Topic: International Economics and Development

What’s Legal at the New York Times?

The New York Times reports that Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez “is carrying out what may become the largest forced land redistribution in Venezuela’s history…in a process that is both brutal and legal.” In what way is this process legal? The article never says. Presumably the Venezuelan congress has passed legislation authorizing the seizure and redistribution of land. But Chavez controls all 167 members of the National Assembly, and the Assembly has granted him the power to rule by decree. It’s hard to call anything in Venezuela “legal” at this point. One might as well say that Stalin’s executions or Pinochet’s disappearances were “legal.” (And by the way, have you noticed that the Times always refers to Pinochet as a dictator, but to Chavez and Fidel Castro as President or leader?)

If the term “legal” has any meaning other than “the ruler has the power to do it,” then it means that something is done in accordance with the law. The Oxford English Dictionary defines law as “the body of rules, whether proceeding from formal enactment or from custom, which a particular state or community recognizes as binding on its members or subjects.” One of the key elements of law is that it provides stability and certainty. I doubt that all the people of Venezuela recognize land seizures as proceeding in accordance with a body of rules. And certainly the arbitrary rule of a president or a rubber-stamp congress does not provide any certainty in the law.

At least the Times paused to tell us that the process was legal, even if it failed to specify just how. The Wall Street Journal article on the same topic doesn’t bother to consider the question of legality; perhaps that’s just a clearer recognition that in Venezuela there is no law, there is only Chavez.

And the rest of the Times article makes the process pretty clear:

The squatters arrive before dawn with machetes and rifles, surround the well-ordered rows of sugar cane and threaten to kill anyone who interferes. Then they light a match to the crops and declare the land their own….

Mr. Chávez’s supporters have formed thousands of state-financed cooperatives to wrest farms and cattle ranches from private owners. Landowners say compensation is hard to obtain. Local officials describe the land seizures as paving stones on “the road to socialism.”

“This is agrarian terrorism encouraged by the state,” said Fhandor Quiroga, a landowner and head of Yaracuy’s chamber of commerce, pointing to dozens of kidnappings of landowners by armed gangs in the last two years….

But while some of the newly settled farming communities are euphoric, landowners are jittery. Economists say the land reform may have the opposite effect of what Mr. Chavez intends, and make the country more dependent on imported food than before.

The uncertainties and disruptions of the land seizures have led to lower investment by some farmers. Production of some foods has been relatively flat, adding to shortages of items like sugar, economists say.

John R. Hines Freyre, who owns Yaracuy’s largest sugar-cane farm, is now trying desperately to sell the property and others in neighboring states. “No one wants this property, of course, because they know we’re about to be invaded,” said Mr. Hines, 69….

“The double talk from the highest levels is absurd,” Mr. Machado said. “By enhancing the state’s power, the reforms we’re witnessing now are a mechanism to perpetuate poverty in the countryside.”

To be sure, the Times does stress the concentration of land ownership in Venezuela and the delight of many of the squatters at getting the seized land. But it’s a balanced article, other than that pesky word “legal.”

As I’ve written before, too many journalists are treating Chavez’s growing dictatorship in a guarded way. They report what’s happening – nationalizations, land seizures, the unanimous assembly, the rule by decree, the demand to repeal presidential term limits, the installation of military officers throughout the government, the packing of the courts – but they still treat it as normal politics and even report with a straight face that “Chavez stresses that Venezuela will remain a democracy.” Some law, some democracy.

Anti-trade Demagoguery from the Eagle Forum

I’m occasionally asked, “If the case for free trade is so solid, why don’t more people agree with it?”  One reason is that it is so much easier to demagogue international trade than it is to explain it.

For example, consider a column posted this morning by Phyllis Schlafly, president of the Eagle Forum. Mrs. Schlafly is a social conservative known mostly for her opposition to abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment, but she also speaks out frequently against immigration and free trade.

In today’s column, titled “The Price Of Imported Food Is Too High,” she takes aim at trade with China, and in particular trade in agricultural goods.

