Tag: unions

Hey G-20! Here’s How You Curb Protectionism

Last week I recommended reading a new paper published by the Lowy Institute in Australia, which proposes an utterly sensible reform for the G-20, if curbing protectionism is a serious aim.

Using Australia’s own successful experience as an example, the authors recommend other countries adopt “domestic transparency” programs, which would essentially include analysis from an independent, apolitical board or agency that measures the real costs and benefits of proposed trade restrictions.

The findings of these independent reviews would be accessible to the public—and probably published in newspapers and other popular media—in advance of any decision to impose or reject the proposed trade restrictions. The findings wouldn’t legally bind the authorities to take any particular action, but would help chase from the shadows the real costs of protectionism, so that those ultimately making the decision know that the public at large is aware of the costs.

When a politician knows that he/she can benefit politically by imposing import duties, the costs of which are hidden in higher prices paid by consumers, who are unlikely to make the causal connection, there is a profound asymmetry of incentives and disincentives. The politician is much more likely to choose to secure the political benefit of imposing duties since the costs are hidden. But if light is shone on those costs, through domestic transparency initiatives, that asymmetry is reduced or eliminated. Politicians, under these circumstances, can go back to the special interests and say how much they’d like to help out with a tariff, but the costs don’t justify the measure. And the protection-seekers know the politician’s hands are tied because the public is aware of those costs.

Well, Alan Mitchell of the Australian Financial Review on Monday supposed how the presence of a domestic transparency regime would have affected President Obama’s tire tariff decision. It is very instructive:

The case of the Chinese tyres provides a striking example. The action was taken under a section of the US Trade Act popularly known as the “China-specific safeguard” provision. The act allows increased import duties if the imports cause, or even just threaten, material injury to US producers. If material injury is identified, the president must take action against the imports unless he determines that the “provision of such relief is not in the national economic interest.”

 The US International Trade Commission (ITC) publicly advises the president on the issue of material injury, and on the level of trade barriers needed to stop it, but not on the question of the national economic interest.

The president is left to determine that for himself. And the public is aware of nothing but the ITC-endorsed case for protection….

Suppose the ITC had been asked to also publicly advise the President on whether action against Chinese tyres was in the national economic interest. There is no doubt about what its advice would have been. The duties on Chinese tyres will save some jobs among US producers of low-cost tyres, but at the price of propping up uneconomic producers, and at the cost of jobs lost among US tyre retailers and in other sectors of the economy….

Had the ITC advised that action was against the national economic interest, the President would have been in a much stronger position to reject the demand, if he had wanted to. He may not have wanted to, of course….

The US action against Chinese tyres was initiated by a complaint from the unions that are an important part of Obama’s support base. But even if Obama had protected the tyre makers against the advice of the ITC, an important blow still would have been struck against protectionism. The American people would have heard the truth from an unimpeachable source: the protection of inefficient tyre makers is against the US economic interest….

It would have been a small but important step towards educating and changing public opinion. And, without that, multilateral trade reform will never gain the domestic political support it needs to bring down trade barriers in agriculture and services.

This is what could have been had ”domestic transparency” already been embraced in the United States.  See the point in such a reform?

President Obama Subsidizes President Obama with Tire Tariff

CHINA-US-CONSUMER-RECALL-FILESWho benefits from 35 percent duties on Chinese-produced tires?

U.S. producers? No, they are the ones who, pursuing profit-maximizing strategies, have consciously shifted production of low-end tires from their U.S. plants to their Chinese plants over the past few years. They will now have to incur the costs of shifting production from China to production facilities in Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia and other developing countries, where it makes economic sense to produce low-end tires.

U.S. workers, then? Nah. Low-end U.S. tire production workers won’t see an increase in U.S. capacity, capacity utilization, hours worked, or wages because, as implied above, production isn’t coming back to the United States. Meanwhile, U.S. workers in tire wholesaling, distribution, and other segment of the supply chain are likely to see a decline in business in the short-run, as higher prices reduce demand for tires. Things may improve once adjustments are made to the new production locations, but that will involve certain adjustment costs and lower profit margins because presumably China is the profit-maximizing production location. Right?  Why else would producers have chosen China?

