Topic: Trade and Immigration

The Threat of Poorly Performing Vacuum Cleaners

I don’t follow domestic regulation as closely as many people at Cato, but I keep an eye on it in relation to “regulatory trade barriers” that are being addressed in trade negotiations. In that context, I came accross this EU attempt to crack down on high-wattage vacuum cleaners:

Consumers are being urged to buy powerful vacuum cleaners while they can after it emerged that some of the most powerful models on the market will disappear in September when a new EU rule comes into force.

An EU energy label, to be introduced from 1 September, means manufacturers will not be able to make or import vacuum cleaners with a motor that exceeds 1,600 watts.

European commission spokeswoman for energy Marlene Holzner said in a blog: “As a result of the new EU eco-design and labelling regulations, consumers will also get better vacuum cleaners. In the past, there was no legislation on vacuum cleaners and companies could sell poorly performing vacuum cleaners.”

Oh, the humanity! Companies might sell “poorly performing vacuum cleaners” to an unsuspecting public! And only legislation can save the day!

Or – and I know this might sound crazy to some people – we could just rely on consumers to evaluate the vacuum cleaners, buying the better ones and leaving the “poorly peforming” ones on the shelf.

Free Trade Within Countries

Trade policy people spend most of their time talking about free trade between countries.  But there is still some work to do on free trade within countries.  Some Canadians are making a push right now, as Canadian business groups are calling for Canada’s leaders “to dismantle internal trade barriers and ensure the free movement of goods, services, capital and labour between all parts of the country.”

If that sounds odd, don’t get the wrong idea.  It’s not as though Canadian provinces are imposing tariffs on each other.  Rather, this is part of a more advanced notion of free trade, where you have a “single market” for goods and services.  So for example, these groups complain that:

Different regulations and standards means that manufacturers may need to adapt their machinery in order to produce containers such as dairy creamers, butter and drinkable yogurts for sale nationally across all provincial jurisdictions.

Or:

massage therapy is regulated in some provinces but not all, meaning that a professional would have to become certified in order to be allowed to practice.

These issues are difficult to address between sovereign nations, although people are trying, most notably in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations.  But within countries, it seems like this is something that could and should be dealt with.  Here in the U.S., we have the famous problem of not being able to buy health insurance across state lines.  The current effort in Canada seems like a valuable one; it might be useful to have a similar review of internal trade barriers here in the U.S.

Washington Post Half-Heartedly Seeks Clarity About Export-Import Bank Jobs Claims

It was good of the Washington Post Editorial Board to raise questions yesterday about the veracity of the “jobs-created-by-Export-Import-Bank-policies” claims proffered by the Bank’s supporters. I just wonder whether the editorial pulled its punches where a reporter on assignment or a more inquisitive journalist would have delivered an unabashed blow to the credibility of the Bank’s primary reauthorization argument: that its termination will lead to a reduction in U.S. exports and jobs.

Kudos to the Post for raising an eyebrow at the Bank’s claims of “jobs created” or “jobs supported” by Ex-Im financing:  

[W]hen it comes to jobs, well, just how rigorous are [Ex-Im’s] estimates, really? Congress ordered a study of that very question when it last reauthorized Ex-Im in 2012. In May 2013, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) produced its verdict: Meh.”

“GAO noted that Ex-Im must speak vaguely of “jobs supported,” rather than concretely of jobs created, since its methodology cannot really distinguish between new employment and retained employment. To get a number for “jobs supported,” which includes both a given firm and that firm’s suppliers, Ex-Im multiplies the dollar amount of exports it finances in each industry by a “jobs ratio” (calculated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics).

Using that approach, Ex-Im estimates an average of 6,390 jobs are “supported” by every billion dollars of exports financed. The Post is right to note the GAO’s conclusion:

These figures do not differentiate between full-time and part-time work and, crucially, provide no information about what might have happened to employment at the firms in question, or others, if the resources marshaled by Ex-Im had flowed elsewhere in the economy.

