Topic: International Economics and Development

Endorsing the U.S. Trade Complaint Against China

On Friday, the U.S. Trade Representative initiated a formal challenge of various Chinese tax programs within the dispute settlement system of the World Trade Organization. It was only the third formal challenge of Chinese policies since that country joined the WTO in 2001.

Specifically, the United States alleges that Chinese tax policies that encourage production for exportation and that discourage the use of imported materials and components in the production process constitute subsidies that harm U.S. interests and violate the obligations China undertook when it joined the WTO in 2001.

I have been critical of the administration’s various trade policy errors of commission and omission over the years. Last week I lamented U.S. trade representative Susan Schwab’s failure to articulate the broad case for trade.  Today, I have only kudos for the USTR. Not only was the United States well within its rights to bring this case, it was the right thing to do, politically and economically. 

Free trade purists might disagree, arguing that if China wants to subsidize its exports to the United States, Americans should write the Chinese thank you letters for financially supporting our consumption. And accordingly, we shouldn’t intervene if the Chinese want to squander their resources that way. I think that argument holds water up to a point — a point that we are well beyond and where the costs of the status quo outweigh its benefits. 

Yes, we benefit as consumers from subsidized Chinese production, but only until the consensus for a liberal trading order collapses. At that point, retrograde protectionism threatens not only the benefits of that subsidized consumption, but the benefits of trade more generally, and the conditions that make relatively freer trade possible. Furthermore, the U.S. trade relationship with China is wealth-creating in both countries without need of subsidization. Safeguarding continuation of the flow of the benefits of trade to both countries by expecting China (and the United States) to play by the established rules seems a reasonable compromise to me.

The rules-based trading system has been remarkably successful at promoting trade and investment, and its continued success depends upon adherence to its rules and respect for its institutions — particularly by the world’s large economies.

China has demonstrated that it doesn’t respond well to bilateral threats — if for no other reason than its desire to avoid the appearance of being bullied. China knows what its obligations are. But it also knows that one of the many benefits of its membership in the WTO is that its policies are above board unless and until the dispute settlement body of the WTO finds against them. If China wants to drag its feet with respect to compliance and reform, bringing cases against China within the WTO might become fashionable.  

We are already witnessing a deterioration of support for trade and its institutions in the United States precisely because of perceptions that policymakers are doing too little to enforce the existing rules. I don’t advocate knee-jerk invocation of our rights to dispute settlement — there is plenty of room for deliberation and consultation (which is perpetually in play under the radar). 

To the extent that Friday’s actions serve as a release valve for some of the political pressure that has been building in Congress for unilateral actions against China, it is already a success. By bringing the case through formal WTO channels, Congress will see that there are, in fact, alternatives to dangerous, unilateral sanctions. In that sense, this case could reduce the likelihood that Congress intervenes and mucks everything up and it could actually improve long-term prospects for the U.S.-China trade relationship.

EU vs. Gas-guzzlers

The commissioners of the European Union endlessly preach about the need for carbon taxes and costly regulations that will reduce the quality of life for regular people. But those same commissioners get driven around in low-mileage vehicles. Fortunately, they are getting attacked for this hypocritical attitude.

Sadly, the embarrassment will have little impact. American politicians — including President Bush — want to force Americans into smaller (and more dangerous) cars, yet periodic efforts to require them to live by the same rules have proved fruitless.

The EU Observer reports on the controversy in Brussels: 

EU commissioners are finding themselves under scrutiny to see if they are putting into practice the green values that Brussels is increasingly preaching, with most of the 120-strong fleet of officials cars comprising gas-guzzling, C02-emitting giants.

…[T]he vast majority of the 27 commissioners use the standard-issue vehicles such as Audis or Mercedes — high on security features but rather lower on environment friendliness — to be ferried here and there across Brussels; sometimes even the few hundred metres between commission buildings.

…A commission spokesperson said, “It’s an individual decision for commissioners what their service car should be but as a general rule, the commissioners choose cars that are functional and safe for what they are doing.”

A French Global Warming Tax Against the U.S.?

Al Gore has a new ally in his fight for new taxes and regulations to limit carbon emissions. The New York Times reports that, for all intents and purposes, Jacques Chirac is blackmailing the United States: 

President Jacques Chirac has demanded that the United States sign both the Kyoto climate protocol and a future agreement that will take effect when the Kyoto accord runs out in 2012.

He warned that if the United States did not sign the agreements, a carbon tax across Europe on imports from nations that have not signed the Kyoto treaty could be imposed to try to force compliance.