Does the tariff benefit consumers, then? Come on. Not only will it lead to higher prices for consumers, but it will hit cost-conscious consumers the hardest. And you thought President Obama opposed regressive taxation?

No, the only beneficiary of the tariff is President Obama, who presumably gets some political mileage for his Chicago-style payback of Big Labor. But make no mistake that any benefits to the president will be fleeting, as the direct costs of the tire tariff and the costs of copycat protectionism start to squeeze economic recovery. As the president is flooded with similar requests for protection from other unions and producers, he will have to choose between disappointing those favor-seekers or strangling economic prospects entirely. The tire decision was selfish and shortsighted.

‘We Don’t Put Our First Amendment Rights In the Hands of FEC Bureaucrats’

I (and several colleagues) have blogged before about Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the latest campaign finance case, which was argued this morning at the Supreme Court.  The case is about much more than whether a corporation can release a movie about a political candidate during an election campaign.  Indeed, it goes to the very heart of the First Amendment, which was specifically created to protect political speech—the kind most in danger of being censored by politicians looking to limit the appeal of threatening candidates and ideas.

After all, hard-hitting political speech is something the First Amendment’s authors experienced firsthand.  They knew very well what they were doing in choosing free and vigorous debate over government-filtered pablum.  Moreover, persons of modest means often pool their resources to speak through ideological associations like Citizens United.  That speech too should not be silenced because of nebulous concerns about “level playing fields” and speculation over the “appearance of corruption.”  The First Amendment simply does not permit the government to handicap speakers based on their wealth, or ration speech in a quixotic attempt to equalize public debate: Thankfully, we do not live in the world of Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron!

A few surprises came out of today’s hearing, but not regarding the ultimate outcome of this case.  It is now starkly clear that the Court will rule 5-4 to strike down the FEC’s attempt to regulate the Hillary Clinton movie (and advertisements for it). Indeed, Solicitor General Elena Kagan – in her inaugural argument in any court – all but conceded that independent movies are not electioneering communications subject to campaign finance laws.  And she reversed the government’s earlier position that even books could be banned if they expressly supported or opposed a candidate!  (She went on to also reverse the government’s position on two other key points: whether nonprofit corporations (and perhaps small enterprises) could be treated differently than large for-profit business, and what the government’s compelling interest was in prohibiting corporations from using general treasury funds on independent political speech.)

Ted Olson, arguing for Citizens United, quickly recognized that he had his five votes, and so pushed for a broader opinion.  That is, the larger – and more interesting – question is whether the Court will throw out altogether its 16-year-old proscription on corporations and unions spending their general treasury funds on political speech.  Given the vehement opposition to campaign finance laws often expressed by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas, all eyes were on Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito, in whose jurisprudence some have seen signs of judicial “minimalism.”  The Chief Justice’s hostility to the government’s argument – “we don’t put our First Amendment rights in the hands of FEC bureaucrats” – and Justice Alito’s skepticism about the weight of the two precedents at issue leads me to believe that there’s a strong likelihood we’ll have a decision that sweeps aside yet another cornerstone of the speech-restricting campaign finance regime.

One other thing to note: Justice Sotomayor, participating in her first argument since joining the Court, indicated three things: 1) she has doubts that corporations have the same First Amendment rights as individuals; 2) she believes strongly in stare decisis, even when a constitutional decision might be wrong; and 3) she cares a lot about deferring to the “democratic process.”  While it is still much too early to be making generalizations about how she’ll behave now that she doesn’t answer to a higher Court, these three points suggest that she won’t be a big friend of liberty in the face of government “reform.”

Another (less serious) thing to note: My seat – in the last row of the Supreme Court bar members area – was almost directly in front of Senators John McCain and Russ Feingold (who were seated in the first row of the public gallery).  I didn’t notice this until everyone rose to leave, or I would’ve tried to gauge their reaction to certain parts of the argument.