The Clinton Administration conned American farmers into being the principal lobbyists in 2000 for passage of PNTR (Permanent Normal Trade Relations) for Communist China, which gave Chinese goods unconditional access to U.S. markets.

Bill Clinton promised in his State of the Union address that PNTR for China would be a win-win for American agriculture because “this agreement will open China’s market to us.” His Department of Agriculture predicted that the average annual value of U.S. agricultural exports to China would increase by $1.5 billion.

Globalization turned out to be a cheat. Department of Commerce figures show that U.S. wheat exports to China are less today than before PNTR was passed.

Consider the facts on U.S. farm exports to China. Since 2001, when we made normal trade relations with China permanent, U.S. agricultural exports to China have grown from $2.1 billion to $7.2 billion–an increase of more than $5 billion. Our export of soybeans alone has increased by $1.5 billion, raw cotton by almost $2 billion. Wheat exports, in contrast, make up a small and declining share of our total agricultural sales to China. 

Mrs. Schlafly goes on to rail against tainted pet food recently imported form China. “Maybe China’s poisoning of our pets will be one offense too many to tolerate,” she concludes. 

Food safety is not primarily a problem of imports. Americans have been poisoned recently by meat from Nebraska and spinach from California. The answer is better safety inspections for domestic and imported food alike, not higher tariffs on imports. If we tax imported food, we would merely drive up food costs for American families, especially those on tight budgets who spend a higher share of their income on food. 

It’s regrettable that an organization dedicated to upholding moral and family values would put out such misleading material in effect arguing for higher food costs for millions of American families. 

Irish Business Leader Explains Why Optional Tax Base Harmonization Leads to Mandatory Tax Rate Harmonization

Big businesses have rarely been principled defenders of individual liberty. A good example is the fight over a harmonized corporate tax base in Europe. Some multinational companies like this approach because it means one tax return instead of 27 tax returns. But this short-sighted approach overlooks the inevitable misuse of power by politicians who will want to manipulate the system for their own benefit. An Irish business leader explains in the Financial Times:

Businesses should wake up to the fact that, if work to harmonise European Union tax systems succeeds, they will face huge uncertainty regarding their tax liabilities, pay higher tax bills and face a more rigid corporate tax regime. Lázsló Kovács, the tax commissioner, is firmly set on introducing a legislative proposal by the end of 2008 to harmonise the corporate tax base across the Union. …Separate accounting for cross-border transactions within a group would be eliminated, and group profit would be shared by means of a set formula between member states and taxed at the rate applicable in each state. …To date, business has expressed surprisingly little scepticism about this untested assertion. Such a sanguine attitude is misplaced.

 …companies doing business in Europe would pay higher tax bills. …CCCTB would drive some investment to more flexible and competitive tax jurisdictions outside the EU. Business lobbies have only backed the scheme if CCCTB is optional for companies. But, for how long could it remain optional? If simplicity and a reduction in administration costs are part of the raison d’être , then running an additional system side by side with national tax regimes makes no sense. The Commission said in 2006 that: “CCCTB should initially [my italics] be proposed as optional for companies”, and on May 2 it said: “CCCTB should be optional … where these [existing rules] are maintained alongside the CCCTB by member states.” …Despite assurances that it does not intend to extend this work to cover the tax rate, the Commission has a long history of pushing for harmonised tax rates – and a common tax base is a prerequisite of tax rate harmonisation. When the Commission embarked on this initiative, France and Germany made no secret that their end-game was tax rate harmonisation.

U.S. Trade Policy, R.I.P.

The NY Times, Washington Post, and other major media outlets have been gushing praise upon congressional Democrats and the Bush administration for hammering out a deal that keeps the trade agenda alive.  Lending some credibility to those media perspectives, which are too often misinformed and misleading, are assessments from knowledgeable, respected trade policy scholars that the compromise deal struck last week does in fact constitute a major breakthrough.