Trade lawyers have been divided over the legality of a carbon tax, with some saying it would run counter to international trade rules. But Mr. Chirac said other European countries would back it. “I believe we will have all of the European Union,” he said.

With Trade Advocates Like These…

My colleague Dan Griswold salutes President Bush for ditching the traditional script and touting the broader benefits of trade in a speech yesterday in New York City. I would like to emphasize how rare, refreshing, and late-in-coming the President’s comments were.

One explanation for the growing resistance to trade liberalization in the United States is that the Bush administration’s “pro-trade” message has been weak, even self-defeating. Typically, when the President or members of his administration take to the podium, the message on trade is monothematic: exports are great and our trade agreements promote them.

The following is an excerpt from a speech the President gave at the headquarters of Caterpillar, Inc. in Peoria, Illinois on Tuesday:

Last year we exported a record $1.4 trillion worth of goods and services. Now, in order to export something, somebody has to make it. In other words, when I talk about numbers, behind the numbers is [sic] people who are providing the service and/or making the product. So the more one exports, the more likely it is people are going to be working.

Not once in the speech did the President allude to the benefits of imports, which are also important to Caterpillar, as sources of components and raw materials. Certainly, the mention of $1.4 trillion worth of exports in the context of the relationship between exports and jobs might invite the slightly curious to scratch their heads and wonder whether last year’s record $2.2 trillion worth of imports had an adverse impact on jobs.

Indeed, that is the central premise of many of trade’s opponents: exports create jobs, thus imports destroy them. By not mentioning that our record level of imports last year occurred alongside economic growth of 3.4 percent, the creation of 2 million net new jobs, and an unemployment rate that ended at a slim 4.5 percent, the President sacrificed an opportunity to drive home the point that imports do not undermine economic growth or job creation.

In fact, Dan Griswold has written extensively on the strong positive relationship between import growth and the growth of U.S. manufacturing output. (Here’s one of his offerings.) Basically, U.S. businesses account for about half of all U.S. imports. If you want to curtail imports, all we need is a handsome recession.

Now consider Exhibit 2. In response to the President’s announcement that he will seek extension of trade promotion authority, which expires at the end of June, U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab, yesterday, offered: 

The agreements enacted under TPA have helped us dramatically increase exports, which are likely to be an engine that drives the American economy to continued strong growth this year. U.S. exports to the 10 countries with which we implemented free trade agreements between 2001 and 2006 grew twice as fast as U.S. exports to the rest of world.

Okay, perhaps U.S. exports to those countries have increased faster. But is that all there is to tout?  What about the fact that we can purchase fresh grapes and blueberries, imported from Chile, in the middle of winter, at about the same price we purchase the same fruit from U.S. growers in the summertime?  (Just check the origin labels at your local grocer). By focusing exclusively on export potential, our trade advocates reinforce the myth that trade is exclusively a boon to business (“BIG BUSINESS,” of course), which comes at the expense of ordinary, “middle class” Americans.

Still, worse than the failure of policymakers supportive of trade to articulate its full benefits is when policymakers betray their own ignorance in a way that gives fodder to those counseling retreat from the global economy. Ways and Means Committee Ranking Member Jim McCrery (R-LA) claimed yesterday that “Our free trade agreements since TPA went into effect have reduced our trade deficit by $5.5 billion.”  I’m not sure how that was calculated or what exactly the figure represents, but presumably the comment is intended to demonstrate that trade agreements are good. I think it backfires.

If the exclusive purpose of trade policy is to promote exports, then it’s pretty easy for trade’s detractors to point to the massive and growing trade deficit and conclude we are losing grievously at trade. Our $800+ billion trade deficit is larger today than when TPA was enacted in 2002.  Using McCrery’s logic, trade is thus a menacing plague. I don’t know, maybe this is just a naïve thought but if you base the thrust of the case for trade on the export side, then the massive and growing trade deficit is all of a sudden an albatross around the necks of liberalizers. But the truth is that the trade account has virtually nothing to do with trade policy and efforts to somehow connect the two cannot serve a pro-trade agenda.

It’s no wonder we are having a national debate on the merits of trade, despite the overwhelming evidence of the relationship between greater openness and economic growth. Policymakers who claim to favor trade liberalization have been incapable or unwilling to articulate the complete and proper argument. That will have to change soon.

President Bush Answers Critics on Trade

President Bush has gone on the offensive this week, touting the generally solid performance of the U.S. economy and the danger posed to our market-driven prosperity by rising protectionist sentiments in Congress.