Finally, you can find the briefs Cato has filed in the case here and here.

SEC Favors Special Interests in New Corporate Elections Rule

Yesterday, the SEC repealed a long-standing rule which allowed brokers to vote shares on behalf of their investors, unless they obtained written directions from each individual investors.  While investors have long been able to direct the voting of their shares, many do not take the time to.  In these cases, the brokers vote those shares, after all they are the agents of the investors and are hired to act on their behalf.

The direct effect of the rule will be to reduce the voting weight of retail investors, as represented by their brokers.  In voting against the rule, SEC Commissioner Kathy Casey raised the point that the rule would skew voting toward large institutional investors and away from little retail investors.

What did the large institutions investors have to say?  As reported in today’s Financial Times, Ann Yerger, who represents large pension funds claimed that “counting uninstructed broker votes is akin to stuffing the ballot box for management.”  One has to wonder whether the pension funds, which Ms. Yerger represents should have to get written instructions from all the pensioners whose pensions are managed by these funds?  Of course not, treating all agents of investors equally would make too much sense for the SEC.

Then one should not be too surprised to see pension funds be allowed to cast their “uninstructed” votes while brokers cannot.  The largest pension funds manage the retirement of unionized state and local employees, often with the fund management itself representing the interests of the unions.  We witnessed this same favoring of union interests over the common good in the auto bailouts.

The rule once again illustrates that the new bosses in Washington are busy rewarding their allies at the expense of everyone else.

High Noon for U.S. Trade Policy

This morning, the U.S. International Trade Commission issued an affirmative determination in a so-called “Section 421” or “China-Specific Safeguard” case that imports of consumer tires from China are causing market disruption in the United States. That may sound like just another day in Washington, but the decision could very well be the catalyst for the most consequential event in trade policy since the Bush steel tariffs of 2002. It will certainly force a defining moment for a president who has preferred obfuscation to clear direction on trade policy.

Under the statute (which became U.S. law as a condition of China’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001), the ITC has 20 days to provide remedial recommendations to the president and the U.S. trade representative. Those recommendations are likely to include quotas, tariffs, or some combination that will ultimately curtail the supply and raise the prices of all tires in the United States – not just those imported from China. However, the president has the discretion to deny import “relief” if he determines that such restrictions would have an adverse impact on the U.S. economy that is clearly greater than its benefits, or if he determines that such relief would cause serious harm to the national security of the United States.

I will forego my own explanation as to why restrictions would have an adverse impact that is clearly greater than its benefits, and instead give you the statement of the U.S. Tire Industry Association, which represents “all segments of the tire industry, including those that manufacture, repair, recycle, sell, service or use new or retreaded tires, and also those suppliers or individuals who furnish equipment, material or services to the industry.” Suffice it to say that no producers of tires in the United States supported this petition, so it is not a matter of U.S. tire producers against Chinese tire producers. It is really nothing more than a matter of a U.S. union objecting to management’s decision to produce its lowest grade (lowest quality, lowest priced, lowest profit margin) tires abroad. Yet the consequences of trade restraints could affect interests across and throughout the economy, particularly if China responds in kind.

During the Bush administration, there were six Section 421 cases filed by domestic parties, four of which were found by the ITC to warrant import relief. In each of those four cases, President Bush exercised his discretion to deny relief. The tires case is a test case for President Obama. Will 421 fly under this president? Or will it remain the dead letter that petitioners considered it to be under President Bush?

The stakes are much higher for Obama than they were for Bush because the unions (the United Steel Workers union is the petitioner in the tires case) and the Chinese both feel more emboldened in their positions now. Bush didn’t win the near-unanimous support of organized labor in his elections, nor did he promise to get tough on Chinese trade practices, as Obama did.

