Topic: Trade and Immigration

President Obama Offers Free Trade as Reluctantly as Possible

President Obama has proven once again that he is his own worst enemy on trade policy. Despite expectations that he would make a strong push for trade promotion authority (TPA), President Obama offered only quick mention of trade in this week’s State of the Union address. 

Although he did ask Congress to pass TPA to help him complete free trade agreements, the president backed up that request with some of the weakest arguments possible. I’ll give you the entire two paragraphs here:

21st century businesses, including small businesses, need to sell more American products overseas. Today, our businesses export more than ever, and exporters tend to pay their workers higher wages. But as we speak, China wants to write the rules for the world’s fastest-growing region. That would put our workers and businesses at a disadvantage. Why would we let that happen? We should write those rules. We should level the playing field. That’s why I’m asking both parties to give me trade promotion authority to protect American workers, with strong new trade deals from Asia to Europe that aren’t just free, but fair.

Look, I’m the first one to admit that past trade deals haven’t always lived up to the hype, and that’s why we’ve gone after countries that break the rules at our expense. But 95 percent of the world’s customers live outside our borders, and we can’t close ourselves off from those opportunities. More than half of manufacturing executives have said they’re actively looking at bringing jobs back from China. Let’s give them one more reason to get it done.

This is essentially a protectionist argument in favor of trade agreements. According to the president, the trade agreements his administration is negotiating will protect American workers from (1) China, (2) unfair competition, and (3) outsourcing. They’ll level the playing field and bring back jobs to America. 

Isn’t that what tariffs and subsidies are for?!

The Proliferation of Ex-Im Banks

As I was reading my print copy of the Economist last week, an advertisement taken out by the African Export-Import Bank, in search of a new President and Chairperson of the Board of Directors, grabbed my attention.  No doubt the pay and perks are pretty good, but I wasn’t thinking of applying.  Rather, it made me wonder, just how many Ex-Im Banks are there in the world?  To get a sense of it, I checked out the official list compiled by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) for agencies in OECD countries , as well as Wikipedia’s broader, global list

It’s quite a long list!  Which leads me to the following point.  These days, trade negotiations often seem to have veered away from their traditional focus, with a lot of time now spent on issues such as intellectual property protection and labor rights.  Subsidies were one of the original targets of trade talks, and it would be great to put them back in the mix.  How about negotiating an end to the proliferation of export subsidies by these kinds of institutions?

How I-Squared Would Affect Employment Based Green Cards

Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) introduced the I-Squared Act of 2015 to reform the high-skilled immigration system.  Most of this bill attempts to improve the H-1B visa for temporary highly skilled workers by making the workers more legally mobile and increasing the quotas for that visa.  The H-1B is a dual-intent guest worker visa program, meaning that workers on the H-1B can pursue a green card while working on a temporary visa. The H-1B is a pipeline to the employment-based (EB) green card.

Most commentators will focus on the important and positive proposed reforms to the H-1B visa.  In contrast, I will focus on the reforms to the employment-based (EB) green card program.  I-Squared would exempt several categories of workers and their family members from the numerical quota imposed on EB green cards.  Although I-Squared does not increase the numerical quota, effectively it more than doubles the quota through exemptions.  As I detail here, this is a very positive move for U.S. economic growth.  Below I detail many of the exemptions in I-Squared and then make some suggestions for further streamlining and liberalizing the system.

Exempting Dependents

The most important exemption in I-Squared for EB green cards is for the spouses and children of workers.  Under current statutory interpretation, the family members of these workers count against the quota. Fifty-five percent of those who received the EB green card were the spouses and children of workers in 2013.  Allowing those spots to instead be filled with workers would more than double their number going forward.      

2013 Employment Based Green Cards: Families and Workers

Source: 2013 Yearbook on Immigration Statistics, Table 7.

US Lifts Ban on Long Haul Truck Deliveries From Mexico

The United States has finally ended a ban on long haul truck deliveries from Mexico.  The U.S. government promised to lift the ban twenty years ago as part of the North American Free Trade Agreement, but caved in to pressure from the Teamsters union claiming that Mexican trucks would be a safety hazard on U.S. roads.  Twenty years of data and two pilot programs seem to have been enough to convince your government that, in this case at least, Mexicans are just as good at doing things as other people.

But surely, you protest, the complaint could not have been that Mexicans are incompetent, but that Mexican safety standards and regulations are overly lax or poorly enforced.  To be fair, the Teamsters union has claimed that Mexican trucks are subject to inadequate regulation and that their drivers are poorly trained.  This argument would perhaps be meaningful if it weren’t so inexcusably misleading.  The fact is that all Mexican trucks operating in the United States have to get permits that require prescreening and regular inspections. 

In short, Mexican trucks operating in the United States are regulated by the U.S. government.  The only difference is the nationality of the truck’s driver and owner.

Trade Promotion Authority Is not an Executive Power Grab

With the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations reported to be nearing completion and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) talks kicking into higher gear, Congress is expected to turn its attention to Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) legislation in the weeks ahead.

