Topic: International Economics and Development

The USTR Pulls An All-Nighter

With only minutes before a key deadline, the Bush administration formally notified Congress last night that a deal had been reached with South Korea on a free trade agreement. The Office of the United States Trade Representative’s press release (which contains not many details and plenty of the usual mercantalist, all-exports-all-the-time rhetoric) can be viewed here.

As expected, rice was not included in the agreement. Korean negotiators had been adamant that rice, an extremely sensitive (i.e., protected) sector in Korea, was not on the table for negotiation and that a deal would be impossible if the United States insisted on pushing for access to the Korean rice market. On that basis, the Americans evidently decided to drop the rice issue.

Rice was never so much a concern, though, as beef. U.S. beef has been denied access to Korea on food safety grounds since late 2003, when BSE was found in beef originating in Canada. Although the issue was not formally part of the FTA negotiations, and thus was not resolved in the agreement itself, it has the potential to scupper it if lawmakers link their approval of the deal to resolution of the beef dispute. Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), chair of the Senate Finance Committee, has made it clear that his support for the Korean FTA depends on a full re-opening of the Korean market to U.S. beef. (The Ranking Member of that Committee, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R.-IA), was somewhat more measured in his comments).

Similarly, Sen Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) sees that reducing Korean tariffs (albeit over a long phase-out period for trucks) on U.S. autos and a “restructuring” of the Korean auto tax structure is not enough: her press release insists that she will “do everything in [her] power to defeat this agreement and ensure that any future fast-track authority includes provisions guaranteeing that American businesses and workers can get a fair deal”. Sen. Stabenow does not say what specific measures would assuage her concerns, although one suspects that she is offended at the USTR’s refusal to specify minimum guaranteed sales targets.

In short: yes, the USTR met the deadline of concluding the deal so that it can be considered under fast-track authority. But its passage is far from secured.

More broadly, though, the statements of these lawmakers, especially if it is a taste of what is to come, should worry free-traders everywhere. While bilateral and regional trade agreements are, at best, only the third most optimal way of liberalising trade, the deal between South Korea and the United States was one of the more worthwhile agreements of this administration. And if Congress is going to base support for agreements on its ability to manage trade in certain sectors, then the trade agenda is in serious trouble.

Irish Commissioner Fights EU Tax Harmonization

The former finance minister of Ireland, Charlie McCreevy, is now an EU commissioner. To his credit, he does not appear to have sipped the Kool-Aid in Brussels.

While most EU commissioners push for centralization and tax harmonization, McCreevy is making waves by denouncing the tax harmonization schemes of a fellow commissioner. The Sunday Business Post reports:

Ireland’s European Commissioner, Charlie McCreevy, has launched a strong attack on the European Commission’s efforts to introduce a common business tax base across Europe. McCreevy has warned of the danger of a ‘‘bully-boys’ charter’’ which would favour large states over smaller members like Ireland.

…McCreevy said the tax harmonisation issue was being ‘‘aggressively pushed forward by some in Europe’’. …Referring repeatedly to ‘‘tax harmonisation forces’’, McCreevy warned that, were they successful, it would threaten inward investment to the EU, undermine competitiveness and discriminate against smaller EU states.

Despite outright opposition from a number of member states, including Ireland, the commission has continued to lay the groundwork for the adoption of a common tax base, which is feared by many to be a prelude to the harmonisation of tax rates across Europe. Such a move would inevitably lead to considerably higher tax rates in Ireland, which has among the lowest corporate and personal tax rates in Europe. Brussels sources say there is increasing resentment about the success of Ireland’s low-tax strategy — which is seen by many as ‘‘unfair tax competition’’.

Sweden Repeals Wealth Tax

Globalization has been an ally of taxpayers. Because it is increasingly easy for jobs and capital to cross borders, politicians are being forced to eliminate or reduce taxes that penalize productive behavior.

The latest example comes from Sweden, which is now eliminating its tax on wealth:

Maybe the next Bjorn Borg won’t feel compelled to move to Monaco now that Sweden plans to scrap a decades-old “wealth” tax that imposes levies on assets — not just on income. …The move, expected to be approved by parliament later this year, underscores the country’s efforts to keep successful Swedes and their capital at home by changing its fabled but costly welfare state.

“It’s not sustainable to keep taxes that radically diverge from other countries,” Finance Minister Anders Borg, who is not related to the tennis great, told The Associated Press on Thursday. “Not if you want the money to stay in the country.”

Sweden is not alone. The article notes that other nations have been forced to eliminate this punitive levy on capital:

Several European countries have dropped taxes on wealth in the last decade, including Denmark, the Netherlands and Finland.

Switzerland and Monaco seem to be the favored destinations of Sweden’s tax exiles. At least the new government recognizes the damage caused by punitive tax rates. The wealth tax is being abolished in an effort to lure talented entrepreneur and capital back to Sweden:

[T]he wealthiest Swedes have fled the country, including IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad, No. 4 on Forbes magazine’s list of the world’s richest people. He lives in Switzerland. Five-time Wimbledon winner Bjorn Borg moved to tax-haven Monaco in the late 1970s. The principality is also home to many Swedish sports stars such as Alpine skier Anja Paerson, high-jumper Kajsa Bergqvist and triple jumper Christian Olsson.

The government says more than 500 billion kronor, the equivalent of almost C$83 billion of Swedish capital, is outside of the country’s borders. “This is money that, if it was brought home, could be invested to create jobs and welfare in Sweden,” the country’s coalition leaders said in a joint statement this week.

Stefan Persson, the main owner of fashion retailer H&M, threatened to leave the country in the 1990s because of the wealth tax. The Social Democratic government at the time changed the law, giving him an exemption.

