Tag: trade

New Paper on the Generalized System of Preferences

I have a new paper out today on the Generalized System of Preferences, the program by which the U.S. government allows certain imports from most developing countries to enter the U.S. market duty-free. The program has benefits: some producers in some poor countries are able to sell more than they otherwise would in the U.S. market, and U.S. consumers benefit to the tune  of hundreds of millions of dollars a year because of the tariff exemptions.

But the GSP still represents managed trade, and poorly managed at that. The program is designed so certain goods in which poorer countries tend to have a comparative advantage – textiles, for example – are excluded from the program, mainly because of the influence of the U.S. textile lobby. There are limits on how much of a particular product a beneficiary country can export duty-free, which means that truly efficient and competitve exporters are shut out.  The very existence of the program has proved a stumbling block to (superior, if not first-best) multilateral trade liberalization, because GSP beneficiary countries don’t want reductions in general tariffs to erode their preferential access.

With the GSP expiring at the end of the year (more here on possible vehicles for its passage [$]), it is a good time for Congress to consider radically changing this program. The best way to secure an open, prosperous world economy is to allow trade to flow freely across borders. If that is a bridge too far for politicians, they should at least consider some of the other reforms I suggest to make the GSP more open to more products, and to reduce the interference these programs impose on voluntary, peaceful exchange. Opening the U.S. market on a permanent and non-discriminatory basis should be the ultimate goal.

President Obama Fails to Understand Trade

At the beginning of the Obama administration, I had the audacity to hope that the new president would defy conventional wisdom and become a proponent of trade and a good spokesman for its benefits. Scott Lincicome and I even wrote a 20,000-plus word Cato analysis explaining why the economic, geopolitical, and domestic political environment offered the president a unique opportunity to steer his party back to its pro-trade roots.

The thrust of our analysis was that, despite the campaign rhetoric, the president understood the economic benefits of trade and that he would see it as an escape route from recession and a path to political success; that the president’s visibility and new cache with his trade-skeptical political party—and the fact that he wasn’t George W. Bush—made him well-suited to the task of challenging and extinguishing lingering myths about the alleged ravages of trade, while explaining its many benefits; and, that the president would recognize that pro-trade policies should be part of the current Democratic Party platform, if for no other reason than the fact that restrictions governments place on trade harm lower-income Americans and the world’s poor more than they hurt anyone else. (Protectionism is regressive taxation, which is presumably anathema to Democratic Party creed.)

Alas, our study, “Audaciously Hopeful: How President Obama Can Restore the Pro-Trade Consensus,” was just a little too. It fell on deaf ears. It was ignored. In fact, it’s almost as if the past two years of trade policy were conducted to spite the recommendations in that paper.

From this administration, we’ve seen completed bilateral trade agreements sent to an off-site storage warehouse; the imposition of taxes on imported tires; “Buy American” provisions; prohibitions on Mexican trucks; demonization by the president of companies that outsource; defiance of multilateral rules governing use of the antidumping law; and, a “Boardwalk Empire”-style deal to prospectively compensate Brazilian farmers for the lower revenues they should expect on account of the lavish subsidies bestowed by U.S. taxpayers on U.S. cotton producers in lieu of reducing—or better still, halting—cotton subsidies altogether. Yes, the hallmark accomplishment of this administration’s trade policy so far is a deal that requires American taxpayers to subsidize Brazilian cotton producers for the right to continue subsidizing U.S. cotton producers.

Despite all that, I remained audacious (or gullible) enough to hold a glimmer of hope that the president would finally see the wisdom in our advice—given the new political landscape.  That glimmer was snuffed out with publication of an oped in the New York Times this past Saturday, in which President Obama betrays profound misunderstanding of trade and its purpose.  The president portrays trade as an enterprise that is won or lost at the negotiating table, where only the most savvy or most committed negotiators can succeed in bringing home the spoils.  The president promises to fight hard to get Americans their fair shake from this dog-eat-dog process, while actual producers, consumers, workers, and investors are relegated to tertiary roles.

The central dysfunction between Americans and trade is the assumption—reinforced in the president’s op-ed—that exports are good, imports are bad, the trade account is the scoreboard, and our trade deficit means that we are losing at trade. That dysfunction resides comfortably within a zero-sum worldview, which the president touts in a purposeful cadence throughout the oped. In the penultimate sentence, the president writes:

Finally, at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Japan, I will continue seeking new markets in Asia for American exports. We want to expand our trade relationships in the region, including through the Trans-Pacific Partnership, to make sure that we’re not ceding markets, exports and the jobs they support to other nations.