In my view, only analytical laziness or low expectations about the capacity of the administration and Congress to agree on anything related to trade, or sheer desperation for a sign of progress could produce a thumbs-up assessment of last week’s deal.  The proper interpretation is this:

U.S. trade policy, RIP.  Here’s why.

There are four concluded bilateral trade agreements (with Korea, Colombia, Peru, and Panama) awaiting congressional approval.  There is the seriously stalled Doha Round of multilateral trade negotiations, which has been the elusive grand prize of trade policy during the Bush years.  And there is the June 30 expiration of Trade Promotion Authority, which enables the executive branch to negotiate agreements (that must also reflect the wishes of Congress as of 2002, when TPA was passed into law) and bring them back to the Congress for an up-or-down vote.  Without TPA, agreements would be undone, reconfigured, and made unrecognizable and ultimately unacceptable, as 535 congressional tinkerers got their hands on them.

The TPA 2002 language was silent about environmental provisions and specified that trade partners should be required to enforce the labor laws on their books.  The new Democratic Congress finds the TPA 2002 language unacceptable.   Trade deals must contain strict, enforceable labor and environmental provisions, if they are to win the support of the Democratic caucus – so they say. 

The agreement struck last week is akin to a supplemental to the TPA 2002 bill.  It doesn’t extend TPA beyond June 30, but it imposes additional conditions with which trade agreements must comport.  The administration agreed to the terms because, well, it had no choice!  The labor unions, which now dictate congressional trade policy, are unwilling to support trade liberalization.  The administration has nothing, absolutely nothing, with which to compromise.  Thus, by agreeing to last week’s terms, the U.S. Trade Representative is throwing a Hail Mary.  Trade policy will not advance without those terms, and there’s a remote change it could advance with them.  The problem is that it won’t.

Arguably, the left-of-center press is giddy about the fact that Congress compelled the Bush administration to agree to include strict, enforceable labor and environmental provisions in prospective trade agreements (There was more to the deal, but labor and environmental standards were the big issues).  It matters not to the ubersanctimonious of the media that if you’re really concerned about environmental quality and working standards in poor countries you should seek to remove (not create) conditions on investment inflows.  Oh well, at least they’ve acknowledged the plight of poverty. 

But they should also remember that just because two branches of the U.S. government agree to these provisions doesn’t mean our trade partners will.  With a few relatively minor exceptions, they won’t.

In 1996, WTO trade ministers at the conclusion of their first biannual meeting in
Singapore issued a strong statement of consensus on the issue of labor standards.  The statement declared support for core labor standards, but opposed the idea of enforceable labor provisions in trade agreements.  Standards are promoted by “economic growth and development fostered by international trade and further trade liberalization,” the statement read.  Imposing conditions on trade and investment with poor countries only slows economic growth, which prevents labor standards from rising, was the gist of the statement.

Today, the WTO comprises even more developing countries than in 1996.  Their position against enforceable labor standards is even more entrenched.  They don’t oppose better local labor and environmental conditions, but fear that rich countries will use those provisions as a fig leaf to achieve protectionist outcomes.  The legitimate concern is that the potential to allege labor or environmental violations, regardless of merit, will deter foreign investment in local factories and in other areas of the local economy, which is the real key to raising standards.

Thus, despite suggestions that the last week’s deal opens up the door to continued progress on Doha, reality is quite different.  The United States has only introduced another obstacle that will calcify the current North-South divide in the Doha negotiations.

There is a remote possibility that the agreements with Peru and Panama will come to fruition.  Both of those governments are vested heavily in a successful trade deal with the United States, so they may be inclined to bite the bullet.  It remains to be seen, however, if the Peruvian and Panamanian legislatures will approve the new terms.  And quite frankly, there is absolutely no guarantee that Democrats in the U.S. Congress will support these deals despite last week’s ballyhooed “breakthrough.”