In a speech yesterday in the historic Federal Hall in New York City, the President sounded a clear trumpet in defense of free trade. In a rarity for politicians of any stripe, he not only extolled the virtues of exports but also of imports, and bluntly warned against “walling off America from world trade.”

Here are a few highlights from the speech:

“As we improve free trade, consumers get lower prices.” 

“Since World War II, the opening of global trade and investment has resulted in income gains of about $9,000 a year for the average American household.” 

“The Doha Round … is a great opportunity to lift millions of people out of poverty around the world.” 

“I know there’s going to be a vigorous debate on trade, and bashing trade can make for good sound bites on the evening news. But walling off America from world trade would be a disaster for our economy. Congress needs to reject protectionism, and to keep this economy open to the tremendous opportunities that the world has to offer.” 

Of course, the President will need to work with skeptical Democrats in Congress to pass pro-trade legislation and stop any anti-trade measures.

In the meantime, the President can put his pro-trade words into action unilaterally. A recent article in The Weekly Standard cites several good ideas from your favorite libertarian think tank on actions President Bush could take independently of Congress to expand the freedom of Americans to trade in the global economy.

Doha, TPA Extension, and the Farm Bill: the Axis of Frustration

President Bush went to Illinois yesterday, asking for Congressional renewal of his authority (called “Trade Promotion Authority”) to negotiate trade agreements and send them to Congress for an up-or-down vote without amendment. The present TPA expires at the end of June 2007. For those of us who have strong doubts about the ability of members of Congress to take the broad view when considering trade agreements, TPA is a necessary–but not sufficient–condition for the United States to pursue trade liberalization in partnership with other nations, including the ailing Doha round of world trade negotiations and other preferential trade agreements like those underway with South Korea and Malaysia. (This Washington Post article has a good overview of the stakes and politics behind the battle for TPA.)

(Side Note: it was surely no accident that President Bush chose to make his case at the headquarters of a successful exporter [a sterling company Caterpillar may be] rather than, as Grant Aldonas suggests in the Post article, a company that delivers cheap imports to consumers. Mercantalism is alive and well, in case there were any doubts.)

Basically, the bind is this: without TPA, Doha is dead. But many are suggesting that lawmakers will be reluctant to extend TPA if no Doha deal is imminent. Similarly, the new Farm Bill, due for enactment in September, may be an extension of the unsatisfactory 2002 Farm Bill if the Doha round does not exert significant pressure to reform, even though reform of U.S. agricultural policy would go a long way to helping the round succeed.

Don’t look to key members of Congress for their support in unraveling this knot, though. An article at the Delta Farm Press website contains some worrying statements from the new House Agriculture Committee Chair Colin Peterson. The money quote:

There’s pressure on us to change the farm bill because “that’s the only way we can get a trade deal,” said Peterson, a Minnesota Democrat. “Now, I’m sorry, but I’ve had enough of these trade deals. And unless we can get something good out of, I don’t give a darn if we get one.”

Something tells me that Chairman Peterson’s statement was not meant to be a be read as an endorsement of unilateral trade liberalization.

The Global Market for Kannadian Call Centers

“How can I help you, today, eh?” 

No, not that Canada. Kannada: the native language of 70 percent of Karnatakans.

Karnataka is the Indian state whose capital city, Bangalore, has been described as “the back office of the world.” Bangalore is awash in call centers, boasts over 200 high tech companies, and is reported to have the highest number of engineering colleges of any city in the world. Bill Gates has made a promotional and recruiting trip to the city.

Bangalore’s economic success rests not simply on its wealth of skilled technicians, but on their ability to work in English. There is no global market for Kannadian call centers. There is a global market for English ones.

And that’s where two visions of India’s educational future collide. On the one hand, we have the School Choice India campaign of the New Delhi-based Centre for Civil Society. This campaign would like to see independent schooling brought within reach of every family in India, and the overwhelming majority of non-government schools in that country teach all their classes (other than, of course, native language classes) in English. They do so because that is what their customers demand.

On the other hand we have the government of Karnataka, and the highly influential linguistic nationalists who wish to promote the use of Kannada and who see English as tainted by its association with India’s colonial past. Back in 1994, the Karnatakan government passed a law – not initially enforced – banning English-medium schools. According to recent reports, it plans to start enforcing that ban in April of this year, under pressure from Kannadian activists, shuttering any schools that refuse to comply.

If the ban goes ahead, it will undoubtedly be short-lived, as Bangalore’s businesses start making plans to relocate to other Indian cities and the full economic ramifications are more widely grasped. The fact that it is even being contemplated is just one more excellent example of why centralized control over the curriculum is a bad idea, eh.