Topic: Trade and Immigration

What’s Really Impeding Progress in the TPP?

Japan and the United States have undertaken a series of high-level negotiations over the past several weeks in an effort to reach a bilateral agreement that could lead to completion of the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Japanese Minister of State for Economic and Fiscal Policy, Akira Amari, has met with U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman both in Tokyo and Washington in an effort to resolve differences prior to President Obama’s visit to Japan this week. Reports indicate that the talks have made some progress.  However, large gaps remain that are expected to preclude any breakthrough announcement when the president meets on April 24 with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The stated obstacles to concluding the talks have been Japanese reluctance to eliminate tariffs on sensitive agricultural products – beef, dairy, pork, rice, sugar and wheat – and U.S. reluctance to eliminate the 2.5 percent tariff on automobile imports and the 25 percent tariff on light trucks. Each side is very much in the right to ask the other to change these protectionist policies. They have the effect of stifling comparative advantage. They reduce economic welfare by raising consumer costs while curtailing opportunities for efficient producers to make export sales. Ending these trade restrictions would not only help the country requesting the changes, but would also help the economy of the country making the change. What’s not to like about this deal?

Stepping back from the details of the requests and offers, the real problems facing each country are the underlying political realities. Japanese farmers strongly resist reductions in the level of support they receive from tariff protection, and have done so consistently for decades. Those farmers also have been consistent and dedicated supporters of Prime Minister Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). If Japan’s agricultural community becomes sufficiently unhappy with the Abe administration, it is entirely possible that his government could fall. Nonetheless, Prime Minister Abe seems willing to push agricultural policy in the direction of reform. He knows that updating Japan’s agricultural policies is an essential condition for becoming a member of the TPP.

Political considerations in the United States are somewhat different. Yes, the automobile industry would give up tariff protection on imports from Japan. But the reality is that a 2.5 percent duty isn’t all that high in the first place, and the protective effect of the 25-percent duty on light trucks has been undermined significantly by Japanese firms’ investments in U.S. manufacturing facilities. A whole lot of “Japanese” vehicles already are built in the United States. Nonetheless, the U.S. auto industry and its workers are not enamored of tariff reductions, and the Obama administration no doubt keeps this in mind.

Removing the 3/10 Year Bars Is Not Amnesty

It’s no secret that the Senate’s proposed legalization for some unauthorized immigrants was a deal breaker in 2013. Detractors labelled such a legalization “amnesty” even though it is anything but that – and that label has stuck. That, at minimum, some unauthorized immigrants become legalized is economically and ethically imperative, so it’s time to consider less-than-comprehensive, keyhole solutions that will fix at least some of the problems with our immigration system.

One such solution, which even many of those opposed to immigration reform have endorsed, is a small legislative reform to the 3/10 year bars that will allow some unauthorized immigrants to depart and apply for reentry under the legal system without special treatment. This reform would avoid the so-called amnesty objection to immigration reform.

 

Removing the Bars

The 3/10 year bars require any immigrant who stays in the United States illegally for more than six months but less than one year may not leave, reenter, or apply for a green card for three years. Any immigrant who illegally stays for more than a year may not leave, reenter, or apply for a green card for 10 years. Any immigrant who violates it triggers a twenty-year ban from reentering the United States for any reason. That’s a problem because almost all applicants for a green card or visa have to visit a U.S. embassy or consulate abroad to apply which, in the case of unauthorized immigrants, requires them to leave the Untied States thus triggering the bars. The 3/10 year bars prevent any unauthorized immigrant from using the legal immigration system. 

Counting the Wrong Winners and Losers

Debates about trade liberalization often focus on identifying the winners and losers of increased openness to foreign competition.  Protectionists regale us with sad stories of closed factories, and free traders point to lower prices for consumers and the broad benefits of economic growth.  But this whole exercise is completely backwards.  We should instead be talking about the winners and losers of protectionism.

Free trade is not a trade policy.  Trade policies—such as tariffs, quotas, restrictions on foreign service providers, and protectionist regulations—exist to divert the benefits of free exchange toward politically powerful special interests.  Free trade is merely the absence of those policies. 

