Topic: Trade and Immigration

New Farm Bill Much Larger Than Last One

Congress is gearing up to pass the first big farm bill since 2008. The logrolling between farm interests is nearing completion, the Republicans have given up on making substantial food stamp cuts, and the Treasury stands ready to borrow another $1 trillion. We are all set to go.

It looks like the final farm bill will be expected to cost about $950 billion over 10 years. CRS has details on bill versions from the Fall, but I adjusted those numbers based on the reported GOP cave-in on food stamps.

If the final number is $950 billion, the 2014 farm bill will cost 48 percent more than the $640 billion farm bill passed in 2008. Farm bill supporters claim that the new bill includes “savings” and “cuts,” but that is a myth created by the rising CBO baseline. The reality is that Congress is set to impose a huge, damaging, and unaffordable burden on taxpayers and the economy.

Should Free Traders Support Free Trade Agreements?

With the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations allegedly near completion, the transatlantic talks kicking into higher gear, and debate in Congress over U.S. trade policy objectives about to intensify, 2014 is shaping up to be the most consequential year for the trade agenda in a long time. Whether real free traders should rejoice over these developments depends on the emerging details, as well as the ability to avoid making the perfect the enemy of the good.

Real free traders abhor domestic trade barriers and want them removed regardless of whether other governments remove their own barriers. The benefits of trade are the imports we obtain, not the exports we give up. The immediate benefits are measured by the value of imports that can be purchased for a given unit of exports – the more, the better – and domestic barriers reduce those terms of trade. Of course, there are also the secondary benefits of imports, which include greater variety, lower prices, more competition, better quality, and the innovation spawned by those and other factors.

The process of U.S. trade policy formulation has never been particularly accommodating of free traders’ perspectives. Free trade views have been marginalized by their being subsumed within a broader category of views labelled “pro-trade,” which is dominated by business lobbies and other “pro-export” mercantilists. As the definition of free trade has been expanded to mean pro-trade, the definition of protectionism has been narrowed to exclude views, such as: “I’m not a protectionist; I just want a level playing field,” or; “I’m for free trade, as long as it’s fair trade.” Those are the clichés of protectionists, who are now popularly grouped under the pro-trade umbrella.

So, today’s trade debate (framed as it is by media, lobbyists, and politicians) does not feature free-traders on one side and protectionists on the other. Instead, one is either pro-trade or anti-trade, supports corporations or their workers, and believes free trade agreements are either good or evil. In a world with these binary choices, nuance gets squeezed out. Where do you fit if you support the tariff reductions in a trade agreement, but are unhappy with the corporate welfare it bestows on particular industries? What if you know that trade liberalization is good for both corporations and their workers alike? What if you’re pro-market, but not pro-business?

Given these and other ambiguities, should free traders support free trade agreements? Let me lay down a marker for free trade – “real” free trade, that is.

Free markets are essential to our prosperity, and free trade is the extension of free markets across political borders. Making markets freer and expanding them to integrate more buyers, sellers, investors, and workers deepens and broadens that prosperity. When goods, services, capital, and labor flow freely across borders, Americans can take full advantage of the opportunities of the international marketplace. Free trade provides benefits to consumers and taxpayers in the form of lower prices, greater variety, and better quality. And, it enables businesses and workers to reap the benefits of innovation, specialization, and economies of scale that larger markets afford. Countless studies have shown that economies that are more open grow faster and achieve higher incomes than those that are relatively closed.

Damning Trade with Faint Praise

A Washington Post editorial today pushes back against the argument that a Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement would exacerbate income inequality. Amen, I suppose. But in making its case, the editorial burns the village to save it by conceding as fact certain destructive myths that undergird broad skepticism about trade and unify its opponents.

“All else being equal,” the editorial reads, “firms move where labor is cheapest.”  Presumably, by “all else being equal,” the editorial board means: if the quality of the factors of production were the same; if skill sets were identical; if workers were endowed with the same capital; if all production locations had equal access to ports and rail; if the proximity of large markets and other nodes in the supply chain were the same; if institutions supporting the rule of law were comparably rigorous or lax; if the risks of asset expropriation were the same; if regulations and taxes were identical; and so on, the final determinant in the production location decision would be the cost of labor. Fair enough. That untestable premise may be correct.

But back in reality, none of those conditions is equal. And what do we see? We see investment flowing (sometimes in the form of “firms mov[ing],” but more often in the form of firms supplementing domestic activities) to rich countries, not poor. In this recent study, I reported statistics from the Bureau of Economic Analysis revealing that:

Nearly three quarters of the $5.2 trillion stock of U.S.-owned direct investment abroad is concentrated in Europe, Canada, Japan, Australia, and Singapore. Contrary to persistent rumors, only 1.3 percent of the value of U.S.-outward FDI [foreign direct investment] was in China at the end of 2011.

Cato FOIA Request Reveals E-Verify Delays Hurt Workers

Proponents of E-Verify, the Internet-based system to verify that a person is eligible to work in the United States, often tout its supposed speed and reliability. A recent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request from Cato has shed some light on how long it takes for the government to resolve contested tentative non-confirmations (TNC). The data should temper some enthusiasm for the system.