By opining about trade without understanding that its real benefits are manifest in imports (here’s Don Boudreax’s elaboration of that process), the president is simply reinforcing myths that will continue to confuse and divide American.  As long as politicians insist that our trade account is a scoreboard and that a surplus is a trade policy success metric, Americans will continue to be skeptical about trade.

Commercial Ties with India Are An Opportunity, Mr. President—Not A Problem

During his visit to India, President Obama should bury once and for all his divisive rhetoric about American companies shipping jobs overseas. Our growing commercial ties with India are a great opportunity, not a problem. U.S. exports to India have doubled in the past four years. American companies that have set up shop in India have helped to fuel demand in that country for U.S. products and services. The president should be celebrating rather than demonizing our deeper economic ties with India.

A History Lesson for Trade Bashers

Candidates from both parties are trying to win votes this fall by criticizing free trade and trade agreements. As John Steele Gordon points out in a wonderful historical essay, “The Great Mistake,” in the latest Barron’s Weekly:

We’ve been down this unfortunate road before. Recall the Smoot-Hawley tariff, named after its chief congressional sponsors, Sen. Reed Smoot of Utah and Rep. Willis Hawley of Oregon, both Republicans and both chairmen of the committees in charge of taxes.

Introduced in 1929 as the country was tipping into recession, their bill did not have a happy ending. It imposed steep tariff increases on agricultural as well as manufactured goods, raising overall U.S. tariffs to their highest levels in decades. When President Hoover reluctantly signed the bill in June 1930:

The stock market, once again a leading indicator, immediately turned south. It wouldn’t stop falling for two years—the Dow Jones Industrial Average gave up all its gains since its inception in 1896.

Other countries made good on their threats of retaliatory tariffs, and world trade collapsed. American exports had been $5.24 billion in 1929. Three years later U.S. exports were worth only $1.16 billion, a 78% decline. The Smoot-Hawley tariff would prove to be one of the major government mistakes that converted an ordinary recession into the calamity of the Great Depression.

The protectionist bill was bad politics as well as bad economics. Hoover, Hawley, and Smoot were all swept out of office in 1932.

The Cuba Embargo at 50

Fifty years ago Tuesday, the United States began to impose sanctions on Cuba in what would turn into a comprehensive U.S. trade, finance and travel embargo.

Though the embargo is not the cause of Cuba’s dismal and deteriorating economic and social conditions, neither has it worked to change Cuban policies or even lead to regime change.

It is time to lift the embargo. Doing so will not save communism from its inherent flaws; that system collapsed spectacularly elsewhere around the world in places where the West maintained or established trade. Keeping the sanctions will only further allow the dictatorship and its sympathizers to explain away the regime’s own failings. It would be better for Cubans and the world to see the unraveling of Cuban communism without U.S. intervention. When a free Cuba is eventually born, it will more easily flourish if enemies of the open society cannot rely on a false narrative about how the colossus of the North finally killed off the island’s socialist experiment.

A good way to start would be by lifting the travel portion of the embargo. That measure would expose ordinary Cubans to hundreds of thousands of American citizens, thus inevitably expanding Cuba’s informal economy and establishing innumerable relationships that would make Cuban citizens more independent of the state. The regime may try to reap the benefits of increased revenues, but it will have unleashed a social dynamic that will be difficult to control.

Chinese Drywall Maker Held Accountable without Congressional Meddling

This summer, the House Energy and Commerce Committee approved a bill that would require foreign companies that import goods to the United States to appoint a legal representative in the United States who could be sued if their products caused injury. Exhibit A in the push for the bill was the case of contaminated drywall from China.

Advocates of the bill, titled the “Foreign Manufacturers Legal Accountability Act,” say it is necessary to ensure compensation for American consumers injured by faulty foreign-made products. Without a designated domestic agent, foreign companies could escape liability by dodging efforts to serve them with papers in a lawsuit. Hearings earlier this year highlighted the case of the drywall, in which damaged homeowners were finding it difficult to sue the Chinese producer.

The trouble with this approach, as my colleague Sallie James and I pointed out in a recent Cato Free Trade Bulletin, is that it would impose an additional burden on importers without adding significantly to the ability of consumers to gain compensation. We argued that sufficient remedies exist without adding a new law that looks suspiciously like a non-tariff trade barrier designed to protect U.S. manufacturers from foreign competitors.