Instead, Bush set the precedent of denying relief. And he did it four times. So, the Chinese see this firmly as a matter of presidential discretion – unlike antidumping or countervailing duties, which run on statutory auto pilot without requiring the president’s attention or consent. In other words, although there are over 50 outstanding U.S. antidumping and countervailing duty orders against various Chinese products, none of them is considered to reflect the direct wishes of the U.S. president, and thus don’t rise to the level of a potentially explosive trade dispute. But trade restraints under the 421 will no doubt be considered by the Chinese to be a directive of the U.S. president, thus the offense taken and the consequences wrought could be profound.

The good news is that President Obama will finally be forced to take a stand – to match his words and deeds. After a campaign in which trade was disparaged, President Obama’s first 100 days were characterized by a conciliatory tone and some enlightened actions. He told the Mexican president and the Canadian prime minister that he no longer wanted to reopen NAFTA. He spoke out against the most protectionist provisions of the Buy American language in the so-called stimulus bill. He repudiated protectionism and pledged to avoid new protectionist measures at the G-20 and before other international gatherings. His Treasury Department declined to label China a currency manipulator. And his trade representative set about articulating a pro-trade agenda, including support for a push to pass pending bilateral trade agreements and concluding the Doha Round.

But there’s been very little follow through and trade partners are beginning to doubt his sincerity. Efforts to schedule votes on pending trade agreements have been shunted aside as too controversial to happen before health care reform legislation. In the meantime, imports are being turned away from U.S. procurement projects on account of some mindless Buy American caveats and overzealous interpretation of other Buy American rules by project administrators, which is inciting copycat rules in Canada and China.

The time has come for the president to stop wavering and to take decisive actions on trade policy. Of course, he will have until September 17 to render his decision about whether to grant or deny relief in the tires case. Between now and then he should conclude that trade restrictions are not the appropriate course – that among other problems, they will also undermine his economic and diplomatic objectives. And while he’s denying relief, he should take some advice from Scott Lincicome and me to speak the truth about trade to those constituencies who will feel betrayed. Directly and honestly making the case for trade to those who doubt is more durable than rationalizing each pro-trade decision, which has been the norm for too long in Washington. Besides, the polls show that Americans have already turned the corner and are moving away from their misguided flirtation with protectionism. That may help inspire an uncommitted president to take the baton.

Michael Lind’s Economic Philistinism

In a recently published article for the journal Democracy, Michael Lind of the New America Foundation lays out “The Case for Goliath” (registration required) – i.e., for returning to the good old days of price-and-entry regulation and cartelized industries. No, seriously.

I’ll give Lind credit for daring to go where his fellow devotees of “nostalgianomics” fear to tread.  Many on the left these days look back fondly at the ’50s and ’60s when activist government and strong unions coincided with a narrowing income distribution. What they fail to recognize, or at least admit, is that the political economy of that supposed golden age rested on a systematic muting of competition, both by circumstance and deliberate policy.  The devastation of Europe and Japan in World War II, price-and-entry controls, high trade barriers, and the threat of antitrust enforcement against industry leaders all combined to make heavy unionization and above-market wages for union workers economically viable.

This glaring oversight is understandable. There is, after all, overwhelming economic evidence that competition beats cartelization of industry hands down. When government restricts entry by new firms, the predictable result is a stifling of innovation. For example, consider this admission by former FCC chairman Michael Powell: “Because the history of the FCC is, when something happens that it doesn’t understand, kill it. We tried to kill cable. We tried to kill long-distance. When [MCI founder] Bill McGowan starting stringing out microwave towers that threatened AT&T, the FCC tried to stop him. The FCC tried to kill cable because it was going to threaten broadcasting.” (For more details on the the FCC’s lamentable track record, see here.)

The upshot is that progressive fantasies of a return to the good old days are just that – fantasies. Private-sector unions have withered and shrunk not because of changes in labor law, but because unionized firms haven’t been able to hack it in the new, more competitive marketplace (see “Auto industry, U.S.”). So the only way to get back to the days of Big Labor is by throttling the main engine of innovation and productivity: competition. And, well, that just doesn’t sound very progressive, does it?

