Topic: International Economics and Development

House Farm Bill: “A Major Achievement?”

On Friday, the Democratically controlled U.S. House of Representatives passed a massive new farm bill. In a front page story on Saturday, the Washington Post reported:

The House yesterday passed a far-reaching new farm bill that preserves the existing system of subsidies for commercial farmers and adds billions of dollars for conservation, nutrition and new agricultural sectors.

Passage of the 741-page bill by a vote of 231 to 191, after partisan battling unusual for farm legislation, was a major achievement for the new Democratic leadership.

“A major achievement?” It says a lot about the political culture in our nation’s capital that passing a bill that basically continues more than 80 years of failed farm policy with minimal reforms is considered a major achievement.

In Washington, achievement is measured by how much legislation is passed and how much money is spent, not by whether the nation’s interests are advanced. For reasons we have outlined in great detail at Cato, the policies contained in the House farm bill benefit a small number of farmers at the expense of the vast majority of Americans.

Some achievement.

Parliament of Whores, Indeed

Those hoping for reform of the outdated and economically damaging farm bill have cause for disappointment today, after the House defeated, by a margin of three votes to one, an amendment that represented some hope for change. (The roll call can be viewed here). That amendment, whilst by no means close to sufficient reform, included important changes to income eligibility requirements and payment limits for subsidies, and would have closed a loophole allowing producers to manipulate the marketing loan program.

Unscathed passage of the House Agriculture Committee’s bill (see my colleague Dan Griswold’s brief criticism of the House bill here) looked in doubt just a few days ago, but House majority leaders managed to sway Rep. Jim McGovern (D., MA), originally in the reform camp, to vote for the farm bill by promising about $840 million to his pet cause, overseas food aid. The Congressional Black Caucus agreed to support the farm bill after a promise to spend $1.1 million on settling racial discrimination claims from the 1990s.

As if the House proposal for the “new” farm bill wasn’t insult enough for the taxpayer and consumer, the proposal for funding some of the largesse is beyond the pale. The $4 billion increase in food stamps and nutrition programs, which could presumably be paid for by cutting the subsidies to farmers of chosen crops, will instead be financed by taxing “inshoring” companies — U.S.-based subsidiaries of foreign companies who employ American workers.

For a Congress supposedly concerned that international trade is threatening American jobs, taxing employment of American workers seems perverse — not to mention violative of tax treaties. Business groups and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson have expressed their deep dissatisfaction with the tax increase. Some Republicans, including the ranking member on the House Agriculture Committee Robert Goodlatte (Va.), have indicated they would vote against the farm bill (up for a final vote today) because of the tax increase. I’ll believe that when I see it.

On a more positive note, the proposed tax increase has led the administration to issue a veto threat, albeit of the less-than-clear “his senior advisers will recommend that the president veto this bill” variety.

Politicians Seeking Pro-Growth Tax Cuts to Lure Successful People Back to France

The International Herald Tribune reports on the tax-cut battle in France. The President and his Finance Minister are seeking to cut taxes and change the French attitude about wealth creation. In another sign that tax competition is a valuable tool for better policy, the articles explains that a key selling point is the need to make the country attractive once again to the numerous French tax exiles living and working in nations with lower tax rates:

In proposing a tax-cut law last week, Finance Minister Christine Lagarde bluntly advised the French people to abandon their “old national habit.” …Citing Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” she said the French should work harder, earn more and be rewarded with lower taxes if they get rich. …The government’s call to work is key to its ambitious campaign to revitalize the French economy by increasing both employment and consumer buying power. Somehow it hopes to persuade the French that it is in their interest to abandon what some commentators call a nationwide “laziness” and to work longer and harder, and maybe even get rich.
France’s legally mandated 35-hour workweek gives workers a lot of leisure time but not necessarily the means to enjoy it. Taxes on high-wage earners are so burdensome that hordes have fled abroad. (Sarkozy cites the case of one of his stepdaughters, who works in an investment banking firm in
London.) In her National Assembly speech, Lagarde said that there should be no shame in personal wealth and that the country needed tax breaks to lure back the rich. “All these French bankers” working in London and “all these fiscal exiles” taking refuge from French taxes in Belgium “want one thing: to come back to France,” she said. “To them, as well as to all our compatriots who are looking for the keys to fiscal paradise, we open our doors.”

Sarkozy, France’s Busy CEO

It must be exhausting to be the chairman and CEO of a nation-state-firm that runs everything from retirement plans to universities to energy firms. Steven Pearlstein reports on France’s “hyperactive new president, Nicholas Sarkozy”:

There he is lunching with student leaders at a local bistro to win their support for reform of the nation’s under-funded and under-performing university system.

Here he is on the phone with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, sealing the deal for the French oil company, Total, for a 25 percent stake in the management of the giant Shtokman gas field.

Now he is in Toulouse, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, announcing a new governance structure for Airbus that puts a loyal French technocrat in charge.