Crony Catfish

If you were looking for an example to show just how awful the legislative process is in Washington, the ongoing saga over catfish inspection is just perfect.  On its face, the 2008 law requiring the U.S. Department of Agriculture to inspect catfish facilities seems relatively benign.  Who doesn’t want safer catfish?  In reality, though, the law has nothing to do with food safety and everything to do with supporting the Southern catfish industry at everyone else’s expense.

Switching catfish inspection from the FDA (where it is now) to the USDA won’t make catfish any safer.  This isn’t really a controversial point, either.  The USDA itself has said that catfish is a low risk food and can’t explain how its inspections will reduce that risk in any meaningful way.  The Government Accountability Office has advised Congress to repeal the program.  

The new inspection regime is slated to cost taxpayers $14 million more per year than the current one.  But there’s actually a much greater harm being done here.

Aside from the cost, the main impact of the new inspection regime—and its actual purpose—is that foreign catfish producers will be banned from the U.S. market until they can show equivalence to U.S. production standards.  Regardless of how they produce the catfish, showing equivalence will take years.  In the meantime, U.S. consumers will be left with nothing but domestic catfish at hugely inflated prices.

The good news is that a growing, bipartisan group of legislators has been trying to kill the program since its stealthy insertion into the 2008 farm bill.  Most recently, Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-MO) announced that she will propose an amendment to the 2015 Agriculture Appropriations Bill to defund the new inspection program.  This may be the last chance to kill the program before it finally goes into effect, exposing the United States to retaliatory action for violating our trade obligations.

The amendment will probably succeed, as similar amendments have in the past, but—just as before—that may not be enough.  The program exists not because half of our illustrious legislators have been fooled into supporting it but because Thad Cochran (R-MS) has seniority on key committees.  He and a handful of other legislators in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas are the only ones pushing for this program.  

I talk more with Caleb Brown about Thad Cochran’s Crony Catfish in this Cato podcast:

Russia Imposes Embargo on Itself

The American economist Henry George wrote, “What protection teaches us, is to do to ourselves in time of peace what enemies seek to do to us in time of war.” In Russia, Vladimir Putin started a war and then, in response to mild American and European sanctions, retaliated by imposing greater sanctions—on his own people.

Even American journalists, whose economic acumen I have been known to question, have noted the likely effects of Putin’s sanctions. See Michael Birnbaum in the Washington Post:

Russia on Thursday banned most imports of Western food products, a sweeping escalation in an economic war that will deal a multibillion-dollar hit to affected nations but will also unreel wide-ranging consequences at home.

The measures were a signal that Russia is not backing down from a confrontation that has sent Western-Russian tensions to heights not seen since the Cold War—and that it is willing to risk barer shelves and higher food prices at home in the name of striking a blow against countries that have tried to punish it over its role in the Ukraine conflict.

Russia has suspended imports of meat, fish, fruit, vegetables and milk products from the United States, the 28-nation European Union, Norway, Canada and Australia for a year. The move came in retaliation for sanctions those countries imposed on Russia….

In Russia, the food measures promised to hit not just city centers, where the urban middle class has grown accustomed to visiting supermarkets overflowing with high-quality imported European cheeses, fish and sausages. Analysts warned that food prices also would increase and that a wide range of Russian industries, including food processing plants, shippers and retailers, would be affected….

“It will be quite sensitive,” said Yevsey Gurvich, the head of the Economic Expert Group. “Not only rich people will feel it, but literally every family will be affected.” He said he estimated that Russian consumer prices would go up 2 percent this year because of the measures.

“Alternatives to imported foods will be more costly, and, anyway, I believe they will be insufficient, and our supplies will diminish. And, hence, prices will go up,” he said.

Americans who wished for more painful sanctions on Russia than President Obama has imposed are getting their wish—thanks to Putin. 