Lind, though, grasps the nettle and chooses cartels and unions over economic progress. He does try to argue that we can have our cake and eat it too, but his case boils down to a crude post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy: the big move toward cartelization in the ’30s was followed by good times in the ’50s and ’60s (let’s not talk about the ’70s), so therefore cartelization was good for the economy!  Yes, and the Union won the Civil War with inferior generals, so perhaps poor military leadership is a key to victory. The fact is, the strong economic performance of the early postwar decades occurred in spite of, not because of, widespread restrictions on competition.

Though the anticompetitive nostrums Lind peddles are pure poison, he nonetheless deserves commendation. By identifying correctly the link between cartelization and strong unions, Lind highlights the essentially reactionary nature of progressives’ infatuation with Big Labor. He has therefore, however unwittingly, performed a public service.

Labor’s Waxing Political Influence

It has long been recognized that many capitalists are the greatest enemies of capitalism.  They want free enterprise for others, not themselves.

Unfortunately, organized labor tends to be even more statist in orientation.  Unions now routinely lobby for government to give them what they cannot get in the marketplace.

Labor influence is greatest in the public sector.  And as government’s power has expanded during the current economic crisis, so has the influence of unions.  Observes Steve Malanga in the Wall Street Journal:

Across the private sector, workers are swallowing hard as their employers freeze salaries, cancel bonuses, and institute longer work days. America’s employees can see for themselves how steeply business has fallen off, which is why many are accepting cost-saving measures with equanimity – especially compared to workers in France, where riots and plant takeovers have become regular news.

But then there is the U.S. public sector, where the mood seems very European these days. In New Jersey, which faces a $3.3 billion budget deficit, angry state workers have demonstrated in Trenton and taken Gov. Jon Corzine to court over his plan to require unpaid furloughs for public employees. In New York, public-sector unions have hit the airwaves with caustic ads denouncing Gov. David Paterson’s promise to lay off state workers if they continue refusing to forgo wage hikes as part of an effort to close a $17.7 billion deficit. In Los Angeles County, where the schools face a budget deficit of nearly $600 million, school employees have balked at a salary freeze and vowed to oppose any layoffs that the board of education says it will have to pursue if workers don’t agree to concessions.

Call it a tale of two economies. Private-sector workers – unionized and nonunion alike – can largely see that without compromises they may be forced to join unemployment lines. Not so in the public sector.

Government unions used their influence this winter in Washington to ensure that a healthy chunk of the federal stimulus package was sent to states and cities to preserve public jobs. Now they are fighting tenacious and largely successful local battles to safeguard salaries and benefits. Their gains, of course, can only come at the expense of taxpayers, which is one reason why states and cities are approving tens of billions of dollars in tax increases.

The government’s increased power over the economy also gives organized labor a new hook to lobby for more special interest privileges.  For instance, the AFL-CIO is arguing that the federal bailout of the auto industry should bar the companies from moving factories overseas.

Explains the union federation:

The pundits and politicians inside the Washington Beltway don’t get: If the United States continues to send its manufacturing jobs [1] overseas—as [2] General Motors and Chrysler are now proposing—the result will be more low-income U.S. families.

So today, workers, economists, academics and business and union leaders, fresh from the “[3] Keep It Made in America” bus tour through the nation’s heartland, brought that message to the policymakers’ doorstep as part of a teach-in on Capitol Hill.

The 11-day, 34-city bus tour showcased the ripple effect on communities of the lost jobs in manufacturing. ([4] See video.) Today, during the teach-in, those who took part brought the stories they heard along the tour and presented principles for revitalizing the auto industry to members of Congress and the press. 

Labor officials have been making similar arguments about bank lending.  If you got bailed out by Washington, then you have an obligation to keep funding bankrupt concerns.  Never mind getting paid back, and paying back the taxpayers.

Markets are resilient, but can survive only so much political interference.  If the American people aren’t careful, they might eventually find themselves living in an economy more appropriate for Latin America than North America.