As Exhibit A on our side, it was announced this week that a group of affected homeowners has struck a deal with the Chinese drywall company for compensation. As The Wall Street Journal reported in today’s edition:

Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin, along with suppliers and insurers, agreed to remove and replace the company’s drywall, as well as all the electrical wiring, gas tubing and appliances from 300 homes in four states.

They also agreed to pay relocation expenses while the houses, in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Florida, are repaired. The cost of fixing the houses, expected to take several months, is estimated from $40 to $80 per square foot per home. At $60 per square foot for a 2,500 square-foot home, the cost would be about $150,000.

Although the settlement involves a fraction of the homeowners who have file claims over the past few years, it is seen as a possible model for the resolution of other pending state and federal lawsuits …

The deal for compensation shows that the existing system works reasonably well for foreign-made as well as domestic-made goods. Congress should give up its efforts to place needless obstacles in the way of imports in the name of solving a problem that does not exist.

Is the Trade Gap to Blame for Slowing GDP Growth?

What had been a recurring story line buried in the business pages has now burst onto the front page: “Economic growth slowed by trade gap,” the Washington Post reports this morning in an above-the-fold headline.

The lead sets the stage for a story long on generalizations: “A widening U.S. trade deficit has become a substantial drag on economic growth as the country’s exports struggle to keep pace with the swelling sums that Americans are again spending on imported goods.”

The half truth in the story line is that exports fell by $2 billion in June compared to the month before, and that this has a negative effect on overall GDP growth. In our more globalized world, the rising wealth of our trading partners translates into more production in our own economy, and vice versa.

The fatal flaw of the story line (as I tackled recently here and at greater length here) is that it assumes that rising imports slow economic growth. That assumption, in turn, rests on a simplistic Keynesian view that if a portion of domestic demand is satisfied by spending on imports, that means less demand for domestically produced goods, thus less output and lower employment.

That view neglects the supply-side role of imports. More than half of what we import consists of goods consumed by producers—capital machinery, raw materials, parts and other intermediate inputs. Those imports help us produce more, not less. The Keynesian view also confuses cause and effect: Imports usually grow in response to RISING domestic demand. Consumers more eager to spend “swelling sums” on imports typically buy more domestically produced goods as well.

The bean counters at the Commerce Department “subtract” imports from GDP, not because those imports are a drag on growth, but to avoid double counting. If we want to count the number of widgets and other goods added to the economy in a quarter, we would obviously not count those that have been imported. But this does not mean the economy would have been that much larger if the widgets had not been imported.

The Post story adds to the misunderstanding by claiming: “At a basic level, trade deficits represent a loss of wealth for a country—money flowing abroad for goods and services produced elsewhere, supporting businesses and workers in other countries.”

This betrays a basic misunderstanding of wealth that Adam Smith exposed two centuries ago in The Wealth of Nations. Does wealth consist of money—pieces of green paper or blips on a computer or, in Smith’s day, bars of gold—or does it consist of the actual stuff that people produce to make their lives better, all those goods and services that we consume each year? Smith argued it was the latter. And in that case, a trade deficit at a basic level represents an inflow of wealth from the rest of the world—a cornucopia of cool stuff arriving everyday at our ports and stocking the shelves of our stores.

Of course, even if you think that dollars are the ultimate measure of wealth, obsession with the trade deficit ignores the fact that those dollars spent on imports quickly return to the United States. If they are not used to buy our goods and services, they are buying our assets—real estate, stocks, Treasury bonds, and so on. The “loss of wealth” supposedly represented by the trade deficit is almost exactly offset every year by a “gain of wealth” represented by the net inflow of dollars in the form of capital investment from the rest of the world.

Besides being wrong in its basic economics, making the trade deficit the scapegoat for slow growth poses a double danger for economic policy:

Danger no. 1 is that it tempts politicians to reach for the snake oil of protectionism to create jobs. If only we could stop the flood of imported goods, Americans would make more of those same goods themselves, creating millions of jobs. In reality, higher trade barriers impose a host of offsetting costs on the economy, resulting in lower output.

Danger no. 2 of blaming the trade deficit is that it diverts attention from policies that are far more plausible culprits in dampening growth. Politicians find it much easier to blame imported consumer goods from China for slower GDP growth than huge looming tax increases, expensive new health care mandates, a depressed housing sector, and a generally anti-business climate in Washington.

The trade gap should be the least of our worries.