Topic: Trade and Immigration

How Many Jobs Saved? We Do Not Know

In the past couple of days the administration has been discussing the employment impact of its stimulus package. Employment has declined steadily since adoption of the package, so it might seem odd to claim that it has already had beneficial impacts. The administration’s response is that employment would have declined even faster without the stimulus, so hundreds of thousands of jobs have been saved.

The administration might be right, but how can we know? The short answer is, we cannot know with any confidence because we cannot know what employment would have been in the absence of the stimulus. Thus, the concept of “jobs saved” is problematic; it allows the administration to conclude, no matter how bad things get, that the stimulus worked because the economy would have been even worse without the stimulus.

Buy American Hurts Most Americans

Earlier today, Doug Bandow weighed in with some commentary on the problems that Buy American provisions are creating for both Canadian and American businesses. Let me reinforce his view that such rules are anachronistic and self-defeating with some thoughts from a forthcoming paper of mine about the incongruity between modern commercial reality and trade policies that have failed to keep pace.

Even though President Obama implored, “If you are considering buying a car, I hope it will be an American car,” it is nearly impossible to determine objectively what makes an American car. The auto industry provides a famous example, but is really just one of many that transcends national boundaries and renders obsolete the notion of international competition as a contest between “our” producers and “their” producers. The same holds true for industries throughout the manufacturing sector.

Dell is a well known American brand and Nokia a popular Finnish brand, but neither makes its products in the United States or Finland, respectively. Some components of products bearing the logos of these internationally recognized brands might be produced in the “home country.” But with much greater frequency nowadays, component production and assembly operations are performed in different locations across the global factory floor. As IBM’s chief executive officer put it: “State borders define less and less the boundaries of corporate thinking or practice.”

The distinction between what is and what isn’t American or Finnish or Chinese or Indian has been blurred by foreign direct investment, cross-ownership, equity tie-ins, and transnational supply chains. In the United States, foreign and domestic value-added is so entangled in so many different products that even the Buy American provisions in the recently-enacted American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, struggle to define an American product without conceding the inanity of the objective.

The Buy American Act restricts the purchase of supplies that are not domestic end products.  For manufactured end products, the Buy American Act uses a two-part test to define a domestic end product: (1) The article must be manufactured in the United States; and (2) The cost of domestic components must exceed 50 percent of the cost of all the components. Thus, the operational definition of an American product includes the recognition that “purebred” American products are increasingly rare.

Shake your head and chuckle as you learn that even the “DNA” of the U.S. steel industry, which pushed for adoption of the most restrictive Buy American provisions and which has been the manufacturing sector’s most vocal proponent of trade barriers over the years, is difficult to decipher nowadays. The largest U.S. producer of steel is the majority Indian-owned company Arcelor-Mittal. The largest “German” producer, Thyssen-Krupp, is in the process of completing a $3.7 billion green field investment in a carbon and stainless steel production facility in Alabama, which will create an estimated 2,700 permanent jobs. And most of the carbon steel shipped from U.S. rolling mills—as finished hot-rolled or cold-rolled steel, or as pipe and tube—is produced in places like Canada, Brazil and Russia, and as such is disqualified from use in U.S. government procurement projects for failure to meet the statutory definition of American-made steel.

Whereas a generation ago the cost of a product bearing the logo of an American company may have comprised exclusively U.S. labor, materials, and overhead, today that is much less likely to be the case. Today, that product is more likely to reflect foreign value-added, regardless of whether the product was “completed” in the United States or abroad. Accordingly, Buy American rules and trade barriers of any kind (as appealing to politicians as they may be) hurt most American businesses, workers, and consumers.

It’s time to wake up and scrap these stupid rules.

Echoes of Smoot-Hawley

President Barack Obama appears to have learned something compared to candidate Obama: protectionism isn’t to America’s advantage.  Unfortunately, it is not clear that Congress has learned the same lesson.  Three free trade agreements negotiated by the Bush administration remain in limbo, while no one is pushing to reinstate the president’s so-called fast track negotiating authority.

And past protectionist actions are now bearing ill fruit.  The “stimulus” bill required that construction money be spent in the U.S.  Although the provision was amended in response to foreign criticism, some Canadian firms have been adversely affected.  So Canadian cities have begun boycotting American products.

Reports Reuters:

Canadian municipal leaders threatened to retaliate against the “Buy America” movement in the United States on Saturday, warning trade restrictions will hurt both countries’ economies.

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities endorsed a controversial proposal to support communities that refuse to buy products from countries that put trade restrictions on products and services from Canada.

The measure is a response to a provision in the U.S. economic stimulus package passed by Congress in February that says public works projects should use iron, steel and other goods made in the United States.

The United States is Canada’s largest trading partner, and Canadians have complained the restrictions will bar their companies from billions of dollars in business that they have previously had access to.

“This U.S. protectionist policy is hurting Canadian firms, costing Canadian jobs and damaging Canadian efforts to grow our economy in the midst of a worldwide recession,” said Sherbrooke, Quebec, Mayor Jean Perrault, also president of the federation that represents cities and towns across Canada.

The municipal officials meeting at the federation’s convention in Whistler, British Columbia, endorsed the measure despite complaints by Canadian trade officials.

Trade Minister Stockwell Day told the group on Friday that Ottawa was actively negotiating with Washington to get the “Buy American” restrictions removed.

