Topic: International Economics and Development

Correction to Yesterday’s Post, (Lies, Damn Lies,…)

Yesterday on this blog, I posted my criticisms of a WSJ/NBC poll and a WSJ article that was based on that poll. Although I firmly stand by my central criticism that there was a clear bias in the phraseology of Question 10 that was completely unnecessary, I made a factual error in my post that I wish to correct.

In paragraph four, I assert (about the poll) that “no questions were asked about whether the respondents would agree with a Republican candidate who favors tougher regulations to limit foreign imports.” But it was subsequently brought to my attention that such a question was asked at question 7.7 of the poll. I stand corrected.

Had I not overlooked that question, I would not have criticized the author for reporting a “phantom result.” I apologize to John Harwood for the assertions and implications related to that point.

With the exception of the second and third sentences of paragraph four, the entire blog post, with the same tone and same conclusions, remains valid.

Lies, Damn Lies, Statistics, and a Media Happy to Abuse Them

The Wall Street Journal reports ($) today that support for free trade is fading among Americans who are likely to vote Republican.  Perhaps that’s true.  It certainly wouldn’t be surprising given the way most Americans are misled by their political representatives and the mainstream media about how to measure trade’s impact on the economy.

But something really smells about today’s lead article in the WSJ.  The WSJ/NBC News poll upon which the article is based simply doesn’t support the author’s conclusions.  In fact, the article is misleading in ways I find inexcusable for a newspaper of that caliber.   If you weren’t already, you should be highly skeptical of polling results (at least as reported second hand).

The third paragraph in the article reads: “Six in 10 Republicans in the poll agreed with a statement that free trade has been bad for the U.S. and said they would agree with a Republican candidate who favored tougher regulations to limit foreign imports.”  Next to that paragraph is a graphic box with a bar chart showing responses to the question: “Is foreign trade good or bad for the U.S. economy?”  The “Good” bar showed 32%; the “Bad” bar showed 59%.

Here’s the first problem.  That question (“Is foreign trade good or bad for the U.S. economy?”) was not asked in the poll.  The second problem: no questions were asked about whether the respondents would agree with a Republican candidate who favors tougher regulations to limit foreign imports.  But that didn’t stop the author from reporting that phantom result in paragraph three.

Here is a link to the subject WSJ/NBC poll.  Question 10 is the only question about trade, which gives two statements and asks the respondent to reveal which statement comes closer to his/her point of view.

Statement A: “Foreign trade has been good for the U.S. economy, because demand for U.S. products abroad has resulted in economic growth and jobs for Americans here at home and provided more choices for consumers.” (32% of Republicans agree)

Statement B: “Foreign trade has been bad for the U.S. economy, because imports from abroad have reduced U.S. demand for American-made goods, cost jobs here at home, and produced potentially unsafe products.” (59% of Republicans agree)

From these results, John Harwood concludes that “six in 10 Republicans in the poll agreed with a statement that free trade has been bad for the U.S. and said they would agree with a Republican candidate who favored tougher regulations to limit foreign imports.”

But as you can see, there is a clear bias in the manner of phrasing the questions.  You’re not agreeing that foreign trade is good or bad, but that it’s good or bad because… And respondents are more likely to be familiar with one of the offered consequences of trade.  Certainly, the issue of “potentially unsafe products” is fresh on our minds, thus respondents are basically escorted to that answer.

What bugs me most about this is that the competing statements: foreign trade has been good for the U.S. economy vs. foreign trade has been bad for the U.S. economy would have been perfectly objective phraseology.  Why introduce subjective perspectives?

That a professional polling agency would introduce such obvious bias into its polls and a major newspaper would ignore the obvious problems with the results is troubling.  For all we know, Ron Paul and Mike Gravel are the leading candidates for their respective parties’ nominations.

CORRECTION: The poll did ask about a Republican candidate who favored tougher regulation. See here.

Which Part of “Not Green Box” Does the USDA Not Understand?

