Saturday’s Washington Post in a story that is much less about the substantive issues, or the obstacle-strewn path to meaningful liberalization, or the political leadership that will be required to surmount those obstacles than it is a paean to President Obama’s alleged metamorphosis into a champion of free trade.

But before anyone awards the president the Nobel Trade Prize for a job yet done, consider this: in four-plus years, this administration has concluded zero trade agreements, while launching 13 WTO cases against various trade partners. For 50 months, enforcement and domestic protectionism—not liberalization—have dominated the trade agenda.

Yet, the absence of evidence that this administration can deliver meaningful new trade agreements doesn’t seem to curb the enthusiasm of Bruce Stokes, a long-time trade policy observer, whose comment serves as the emphatic final sentence of the Washington Post tribute: “They appear to have moved from a risk-averse first term to creating a legacy in international economic and trade policy.” A legacy? Really? Shouldn’t the bar be raised just a smidge before we coronate President Obama this generation’s Cordell Hull?

For starters, wouldn’t the president have delegated someone capable and experienced to take ownership of the trade agenda if he were really committed to leaving a trade policy legacy? U.S. trade representative Ron Kirk announced more than one year ago that he would be leaving his post early in a second Obama administration. Yet there is nobody vetted and ready to take the reins of trade policy. Kirk’s official resignation came at the end of last month—though he has been hanging around to help out on account of … “sequestration.”

The most prominent name floated for U.S. Trade Representative has been the OMB’s Jeff Zients, the person most closely associated with President Obama’s proposal to subsume the USTR under the enforcement-centric Commerce Department—again, not exactly the substance of trade legacy-building. Members from both parties in Congress have demanded a better candidate if the president expects his trade agenda to be taken seriously.

Accomplishments, not rhetorical intentions, should serve as the basis for our judgments. Anyone can announce initiatives. President Obama is quite proficient at reciting litanies of initiatives. But it remains to be seen how he handles the situation when the deals require his confronting allied interests and dismantling their protectionist perches. In fairness, the administration’s trade negotiators have been working hard toward a Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement with 10 Pacific-rim nations. But let’s see where this goes before we start writing history. There’s still a lot of ham left on that bone.

The administration has verbally committed to completing the TPP negotiations by the end of this year and the just-announced Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations with Europe by the end of next year—both virtual impossibilities given where things stand in those negotiations and between the White House and Congress. So we already have a credibility problem.

U.S.-EU Free Trade Agreement? A Pep Talk or Overhaul at USTR Is the Place to Start

In its first 49 months, the Obama adminstration has paid lip service to trade liberalization. There have been the announcements, the platitudes, the initiatives, the task forces, and the interminable negotiations, but no new trade agreements. Not one. Still, in his State of the Union speech tonight, the president will offer assurances that his rhetorical commitment to trade liberalization remains steadfast, when he announces grand plans to pursue a trans-Atlantic free trade deal. Of course, rhetorical commitments and pursuing free trade don’t exactly get the job done.

Whether anything comes of prospective U.S.-EU trade negotiations or the still-brewing Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations depends, more than anything else, on whether President Obama believes his own rhetoric. Of course, actions speak louder than words and on that score things don’t look especially promising.

Exhibit A is the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, where employee morale has gone from bad to worse. In a 2012 OPM survey of 29 small federal agencies published in a report titled “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government,” USTR ranked dead last. The results showed employee dissatisfaction with their jobs, their organization, and their senior leadership.

The overall weighted index score of 32.7 (out of a possible 100) in 2012 is the latest point in a continuous and steep decline in satisfaction, which was 74.2 in 2009, 57.4 in 2010, and 47.7 in 2011. The sub-index for “Effective Leadership - Senior Leaders” declined from 71.2 to 49.7 to 37.5 to 18.6 over those same four years. Only 17.7 percent of the 101 USTR respondents said they had a high level of respect for their organization’s senior leaders, while 62.1 dissented from that view. Only 12.8 percent of 102 USTR respondents said their organization’s leaders generate high levels of motivation and commitment in the workforce, while 67.3 dissented.

These are some profound rebukes of U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, and by extension, President Obama.