By demanding an explanation for increased openness, the trade debate implicitly legitimizes the protectionist status quo.  As a consequence, the news media often accept the argument that opening the U.S. market to foreign competition should be accompanied by programs that alleviate the suffering of the losers of increased trade.  But why is anyone entitled to the current arrangement?  Perhaps the winners of protectionism owe reparations to those of us who had to suffer the consequences of their rent-seeking. 

Who wins and who loses from policies that increase the price of food?  Who wins and who loses from regressive taxes on shoes and clothes?  Who wins and who loses from shipping restrictions?  Who wins and who loses from protectionist overregulation?  I could go on.

Last Sunday’s New York Times included an editorial calling on the Obama administration to “Get Global Trade Right” by adding a handful of protectionists’ pet issues to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Threatening our trade partners with sanctions if they don’t adopt specific labor, environment, or monetary policies is not going help the United States get trade right, but it will make us a bully and reduce our ability to make real progress tearing down genuine barriers. 

After (wrongly) blaming increased economic openness for the loss of millions of manufacturing jobs and growing income inequality, the Times—without a hint of irony—says that President Obama needs “to make a strong case for why these new agreements will be good for the American economy and workers.”  Well, that is certainly true.

Let me offer some humble advice to the president then on how he might take on that task: Stop selling trade agreements as a way to grow export markets for goods produced in the United States, and start extolling the virtues of agreements as a way to fight cronyism and to tear down bad policies. Thinking about trade agreements this way will not only help you sell the agreement, it could actually make the agreements better.

Liberalizing Investment in Cuba

I’m no Cuba expert, but I have followed the events of recent years with interest. It seems that there have been tentative steps towards liberalizing the Cuban economy, as well as slightly better economic relations between the United States and Cuba. I’m hopeful the long-term trend is towards Cuba becoming a free market democracy, with normal relations with the United States.

In the short-term, though, I’m frustrated by how the “liberalization” of foreign investment is being carried out there. Here’s the Economist:

But on March 29th Cuba’s parliament approved a new foreign-investment law that for the first time allows Cubans living abroad to invest in some enterprises (provided, according to Rodrigo Malmierca, the foreign-trade minister, they are not part of the “Miami terrorist mafia”). The aim is to raise foreign investment in Cuba to about $2.5 billion a year; currently Cuban economists say the stock is $5 billion at most.

The law, which updates a faulty 1995 one, is still patchy, says Pavel Vidal, a Cuban economist living in Colombia. It offers generous tax breaks of eight years for new investments. However, it requires employers to hire workers via state employment agencies that charge (and keep) hard currency, vastly inflating the cost of labour.

Welcoming new foreign investment is great. Here’s the problem, though: In order to liberalize investment, a government really doesn’t need to do anything fancy. It can just say, “foreign investment is permitted, and will be treated like domestic investment.” Very simple. Furthermore, lower tax rates and reduced regulatory burdens can help encourage such investment. Again, very simple.

In practice, though, governments make this process difficult and less liberalizing. Here, what Cuba seems to have done is offered special tax breaks for new foreign investments, and then subjected receipt of these tax advantages to certain hiring conditions. In effect, it introduces two distortions as part of the liberalization process: favoring new foreign investors over other investors through the tax code and then subjecting the favored investors to additional regulation.

To be clear, Cuba is not the only country who does this; this is what many countries do. But there’s just no reason to approach it this way. The simpler way, with low tax rates for all investors, is the more economically beneficial way. Unfortunately, it seems as though “liberalization” is often just a catchword, and governments insist on using their power to intervene in private economic transactions, even when ostensibly moving away from interventionist policies.

Gas Prices Are Pinching Again, and You Can Thank U.S. Trade Policy For Some of the Pain

The summer driving season is still weeks away, but rising U.S. gas prices are already back in the news.  Last week, the average price for regular gasoline at U.S. gas stations hit $3.6918 a gallon – the highest since March 22, 2013 and up 43 cents this year.  Much of this price depends on global supply and demand, but certainly not all of it.  In fact, two archaic, little-known U.S. policies – vigorously defended by the well-connected interest groups who benefit from them – restrict free trade in petroleum products and, as a result, force American consumers to pay considerably more at the pump.