Our FOIA revealed that in 2012, the most recent year for which data are available, there were 68,775 contested TNCs through E-Verify. A TNC is an initial E-Verify determination that a worker is unlawful. Of those, 21,007 were handled by the Social Security Administration, with an average turnaround of 3.42 business days after the TNC was contested.  

The Department of Homeland Security handled the other 47,768 contested TNCs, with an average turnaround of 6.01 business days. SSA deals with a lower volume of cases and deals with them in almost half the time that it takes DHS.

The information received as part of the FOIA included further breakdowns of resolution time:

What to Look for in the Upcoming Trade Policy Debate

The most important piece of trade legislation Congress has dealt with in years was introduced in the House and Senate last week. The “Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities Act of 2014” sets out the parameters for renewing trade promotion authority (TPA), originally known as “fast track,” in order to ease eventual passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other agreements through Congress. There will be a lot of debate in the coming months about what U.S. trade policy should look like, and this TPA bill will do a lot to establish the agenda.

The new bill largely mirrors the last TPA grant in 2002.  The basic idea of fast track is that Congress agrees to hold an up-or-down vote on any trade agreement submitted by the president, while the president agrees to adopt a series of negotiating objectives laid out by Congress. 

I’ve explained before why I think TPA is not necessary right now to get agreements through Congress and why it could even make the TPP negotiations more difficult. However, that argument is temporarily moot since this TPA bill is on the table and will apply not only to the TPP but to the U.S.-EU trade agreement and any World Trade Organzation negotiations for the next four years. 

Defeat of this bill could quite possibly kill any chance the president has to conclude trade agreements before the end of his term. Also, the negotiating objectives included in the new bill are not as bad as I had feared.

At this point, we should be talking about what’s in the new TPA bill and how it might change as the debate heats up.

Challenging the Conventional Wisdom on Fast Track

The Wall Street Journal’s Mary O’Grady put out an excellent column yesterday expressing skepticism about the trade agenda in 2014.  I agree with almost everything in the piece, with one major exception.  Contrary to the prevailing conventional wisdom, the lack of “fast track” trade promotion authority has not been and will not be an obstacle to completing the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations. 

Her concern about the lack of fast track relates to the willingness of other countries to negotiate when the president has not secured trade promotion authority:

Mr. Obama’s trade team has been working on [the TPP] for years. But U.S. negotiators still don’t have “trade promotion authority” (TPA) from Congress. This means there really hasn’t been much negotiating at all because the U.S. team still doesn’t know how much flexibility it has from Congress to cut final deals on sensitive areas of trade. That will come with TPA, which sets “objectives” that the administration must meet. No U.S. trading partner is going to talk seriously unless the president has it.

I strongly disagree with this characterization. For the last three years, countries have been knocking down the door trying to get into the TPP negotiations. They have done this even while knowing that the TPP will inevitably be a vehicle for pushing U.S. economic and strategic priorities at their expense. These governments see the economic benefit of access to the U.S. market and have shown no reluctance to engage in negotiations despite the Obama administration’s apparent disinterest in securing fast track authority from Congress.

Is Free Trade in Energy Finally on the Horizon?

Over the last few months, the media and the policy world have discovered that America’s archaic crude oil export restrictions are really bad policy. Two new and important developments give this welcome and growing movement even more momentum:

  • In a much-publicized speech yesterday, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), ranking member of the Senate Energy Committee, advocated modernizing U.S. export restrictions on energy products, particularly natural gas and crude oil. Accompanying her speech was a new white paper on the same topic, which (i) highlights the serious economic problems caused by the current crude oil export licensing system (which is effectively a ban on exports to all countries except Canada); (ii) confirms the widely held view that oil exports won’t cause higher gas prices; and (iii) recommends that the president, the Commerce Department, or–if they continue to do nothing–Congress relax the export ban. Just as importantly, Murkowski’s views were recently echoed by Sen. Mary Landrieu, (D-LA) who stands to take over the Senate Energy Committee this year. Thus, there could be bi-partisan support for easing the U.S. crude oil ban on the Senate committee arguably most integral to any such reforms.
  • Also, today, the American Petroleum Institute’s president and CEO Jack Gerard reiterated his organization’s support for lifting the crude oil export ban:

Gerards’s formal announcement echoes a few previous statements from folks at API (which is the largest U.S. energy trade association and a big player on Capitol Hill) and is a good sign that they’re going to push harder on this issue in the future. (API’s related blog post, which calls the crude export ban “obsolete,” certainly indicates as much.)

These two developments should be welcome news for anyone concerned with free markets, economic growth, and well-functioning energy markets. As I argued in a February 2013 Cato paper (and subsequent podcast), the crude oil export restrictions–and the similar, more well-known restrictions on U.S. natural gas exports–raise a host of economic, legal, and policy concerns. These restrictions should be replaced with a simple, transparent, and automatic licensing system for all exports of U.S. energy goods (not just fossil fuels).