…Borg, the finance minister…added it was necessary for Sweden to remain competitive in an increasingly globalized economy. “It’s a step on the way back toward making Sweden an entrepreneurial society,” he said.

Another Loss for the Online Gambling Nannies

I have yet to digest the official ruling (for the most committed trade nerds, it’s available here), but the United States has been dealt yet another blow in its dispute with Antigua and Barbuda over Internet gambling.

According to a World Trade Organization report released to the public today, the United States has not complied with the rulings and recommendations of a previous panel’s verdict that the United States’ ban on online gambling services was in violation of its commitments to the WTO (more here). Translation: the United States has not made any changes to its restrictions on gambling over the Internet that would make its laws WTO-consistent.

The United States will probably appeal this latest ruling, but if it loses that appeal and continues to refuse to change its laws, then the state of Antigua and Barbuda could retaliate to recover the damage that it claims has accrued to its online gambling industry as a result of the U.S. ban. Retaliation usually involves placing tariffs on the goods of the offending country, in this case the United States. (That is, of course, an economically insane way of “punishing” the violator, but I digress.)

Radley Balko is hoping that Antigua and Barbuda will instead choose to kick the United States where it hurts, and suspend its obligations to protect the intellectual property rights of American companies.

(Ways and) Means to an End

The House Ways and Means Committee released their trade policy vision on Tuesday, and it should give cause for concern to free-traders who thought a compromise could be reached between the Democratic majority and the administration on how to advance the trade agenda. There are few details on how exactly trade agreements could be made acceptable to Democrats in the immediate future, and plenty of demands that could give potential trade partners cause for alarm.

The administration must give 90 days’ advance notice to Congress when seeking its approval for trade agreements, under the terms of the trade promotion authority delegated by Congress to the President. Because that authority expires on July 1, there are only two working days left to iron out differences on completed trade agreements (those with Peru, Colombia, and Panama, and possibly the still-under-frantic-negotiation agreement with South Korea). The Democrats’ one-pager was lamentably short on details about how to make these agreements acceptable to them.

In the longer-term, if the new majority’s trade strategy is indicative of its overall approach to trade policy (and we have every reason to believe that it is) then negotiated trade liberalization looks to be over for the next two years at least. Unless, of course, the secret 15-page proposal (mentioned in this NY Times piece) presented to the administration contains more of substance, and less of the deal-breaking demands, than what was released to the public.

The details we do have from the one-pager, however, do not paint a pretty picture. The Democrats’ plan proposes new emphasis on labour and environmental standards (including some standards to which, some critics point out, the United States is not a party), non-tariff barriers, calls for immediate action (italics in original) on currency manipulation in China and Japan, and more help for workers displaced by trade. Organized labor has welcomed it, of course, although–bizarrely–so have some Republican members of the committee, including the ranking Republican, Jim McCrery (R-LA). Steven Pearlstein in an article in yesterdays Washington Post, called some of the demands “political poison pills.”

Previous Cato research on some of these topics can be viewed here, and my colleague Dan Ikenson gave an interview on BBC on Tuesday night on the Dems’ proposal: view here.

Europe Takes Another Step Toward Tax Harmonization

Even though several nations are opposed, the European Commission plans to harmonize the definition of taxable income for corporations. It is true that the current system is a hassle for multinational companies, requiring 27 different tax returns for firms operating in all EU nations. But there are good ways and bad ways to address this problem. Allowing firms the option of choosing the “common” tax base would ensure that the bureaucrats in Brussels had less of an incentive to use the new system as a way of extorting more money from businesses. Another option would allow firms to use their home country’s definition of taxable income – an approach that would promote rather than retard tax competiiton since governments would have an incentive to attract companies by using a pro-growth definition of taxable income. Needless to say, the European Commission is not using either of these approaches. The EU Observer reports:

The European Commission is set to press ahead with introducing a single EU company tax base by 2010 in only a limited number of member states, circumventing national veto power in the sensitive tax area. … EU member states are deeply divided over possible harmonization, with 12 capitals in favour, five to seven against and the rest remaining undecided. Britain, Ireland and the Baltic states fear that the next step for Brussels would be interference in the levels of their corporate taxes, an area where EU states compete with each other as well.

Happy Birthday for EU Bureaucrats

The European Union is celebrating its 50th anniversary, but citizens in most nation are understandably underwhelmed. As an article at Foreignpolicy.com explains, the European Union is a remarkably anti-democratic institution.

Today’s EU resembles a sort of undemocratic Habsburg Empire. Its legislation is proposed by a Commission of unelected bureaucrats who have now apparently lost control of their own staffs and who themselves are usually political outcasts from their national political systems. Decisions on whether to adopt their often bizarre initiatives are then taken in total secrecy by the Council of Ministers or the European Council, before being rubber-stamped by the federalist parliament and imposed on the citizens of member states, whose national legislatures can do absolutely nothing to alter their directives or regulations. Indeed, 84 percent of all legislation before national parliaments, according to the German Ministry of Justice, now simply involves implementing Brussels diktats. All this makes European politics undemocratic at all levels, and opinion polls reflect the public’s growing disillusionment.

Daniel Schwammentahl of the Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, notes that politicians who favor more European centralization treat voters as obstacles to be overcome in their drive for a more powerful bureaucracy in Brussels:

…as Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the former French President and main drafter of the constitution, said last year, rejecting his chef d’oeuvre “was a mistake which will have to be corrected.” In other words, Europeans are given a free vote as long as they vote for what the Brussels mandarins think is best for them. In a newspaper interview last week, Ms. Merkel diagnosed a certain alienation between the EU and its citizens, the root cause of which she located in the people’s alleged impatience with the slow pace of decision making in Brussels. “To change that we need an EU constitutional treaty,” she said. Come again? The chancellor wants to fight the citizens’ alienation by ignoring democratic votes that expressed that very alienation?