First, the Jones Act - a 94-year-old law that requires all domestic seaborne trade to be shipped on U.S.-crewed, -owned, flagged and manufactured vessels – prevents cost-effective intrastate shipping of crude oil or refined products.  According to Bloomberg, there are only 13 ships that can legally move oil between U.S. ports, and these ships are “booked solid.”  As a result, abundant oil supplies in the Gulf Coast region cannot be shipped to other U.S. states with spare refinery capacity.  And, even when such vessels are available, the Jones Act makes intrastate crude shipping artificially expensive.  According to a 2012 report by the Financial Times, shipping U.S. crude from Texas to Philadelphia cost more than three times as much as shipping the same product on a foreign-flagged vessel to a Canadian refinery, even though the latter route is longer.

It doesn’t take an energy economist to see how the Jones Act’s byzantine protectionism leads to higher prices at the pump for American drivers.  According to one recent estimate, revoking the Jones Act would reduce U.S. gasoline prices by as much as 15 cents per gallon “by increasing the supply of ships able to shuttle the fuel between U.S. ports.”

International Regulatory Conflict

My colleague Peter Van Doren posted here yesterday about a new National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) rule which mandates that “all cars and light trucks sold in the United States in 2018 have rearview cameras installed.” I’m going to leave the analysis of the domestic regulatory aspects of this issue to experts like Peter. I just wanted to comment briefly on some of the international aspects.

In particular, what if other governments decide to regulate in this area as well and they all do it differently?  That would mean significant costs for car makers, as they would have to tailor their cars to meet the requirements of different governments. Note that the U.S. regulation doesn’t just say, “cars must have a rear-view camera.”  Rather, it gets very detailed:

The final rule amends a current standard by expanding the area behind a vehicle that must be visible to the driver when the vehicle is shifted into reverse. That field of view must include a 10-foot by 20-foot zone directly behind the vehicle. The system used must meet other requirements as well, including the size of the image displayed for the driver. 

In contrast to a market solution, which provides flexibility as to what will be offered, the regulatory approach has very specific requirements.

As far as I have been able to find out, the United States is the first to regulate here, but others are likely to follow. When the EU or Japan turn to the issue, for example, will they develop regulations that are incompatible with the U.S. approach? Will there be a proliferation of conflicting regulations?

In theory, it’s easy to avoid these problems. Smart regulators would recognize that their foreign counterparts’ regulations are equally effective. But in other areas of automobile regulation, we haven’t seen enough of this cooperation. The rear-view camera issue provides an opportunity for regulators from different countries to work together to avoid making regulation even more costly than it already is.

WTO Indictment of Chinese Export Restrictions Unearths U.S. Hypocrisy

Last week a WTO dispute settlement panel ruled that certain Chinese restrictions on exports of “rare earth” minerals are inconsistent with China’s WTO obligations and recommended that the PRC government bring its policies into compliance with the rules. The decision was hardly surprising, as export restrictions are prohibited under the WTO agreements – except under certain limited circumstances, which were not demonstrated to exist.

Formal complaints about these export restrictions were lodged in the WTO by the United States, the European Union, and Japan, whose manufacturers require rare earth minerals for production of a variety of high tech products, including flat-screen televisions, smart phones, and hybrid automobile batteries. By restricting exports, the complainants alleged, China’s actions reduce supply and raise prices abroad, putting foreign downstream manufacturers at a disadvantage vis-à-vis China’s domestic rare earth-using companies, who enjoy the effective subsidies of greater supply and lower input prices.

The WTO decision was lauded across Washington, but more for its dig on China than for its basis in principle or sound economics. Emblematic of official sentiment was the following statement from arch-import-foe-temporarily-turned-globalization-advocate, House Ways and Means Committee Ranking Member Sander Levin (D-MI):

Through the aggressive efforts of the Obama Administration, the WTO has struck down China’s efforts to block our companies from having access to key inputs.  Our high-tech industries, from smartphones to medical equipment to wind turbines, depend on access to these rare earths and other chemicals. Holding China accountable, and enforcing the rules of international trade are vital to U.S. businesses and workers and key to trade expansion efforts (emphasis added).

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