After a long wait, the United States finally notified the other members of the World Trade Organization of its spending on agricultural programs today. Although timely notification is supposedly a key requirement (and benefit) of the WTO, the U.S. had left members in the dark as to the true nature and extent of its farm subsidies since 2004, and that notification covered only the years up to 2001.

Today’s notification asserts that U.S. spending on so-called “Amber-box” domestic support (that which is linked to production and/or prices of agricultural commodities, and thus is the most market-distorting) was well below its limit of $19.1 billion in every year between 2002-2005 (the period covered by the latest notification). However, sources tell me that the administration admitted in a telephone press conference today that direct payments were classified as “green box” (spending which is at most minimally trade-distorting and therefore not subject to reduction commitments) in their calculations, in direct contravention of a 2005 WTO Appellate Body ruling on U.S. Cotton programs, which stated (at para. 342) “[P]roduction flexibility contract payments and direct payments … are not green box measures exempt from the reduction commitments by virtue of Annex 2 of the Agreement on Agriculture.” (my emphasis)

Seems pretty clear to me.

In other words, if direct payments are properly classified as amber box measures, the United States’ spending might look very different, and may not be below the legal ceiling after all, especially in years 2004 and 2005 (see more here). Members of Congress currently writing a new farm bill might want to keep the threat of WTO litigation (including pending challenges by Canada and Brazil) in mind.

Klein Slanders Friedman

A video interview of Naomi Klein, who’s promoting her new book, has some truly vicious slander of Milton Friedman. Klein says:

I start the book with a quote from Milton Friedman saying only a crisis, actual or perceived, produces real change. And you know Milton Friedman lived by this. His first laboratory was Chile under Augusto Pinoche, where the crisis was the coup and an economic crisis and it was after that that you had the economic shock therapy. And you also had another kind of shock which is torture, which was a way of enforcing these policies.

Klein seems to be insinuating that Friedman somehow orchestrated, supported, or encouraged the coup in Chile, or at least that he was an important Pinochet advisor. She also makes it sound like torturing people was one of Friedman’s policy recommendations. But here’s how Friedman tells the story:

MILTON FRIEDMAN: While I was in Santiago, Chile, I gave a talk at the Catholic University of Chile. Now, I should explain that the University of Chicago had had an arrangement for years with the Catholic University of Chile, whereby they send students to us and we send people down there to help them reorganize their economics department. And I gave a talk at the Catholic University of Chile under the title “The Fragility of Freedom.” The essence of the talk was that freedom was a very fragile thing and that what destroyed it more than anything else was central control; that in order to maintain freedom, you had to have free markets, and that free markets would work best if you had political freedom. So it was essentially an anti-totalitarian talk.

INTERVIEWER: So you envisaged, therefore, that the free markets ultimately would undermine Pinochet?

MILTON FRIEDMAN: Oh, absolutely. The emphasis of that talk was that free markets would undermine political centralization and political control. And incidentally, I should say that I was not in Chile as a guest of the government. I was in Chile as the guest of a private organization.

It’s true, of course, that Pinochet employed some of the economic policies Friedman had been advocating for decades, that some of Pinochet’s advisors had studied economics at the University of Chicago, and that Friedman subsequently cited the success of those policies. But just as Michael Moore’s endorsement of Cuba’s health care system doesn’t constitute endorsement of Castro’s dictatorial rule, so Friedman’s endorsement for Chilean tax or pension policies don’t constitute an endorsement of coups, purges, or torture.

There’s also some ideological slander at the heart of Klein’s argument, which she lays out later in the video. Klein seems to believe that Haliburton and Blackwater—companies that thrive on wartime corporate welfare—represent Friedman’s ideal society. Not only is this obviously wrong on a theoretical level, but it’s also flatly at odds with Friedman’s stated views. Milton Friedman was an opponent of the Iraq war and has been vociferous critic of corporate welfare for decades. Conflating Friedman’s advocacy of limited government with Bush’s interventionist foreign policy and profligate domestic spending illustrates either a failure to grasp the basics of Friedman’s position or a calculated attempt to play to the prejudices of her intended audience, many of whom will lump together anyone they don’t agree with as “right wingers,” even if they have little in common with one another.