Cotton Subsidies and the Upside of Wasteful Government Incompetence

An internal audit by the U.S. Department of Agriculture of the “Economic Adjustment Assistance to Users of Upland Cotton Program” (EAAP) has revealed widespread misuse of subsidies given to owners of textile mills.  The program pays mills based on how much cotton they buy and requires that they spend the money on capital improvements at the mill.  It turns out some owners were just buying whatever the heck they wanted with the money—and that’s probably a good thing.

The primary purpose of the EAAP is to increase the demand for cotton.  The money goes to the mills, but the intended beneficiary is the cotton farmer, who gets an overpaying customer.  By conditioning the payment on an equivalent reinvestment in the cotton mill, the program also hopes to artificially increase the supply of cotton mills.  This, too, is meant to benefit cotton farmers by keeping their customers invested in buying their product. 

If the textile mill owners are using the subsidies to purchase—as the Washington Free Beacon reports—“Ford Explorers, artwork, sound systems, and elephant lamps,” then the program is ultimately less distortive of the U.S. and global cotton market.  That’s a good thing.  If the government is going to take money from some people and give it to others, at the very least we should hope that they do it in the least destructive way possible.

On the other hand, if the mill owners get the money with no strings attached, that increases the incentive for them to take the subsidy in the first place.  My guess, though, is that paying people to buy things they actually want is less distortive than paying them to buy things the government wants them to buy.

So, a toast to government incompetence (this time).  If someone’s going to do bad things, I’m glad it’s these idiots.

Russia, Sanctions, and Food

The Russian government announced on August 6 that it will ban imports of most food and agricultural products from Australia, Canada, the European Union, Norway and the United States for one year.  The full extent of the ban, as well as its effects on exporters and Russian consumers, are not yet clear.  It is interesting, though, to contrast this action with an earlier effort to use food sanctions as a diplomatic weapon:  the 1980 embargo of U.S. grain sales to the Soviet Union. 

The Soviets had invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 with 80,000 troops and 1800 tanks.  President Carter responded by cancelling private contracts to supply 17 million metric tons (MMT) of U.S. wheat and corn to the Soviet Union.  However, he chose to allow shipment of 8 MMT that had been agreed as part of the 1975 U.S.-Soviet Grains Agreement.  Sales in excess of the level assured in the Grains Agreement were embargoed.

Because grains are relatively fungible, and because numerous countries had surpluses available for export, the Soviets were able to replace most of the embargoed grain from willing suppliers.  Argentine agriculture did particularly well during that timeframe.  U.S. agriculture did not do so well.  Market prices had been relatively high, in large part due to strong export demand.  When a considerable portion of that demand evaporated with the stroke of a pen, commodity prices fell precipitously. 

The grain embargo became a potent political issue in the 1980 presidential campaign.  Ronald Reagan’s opposition to the embargo helped to boost his campaign in rural areas.  He took office in January 1981 and revoked the embargo three months later.

In retrospect, the grain embargo generally is seen as supporting the proposition that economic sanctions often inflict greater costs on the country imposing them than on the country at which they are aimed.

The new sanctions are expected to cut off some $15 billion in Russian imports from the EU.  Russia has been Europe’s second largest (behind the United States) export market for foodstuffs, accounting for 10 percent of the EU’s total foreign sales.  The United States has a smaller stake, with only $1.3 billion of food/ag exports to Russia.  That country has been the third largest market for U.S. poultry exports.  About 7 percent of U.S. poultry exports – valued at over $300 million – were shipped to Russia last year, down from 20 percent as recently as 2008.  Russia’s WTO commitments should prevent import restrictions based on political pressures.  Nonetheless, trade in poultry appears to have fluctuated over time in response to the influence of Russia’s domestic poultry producers.  (It’s worth noting that Russia’s import ban does not include either baby food or wine.  It’s not clear how those omissions should be interpreted.)