That’s where opponents of trade – mostly from the Left, but some from the Right – have decided to wage the next battle in their war against trade liberalization. Tactically, that makes some sense because, if they succeed, the TPP and the TTIP will be sidelined indefinitely. But, as observed by the Greek Tragedians and countless times in the millennia since, truth is the first casualty of war.

Trade opponents characterize TPA as an executive power-grab, a legislative capitulation, and a blank check from Congress that entitles the president to negotiate trade deals in secret without any congressional input except the right to vote “yea” or “nay” on an unalterable, unamendable, completed and signed agreement. But the truth is that TPA does not cede any authority from one branch to the other, but makes exercise of that authority more practicable for both branches.

Under the Constitution, Article I, Section 8, Congress is given the authority to “regulate commerce with foreign nations” and to “lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises.” While the president has no specific constitutional authority over trade, Article II grants the president power to make treaties with the advice and consent of the Senate. Accordingly, the formulation, negotiation, and implementation of trade agreements require the involvement and cooperation of both branches.

Trade Agreements Can Be Net Liberalizing

Some libertarians have been expressing concern about particular aspects of trade negotiations, often focusing on provisions relating to intellectual property. Here’s Jesse Walker of Reason:

“Free trade” agreements frequently include details that don’t have anything to do with freeing trade. When intellectual property enters the picture, the rules typically make trade more rather than less restrictive. That certainly seems to be the case with the TPP: Provisions in the leaked drafts would extend copyright terms, impose DMCA-style restrictions on circumventing copy protection, and otherwise take a maximalist approach to intellectual property. There are efforts to add tighter IP regulations to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership too.

I already tend to be skeptical about trade agreements as a path to freer trade, but I recognize and respect the argument that they do more good than harm. That argument is much harder to maintain, though, when the deals are loaded down with provisions like these. If fast-track authority makes such rules easier to pass, then fast-track authority is something I’m happy to do without.

I get what he is saying about intellectual property, and I have criticized this aspect of trade talks myself. But as my colleague Dan Ikenson says, we should consider whether these deals are “net liberalizing.”  In this regard, I think trade deals have the potential to do a lot of good, in ways that people may not be aware of.  Here’s an example from the negotiations between the U.S. and EU.  The EU has proposed new disciplines on government subsidies, in which it states:

subsidies given to support insolvent or ailing companies without a credible restructuring plan belong to some of the most harmful types of subsidies and have the potential to have an adverse effect on trade and investment relations.

Now, translating such sentiments into concrete rules can be difficult, but I like the idea of pushing for limits on subsidies. I can’t guarantee that anything will come out of the EU proposal, but I’m glad they are pursuing it.  To me, a trade agreement that offers additional disciplines on subsidies is something of great value.

(Some of you might be thinking, wait, how come the EU is proposing constraints on subsidies?  Aren’t they the worst abusers, with their farm subsidies, Airbus subsidies, etc.?  Here’s my sense of what is going on:  In addition to the concerns about bailout-type subsidies mentioned in the quoted text, the EU has some pretty strict internal rules governing when its member states can provide subsidies.  As a result, the Europeans get annoyed at subsidies offered by U.S. states, and are looking for ways to impose constraints on these and other U.S. subsidies).

TTIP Opponents Fret Over Phantom Liberalization of GIs

Some of the most vocal criticism of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a proposed trade agreement between the European Union and the United States, is coming from Europeans worried that the agreement will liberalize parts of their economy that it actually won’t.  This is a very frustrating situation, because supporters of the agreement are then forced to assure critics that the TTIP will not, in fact, do this particular good thing they don’t want it to do.

For example, people have claimed angrily that the TTIP will require the UK to privatize its National Health Service and then prevent the government from “renationalizing” it—that would be great, but it’s not true.  At most, the UK would be required to allow U.S. companies to participate if the government chose to privatize parts of the NHS and then compensate them in any future taking, as it would surely do anyway.  If the UK ever reforms its health system, it won’t be because of TTIP.

Now a new boogieman has emerged, with European news media fretting this week that the TTIP could require Europe to relax protections for geographical indications on cheese and meat products.

As reported in the Financial Times:

Christian Schmidt, Germany’s agriculture minister, said in an interview with Der Spiegel: “If we want to seize the opportunities of free trade with the enormous American market then we can’t carry on protecting every sausage and cheese speciality.”

Food producers, politicians and campaigners against the trade deal seized on his remarks as evidence that the protection of regional brands would be sacrificed to globalisation.

[But] Daniel Rosario, spokesman for the EU, insisted that TTIP would not undermine European food brands or weaken intellectual property safeguards.

“On the EU side, we have made clear to our American counterparts that geographical indications are one of our main priorities and we have not agreed and will not agree to reduce the protection of our geographical indications in Europe,” he said.

Despite what a German official may have said, the EU is not only committed to maintaining its GI protection scheme but is intent on spreading it internationally.  If the TTIP does impact the use of geographical indications it will likely be to require the United States to recognize and protect European GIs in the U.S. market.

That’s a real shame, because Europe’s method for protecting GIs is bad for European consumers.  U.S. policymakers should avoid imitating it.