Indeed, the Colombian deal has been identified as still problematic by the congressional leadership.  In a letter to the USTR last week, House Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel (D-NY) wrote that the Colombia agreement can not be supported by Democrats unless the Bogota government does a better job finding and punishing violent criminals.  And House Ways and Means Trade Subcommittee Chairman Sander Levin (D-MI) is actively opposing the Korea agreement since it doesn’t include his proposal to condition Korean access to the U.S. auto market on the success of U.S. auto sales in Korea.

Although the Democratic leadership has been asserting that its caucus would support trade liberalization if its positions on labor and the environment were accommodated, it appears their bluff has been called.  Opposition to Colombia and Korea has nothing to do with labor and environmental standards.  It has everything to do with union opposition to trade, period.

And without labor’s nod, Democrats will not support trade in sufficient numbers to keep U.S. trade policy on track. 

Thus, trade policy, RIP.

Spain: Immigration Up, Unemployment Down

The recent economic success of Spain has not received the attention it deserves. One element in Spain’s resurgence, which I didn’t previously know about, is a relatively liberal immigration policy. According to BusinessWeek:

Over the past decade, the traditionally homogeneous country has become a sort of open-door laboratory on immigration. Spain has absorbed more than 3 million foreigners from places as diverse as Romania, Morocco, and South America. More than 11% of the country’s 44 million residents are now foreign-born, one of the highest proportions in Europe. With hundreds of thousands more arriving each year, Spain could soon reach the U.S. rate of 12.9%.

And it doesn’t seem to have hurt much. Spain is Europe’s best-performing major economy, with growth averaging 3.1% over the past five years. Since 2002, the country has created half the new jobs in the euro zone. Unemployment has plummeted from more than 20% in the 1990s to 8.6%, within shooting distance of the 7.2% euro zone average. The government attributes more than half this stellar performance to immigration. “We are very thankful for all these people who have come here to work with us,” says Javier Vallés, economic policy chief for Prime Minister José Luis Zapatero.

Apparently all those immigrants haven’t “taken all the jobs.” Ask your favorite Lou Dobbs-loving friend to explain to you how this is possible.

As If Canada Were a Separate Country

Jim Harper adequately documents (1) how the State Department is bungling my wife’s application for a new passport, which one now needs to fly to Montreal (for some reason), and (2) my appeal to the opposite sex. 

I would add only that, while David Boaz is correct that a fence between the U.S. and Mexico is not exactly Berlin Wall-esque (“The Berlin Wall was designed to keep citizens in”), this bone-headed rule that one cannot fly to Canada without a passport might be: it actually does make it more difficult for American citizens to leave.

Are Short-Sighted Politicians (and Greedy Voters) Undermining Democracy?

Writing for American.com, Kevin Hassett notes that politically repressive market-oriented nations are growing faster than politically free market-oriented countries. He issues the obvious caveat that - everything else being equal - we expect poorer countries to grow faster, but he wonders whether democratic regimes sow the seeds of their own destruction (or at least create for themselves a competitive disadvantage) by enabling people to seize unearned wealth through the political process:

…the countries that are economically and politically free are underper­forming the countries that are economically but not politically free. For example, unfree China had a growth rate of 9.5 percent from 2001 to 2005. But China was not the whole story—Malaysia’s GDP grew 9.5 percent from 1991 to 1995, Singapore’s GDP grew 6.4 percent from 1996 to 2000, and Russia’s grew 6.1 percent from 2001 to 2005. The unfree governments now understand that they have to provide a good economy to keep citizens happy, and they understand that free-market econ­omies work best. Also, nearly all of the unfree nations are developing countries. History shows they grow faster, at least for a while, than mature nations. But being unfree may be an economic advantage. Dictatorships are not hamstrung by the preferences of voters for, say, a pervasive welfare state.

Advocates for freedom usually - and with great justification - blame politicians for these outcomes, but a new book by Bryan Caplan says voters deserve part of the blame. Both Cafe Hayek and Marginal Revolution draw attention to Caplan’s work.