Those Silly Europeans

American politicians like to concoct silly ways to waste money and misallocate resources. But European lawmakers always seem to out-do them — perhaps because the Europeans have several centuries of additional experience with government.

A good example is a European Commission-led effort to promote multilingualism. The more substantive point is that the bureaucrats in Brussels are foolishly trying to pretend that English is not the language of international business. But the most amusing part of the EU Observer story is reading that the European Commission has a commissioner for multilingualism:

Europeans should learn more foreign languages and not think that a “lingua franca” — one language used internationally — is enough, EU commissioner for multilingualism Leonard Orban said on Wednesday.

What’s next, a commissioner for watching paint dry? A commissioner for shoelace regulation?

Three Cheers for the World Bank

I admit I’m committing an ideological sin, but the World Bank has released its 2008 “Doing Business” report, which ranks 178 countries on regulatory impediments to entrepreurship, and it is a first-rate publication. I realize the World Bank should not exist, and I’m quite aware that many of their activities in other areas hinder economic growth, but this report is very helpful in promoting regulatory competition among jurisdictions. I’ll atone for my sin by coming up with a reason to criticize the international bureaucracy in the near future, but this EU Observer story shows how Doing Business creates pressure for regulatory liberalization:

Thanks to regulatory reforms, Eastern Europe and Central Asia have surpassed East Asia for ease of doing business, a World Bank report says. The report, called “Doing Business” compares and ranks 178 economies and seven regions on the basis of ten indicators related to business regulations. …Several of the region’s countries have also overtaken some Western European economies. Estonia and Georgia for instance, the region’s two top performers, have surpassed most EU members and both hold a spot in the top twenty.

Trade Telltale

Since the “Great Compromise” on trade policy between the administration and Congress last spring, I have been outspokenly skeptical about prospects for further trade liberalization before 2009.  In that deal, the administration bowed to the wishes of Congressional Democrats to include enforceable labor and environmental provisions in pending and prospective trade agreements. 

For that accommodation, the Congressional leadership was supposed to help secure passage of the pending bilateral agreements with Peru, Panama, Colombia, and Korea.  Almost immediately, though, the leadership voiced additional concerns about Colombia and Korea, which are widely considered to be very long-shots at best.

But after visiting Peru last month and getting his own fingerprints on the final details of the deal, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel of New York returned home and voiced his support for the agreement.  And, it appears, there is support for the Peru agreement among members of Ways and Means and Senate Finance.  Several Congressional staffers have suggested that if the Peru vote garners relatively strong Democratic support, there may be hope for the others.

The problem, however, is that the House Democratic Caucus may not be prepared to follow.  Remember all of those freshman Democrats who campaigned in ’06 on an anti-trade message?  It seems they won’t go quietly into the night.  Whereas the veteran Democratic trade leadership may be inclined to use protectionist rhetoric to shift the terms of the trade debate in their favor, the new blood in their caucus is more inclined to believe it.  In that regard, the Rangels and Levins and Baucuses on the Hill (guys that probably know better) have helped create a potential Frankenstein.

On Friday, rank and file Democrats addressed a letter ($) to their Caucus Chairman, Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, asking that the next caucus meeting be devoted to the U.S.-Peru Agreement.  The letter notes that there isn’t much support for the agreement among Democrats and that the Ways and Means Committee markup scheduled for tomorrow will prove divisive.

There were only seven signatories to the letter and it is unclear how representative it is of Democratic sentiments.  But if the topic proves divisive and rancorous – a development Nancy Pelosi wants to avoid – it will be interesting to see which side the House Speaker chooses to rein in.  The outcome of this potential impasse will tell much about the direction Democrats want to go on trade.