And there’s Sarko in Brussels, criticizing the European Central Bank for keeping the euro too high and demanding more leeway for France’s ballooning budget deficit.

Rupert Murdoch probably delegates more than this. But Sarko is determined to prove that he can singlehandedly reform the operations of a production-and-distribution entity far larger and more complex than the notorious business conglomerates that eventually displayed significant diseconomies of scale. He’s like a real-life version of the classic Saturday Night Live sketch of a hard-charging President Reagan driving his aides to exhaustion as he masterminds international financial transactions around the clock and around the world.

But as many of the conglomerates found, it might be easier to focus on the French state’s core business — protecting the life, liberty, and property of French citizens — if it sold off some of its peripheral lines, like universities, gas fields, health insurance, airlines, telephones, gambling….

Meet the New Farm Bill

Prepare to pay more for your food. The House Agriculture Committee on Thursday unanimously passed a 2007 farm bill that, in the words of a committee press release, “makes historic investments in conservation, nutrition and renewable energy while maintaining a strong safety net for America’s farmers and ranchers.”

For “investments,” read “spending increases,” and for “a strong safety net,” read “subsidies and trade barriers to keep commodity prices and production artificially high.”

Sadly, the new 2007 farm bill looks a lot like the old 2002 farm bill that is due to expire on September 30. No real changes were made in the Title 1 commodity programs that lavish production subsidies on farmers who grow corn, wheat, cotton, and other program crops. Trade barriers remain against imports of lower-priced sugar, rice, and dairy products.

As we have pointed out in a number of recent Cato studies on farm policy, tens of millions of American families will continue to pay for these programs through taxes and higher prices at the grocery store. Once again, members of the House Agriculture Committee, Democrats and Republicans alike, have demonstrated that they represent a small number of farmers rather than the general interests of the American people.

A Scolding from the EC

The bureaucrats in Brussels may not be able to solve Europe’s demographic problems. They may not be able to promote economic liberalization in Europe’s welfare states. And they may not be able to provide any guidance to nations failing to assimilate large numbers of immigrants. But they can scold European men about not doing the housework.

The EU Observer reports on the latest farce from Brussels:

The European Commission is calling on Europe’s menfolk to help out more at home as a first step to improving women’s career prospects and ending the gender pay gap across the bloc. …EU employment commissioner Vladimír Spidla said, addressing a press conference in Brussels on Wednesday, “It is not possible to reduce the gender pay gap if we do not help out more at home.”

…In the communication, the Commission sets out ways in which the EU can bridge the gender pay gap. It wants the 27 member states to set objectives and deadlines to eradicate the gap, and will also push for equal pay to be made a condition for winning public contracts.

Inside a Chinese Factory

Via Tom, here’s a fantastic series of posts by the guy who’s setting the Chinese supply chain to manufacture the Chumby, an Internet-enabled alarm clock. Here you can see videos of a Chinese factory floor, with workers assembling sneakers. Here is a story about the fanatical level of dedication he has seen among the workers at the factory—dozens of employees stayed at work until 3 AM while he debugged a flaw in the first run of devices, and then showed up again at 8 AM to resume assembly. And finally, here are some videos of Chinese workers doing extremely detailed work quickly and accurately.

Some peoples’ instinctive reaction to this story is no doubt to wring their hands about the exploitation of Chinese workers. It’s not hard to see why; wages are only about $0.60/hour, and the jobs are tedious. And indeed, when I was in college in the late 1990s, there were a lot of activists who did just that, agitating for the shutdown of “sweatshops” in China and elsewhere. But I think this suggests a better way to look at the situation:

The amazing part is that the Shenzhen factories were complaining that labor rates were way too high. Apparently, minimum wage for factories in other regions is much less, so they are seeing contracts migrate away from their factories and inland where labor is cheaper. Think about it–Americans complain about work going to Hong Kong, Hong Kongers complain about work going to Shenzhen, Shenzheners complain about work going inland China, and to Vietnam (apparently Vietnam is the new hotness for cheap skilled labor).

The low wages and tedious work of the early sweatshops were a temporary condition. The author reports that the minimum wage in Shenzhen has been increasing by about 30 percent per year in the last couple of years. As the workers in Shenzhen become more skilled and the companies develop better business relationships with Western companies, demand for the area’s manufacturing facilities rise. The companies expand their facilities and hire more workers, and the competition for workers then pushes up wages. And that, in turn, will lead companies to increasingly transition to more complex and lucrative activities. Firms in Shenzhen will specialize in manufacturing more and more complex products, and eventually some of them will begin designing and building their own products.

That’s what happened in postwar Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, all of which have since achieved Western levels of affluence. The anti-globalization activists meant well, but in reality, the opportunity to become integrated with the global economy will do far more to help the average Chinese worker than anti-sweatshop laws could possibly have done.