Thankfully, this bilateral spat isn’t likely to spark another Great Depression.  However, it illustrates how protectionism is self-defeating.  Other countries will not stand by silently as American legislators attempt to bar their products from the American market.  And U.S. workers will be the ultimate victims as the cycle of retaliation spreads.

National ID: Barrier to Re-Entry

Via Radley at Hit & Run, it’s a clear outrage that Larry Moore — homeless, but working his way back up — should be kicked back down by a costly and unhelpful city bureaucracy.

But don’t overlook how identification requirements act as a “barrier to re-entry”:

The only one who isn’t furious about this is Moore. He insists that city functionaries are giving him a break because they are letting him continue to shine shoes while he waits for a copy of his birth certificate to be sent from Kansas. Once it arrives they will allow him to get an ID card and then hand over almost every cent he has.

It’s already a burden for people overcoming alcohol or drug problems — and disasters like flood or fire — to produce satisfactory identification. For every Larry Moore who gets a break and gets in the paper, there are probably hundreds who never break back into legitimate employment. Imagine what it will be like when we have the more “secure” licenses envisioned under the REAL ID Act or the proposed REAL ID revival bill.

High-Tech Companies Warn White House about Tax Hike

As I warned in my “deferral” video, the president’s proposal to increase the tax burden on U.S. companies competing in global markets is horribly misguided. The White House has now been put on notice by high-tech executives that they will be compelled to move jobs out of America if this destructive policy is adopted.

Bloomberg reports:

Microsoft Corp. Chief Executive Officer Steven Ballmer said the world’s largest software company would move some employees offshore if Congress enacts President Barack Obama’s plans to impose higher taxes on U.S. companies’ foreign profits. “It makes U.S. jobs more expensive,” Ballmer said in an interview. “We’re better off taking lots of people and moving them out of the U.S. as opposed to keeping them inside the U.S.” 

…Ballmer is one of 10 U.S. software company executives pushing back against the tax proposals in meetings today with White House officials including Jason Furman, deputy director of the National Economic Council, and the heads of congressional committees such as House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, a New York Democrat. …In a roundtable discussion today, Ballmer, Symantec Corp. Chairman John Thompson and the heads of smaller companies such as privately held Bentley Systems, an Exton, Pennsylvania-based maker of engineering software, said such policies would hurt domestic investment, reduce shareholder value and increase the cost of employing U.S. workers. …Ballmer said…fiduciary responsibility to shareholders would require Microsoft to cut costs, he said, meaning many jobs would be moved out of the country.

GM’s Nationalization and China’s Capitalists

GM’s restructuring under Chapter 11 includes plans to sell off the Hummer, Saab, and Saturn brands. Well, just one day after GM’s bankruptcy filing, a Chinese firm has come forward with a $500 million offer to purchase Hummer. The prospective buyer is Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery Co Ltd, a manufacturing company in western China, which hopes to become an automaker.

Not only is the Hummer offer the first bid for a GM asset in bankruptcy, but the bidder is foreign. Not only is the bidder foreign, but Chinese. And not only is the bidder Chinese, but the Hummer was first developed by the U.S. military. Thus, this is certain to be characterized as a national security matter, and the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) will have to review the proposal. There should be little doubt that the economic nationalists will be out in full force, warning CFIUS against transferring sensitive technologies to Red China.

Let me offer two quick points, as the bulging veins in my temples pulsate with disdain for official Washington.

First, if this deal is rejected (even if the bidder is scared away by detractors), any remaining credibility to the proposition that the United States will once again become that beacon on a hill, exemplifying for the world the virtues of free markets and limited government, will vanish into the ether. There has been too much U.S. hypocrisy on free trade and cross-border investment and too much double talk about the impropriety of government subsidizing national champions, that another indiscretion in a high profile case will blow open the already-bowing flood gates to economic nationalism worldwide. Considering that U.S. companies sell five times as much stuff to foreigners through their foreign subsidiaries than by exporting from the United States, investment protectionism is as advisable as nationalizing car companies.

Second, the willingness of this Chinese company to purchase Hummer serves as a stark reminder of what could have been. Had George W. Bush not allocated TARP money to GM last December, in circumvention of Congress’s rejection of a bailout, then GM likely would have filed for bankruptcy on January 1. At that point, there would likely have been plenty of offers from foreign and domestic concerns for individual assets to spin off or for equity stakes in the New GM. There would have been plant closures, dealership terminations, and jobs losses, as there is under the nationalization plan anyway. But taxpayers wouldn’t be on the hook for $50+ billion, a sum that is much more likely to grow larger than it is to be repaid. It is also a sum that will serve as the rationalization for further government interventions on GM’s behalf.

And Your Freedom to Travel Takes Another Step Back

Yesterday, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it would begin a further attempt to implement the Western Hemisphere Travel (Restriction) Initiative.

WHTI is a congressionally mandated program to increase the documentation required for travel to and from neighboring countries. It’s a classic example of self-injurious overreaction to terrorism. The costs we incur for this program vastly outstrip the harms it averts. I have blogged about it here before. In a turn of phrase Orwell would love, a DHS blog post on the topic characterized the goings-on as “Boosting Border Security and Efficiency.”

In January 2008, I wrote about the border bedlam that would ensue when the DHS implemented WHTI as it had threatened to do, but the DHS was bluffing. A post on the Identity Project has a bevy of links and information, and an interesting take on things. It’s called “Today We’re All Prisoners in the USA.”