Topic: Trade and Immigration

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).

The Good Old Days of Global Poverty

Noah Smith has a piece in the Atlantic in which he tries to revitalize the anti-WTO Seattle protests. We were wrong to mock them, he says. They were “mostly right”! And “on nearly every count”!

All right, I’ll bite.  How, exactly, were they right?

His damning evidence against globalization starts with those dastardly “cheap imports,” which supposedly put Americans out of work. He acknowledges that such imports lower prices for consumers, but says those benefits are “spread very thinly.”

There are a lot of ways to refute this argument. I’m going to focus on two.

First, regardless of whether the benefits of low prices are spread thinly, such benefits outweigh any lost jobs arising from foreign competition. That is to say, the benefits of free trade outweigh the costs.  Just be clear, this isn’t controversial, and is not contested by the economists he cites.  Furthermore, the impact of Chinese and other imports on U.S. workers isn’t really all that great, and imports actually support many U.S. jobs.  So, overall, his argument in this respect is a bit underwhelming.  Oh, and by the way, if it’s poor Americans you are worried about, they are the ones who benefit most from trade with China.

Second, there is a larger point. Smith wants to present the issue as whether free trade takes jobs from the middle-class in order to give benefits to consumers and the rich. But that’s not the right way to think about things. The better way to understand the situation is the following: Protectionism takes a lot of money from everyone, in order to give concentrated benefits to a small group of politically connected interest groups. This is the kind of policy that is usually condemned by both the left and right. In the case of the trade debate, however, some well-respected opinion leaders seem OK with such policies. Why is that? My best guess is that it taps into an emotional “us versus them” worldview. It isn’t really about economics at all. It’s about patriotism and nationalism. “They” are bad. “We” are good. So let’s punish them, even if in doing so we are really punishing us.

Great Moments in Border Control

From the Boston Globe, “Virtuoso’s flutes destroyed by U.S. Customs”:

…Flute virtuoso [Boujemaa Razgui], who performs regularly with The Boston Camerata[,] lost 13 handmade flutes over the holidays when a US Customs official at New York’s JFK Airport mistook the instruments for pieces of bamboo and destroyed them. 

“They said this is an agriculture item,” said Razgui, who was not present when his bag was opened. “I fly with them in and out all the time and this is the first time there has been a problem. This is my life.” When his baggage arrived in Boston, the instruments were gone. He was instead given a number to call. “They told me they were destroyed,” he says.

One reader recalled the travel woes of distinguished Polish pianist Kristian Zimerman, as recounted by the L.A. Times

Zimerman has had problems in the United States in recent years. He travels with his own Steinway piano, which he has altered himself. But shortly after 9/11, the instrument was confiscated at JFK Airport when he landed in New York to give a recital at Carnegie Hall. Thinking the glue smelled funny, the TSA decided to take no chances and destroyed the instrument.   

Yes, by all means, let’s put federal agencies in charge of as many aspects of our lives as possible.

How Did U.S. Trade Policy Progress in 2013?

Some may consider 2013 to mark the beginning of an important new era in U.S. trade policy.  The year began with President Obama proposing an ambitious U.S.–EU trade agreement in his state of the union address and ended with progress at the WTO after 12 years of stagnation.  But if we look past the hype and grand expectations for the future, we can see that there was only one major change in U.S. trade policy that actually occurred in 2013.

When the Generalized System of Preferences program expired on July 31, U.S. tariffs increased on imports from more than 120 developing countries.

The program would have been extended but for the opposition of Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.  You can read news accounts to learn about the saga in greater detail, but let me give you the annotated summary—a Republican senator put a hold on a bill that would prevent a tax increase because it didn’t include enough other tax increases to overcome the “expense” of Congress failing to raise taxes.

Yes, it defies logic. 

Unfortunately, this bizarre incident is more than just a case study into the peculiar facets of American legislative politics, it also brought us the year’s only significant change in U.S. trade law.

But don’t worry.  Most observers are confident that Congress will eventually extend the GSP program and retroactively refund all the duties collected since its expiration.

Just so we’re clear, the elected masters of our economy raised taxes on poor people in poor countries (and the Americans those people do business with), but they didn’t mean to and they’re going to fix it.  When they get around to that is anyone’s guess.

Is the TPP about Free Trade or Economic Nationalism?

One of the big Obama administration trade initiatives going on right now is negotiations with eleven countries in the Pacific region, called the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). What exactly is being talked about in these trade talks? Is it really about free trade? Based on standard media coverage of the issue, it’s not easy to discern.  Here’s an example from the Washington Post.

In the print version of the piece, the title notes that the U.S. is seeking “to shape global trading rules”; and the sub-title says that the goal of the talks is “a freer flow of world commerce.” That sounds free trade-ish.  But is it free trade? And if not, what is it?

When you look at the substance that is described in the article, the talks seems much broader, and do not have a very free trade feel. Take a look at these examples:

When Vietnamese officials issued new Internet rules this year, the U.S. tech industry gave a shudder.

The regulations clamp down on political speech, require companies such as Facebook and Google to invest in local computer infrastructure to store information on Vietnamese users, and could force chipmakers to strip standard encryption features from their processors.

Only one of these is about free trade (the local computer storage requirements). The rest are all domestic laws that affect trade.  But perhaps more accurately, the U.S. trade goal here is changing other countries’ domestic laws so as to increase US exports, which isn’t free trade at all.

Some of these changes may be good (e.g., taking on speech restrictions); I’m less certain about others, such as the stronger intellectual property rules mentioned later in the article. But the article gives away the real policy goal, when it says:

the more significant fights … are over issues such as the regulation of the Internet and e-commerce, the rules for the patent and sale of biopharmaceuticals, and the oversight of logistics, consulting, energy management and other service industries where the U.S. holds an edge.

Putting it this way, the talks seem to be about economic nationalism pursued through trade agreements!  Make everyone use our rules, which will give our companies an advantage.  Along the same lines, the online title of the article is as follows: “Through trade treaty, U.S. hopes rules that favor its companies will become the norm.”

There is real free trade in these talks, of course. There will be lower tariffs and liberalized services trade, and government procurement will be opened up to foreign competition.  But the shift to other subjects as the focus, and the emphasis on giving advantages to U.S. companies, has fundamentally altered the nature of these agreements and the debate, and in the process left the media confused about how to talk about free trade and trade agreements.  They keep trying to make these agreements sound like they are about free trade, but with the hurdle that much of what’s in them is not.