Tag: world trade organization

Tuesday Afternoon Hypocrisy

An article today in Congress Daily [$] made me laugh out loud. In a “Geez, these people have some nerve” kind of way.

A bunch of politicians have written to Obama, saying that Airbus should be disqualified from the current bidding process for the Air Force refueling tanker contract on the grounds that the World Trade Organization has reportedly (the final ruling is not yet out) ruled EU subsidies to Airbus illegal. Here’s part of their letter:

Buying Airbus tankers would reward European governments with Department of Defense dollars at the same time that the U.S. Trade Representative is trying to punish European governments for flouting international laws… American taxpayers must not be forced to foot the bill for products which benefited from illegal subsidies.

As I wrote to my colleagues when the news came over email, I wonder if those same politicians (authors, by the way, of the auto bailout and cash-for-clunkers) will be as indignant about subsidized companies  if/when Boeing’s subsidies, currently being examined in a counter-challenge at the WTO, are ruled illegal. And how about all those illegal cotton subsidies that the United States doles out? Should taxpayers be footing the bill for storing cotton (scroll down, under “Commodity Certificates”)?

In any case, while I feel sorry for the taxpayers who pay for them, foreign subsidies are a gift to the U.S. consumer.  The bill that American taxpayers are being “forced to foot” is smaller than it otherwise would be because of the corporate welfare flowing to Airbus.  (Note to the libertarian purity police: I’m not advocating for corporate welfare here, just noting the other side of the economic ledger).

French Folly

Following the dubious example set recently by U.S. legislators, French politicians have informally proposed slapping punitive tariffs on goods from countries who refuse to curb greenhouse gas emissions. The German State Secretary for the Environment has, quite rightly, called foul:

There are two problems – the WTO (World Trade Organization), and the signal would be that this is a new form of eco-imperialism,” Machnig said.

 ”We are closing our markets for their products, and I don’t think this is a very helpful signal for the international negotiations.”

I have a paper forthcoming on the carbon tariff issue, but in the meantime here’s a recent op-ed (written jointly with Pat Michaels) on climate change policy mis-steps.

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.

About That Vision Thing…

Does the world need a “shared vision on food and agricultural trade policy”? So says World Trade Organization Director General Pascal Lamy:

Let me start by saying that food and agricultural trade policy does not operate in a vacuum. In other words, no matter how sophisticated our trade policies may be, if domestic policies do not themselves incentivize agriculture, and internalize negative social and environmental externalities, then we will always have a problem.

Here I question what exactly Lamy means by “incentivize”.  Does he mean “make sure we get incentives right”, or does he mean “provide positive incentives to agriculture”? The former probably is harmless if it means simply allowing market forces to work, the latter a potential opening for the types of subsidies and price supports that have done so much damage to agricultural trade policy. Ditto with his wish to “internalize negative social and environmental externalities”: on the face of it, this is a fairly inoffensive goal, and a positively noble one if he is referring to, say, the effects on poor farmers abroad stemming from rich country farm subsidies. But I can see all sorts of nefarious social policies flowing from that prescription if it gets into the wrong hands.

Lamy goes on to make sensible points about the effects of tax policy on agriculture, and makes this statement about the importance of free trade for food security:

To my mind, global integration allows us to think of efficiency beyond national boundaries. It allows us to score efficiency gains on a global scale by shifting agricultural production to where it can best take place. As I often say, if a country such as Egypt were to aim for self-sufficiency in agriculture, it would soon need more than one River Nile. Which basically means that global integration must also allow food, feed, and fibre to travel from countries where they are efficiently produced to countries where there is demand.

All necessary, if not sufficient, conditions for global food security, to be sure. But Lamy then turns to exactly what a global vision for agriculture might involve:

I believe that we could all agree on what the basic objectives are that we seek from our agricultural systems. We all want sufficient food, feed, fibre and some even want fuel. We want nutritious food and feed. We want safe food and feed. We want a decent and rising living standard for our farmers. We want food to be available and affordable for the consumer. We want agricultural production systems that are in tune with local culture and customs, and that respect the environment throughout a product’s entire life-cycle.

Hmm. I’m not sure about all that. For one thing, some of those goals seem potentially in conflict. United States sugar policy, for example, has shown us the results when consumers’ desire for “affordable” food conflicts with sugar farmers’ desire for a “decent and rising living standard” (hint: it’s not the consumers who make out like bandits). Similarly, it is at least conceivable that food grown “in tune with local culture and customs” might be more expensive, or make food less abundant, or even less safe. And if those goals can be in conflict within a country’s borders, I shudder to think what such an overburdened agenda could do to the already-struggling global trading system. At the extreme, a call for a “global vision” of agricultural trade policy could see the return of international commodity agreements and other supranational management nightmares of the mid-late 20th century.

On balance, the WTO has been a force for good in freeing agricultural trade. For sure, commodity markets are still very distorted, and the whole mercantilist basis of the WTO must be questioned. But by trying to harness the desire of exporters for more customers to counteract the pressure on governments to protect domestic industries, the WTO has done much good in the world. Pascal Lamy is right to encourage countries to stay on course with the Doha round of trade negotiations. I just hope that encouraging a “global vision” for agriculture, and pointing to vague notions of “social externalities,” doesn’t run against his stated purpose of freeing farm trade.

More on Cato’s work on agricultural trade policy here.