Topic: Trade and Immigration

French Folly

Following the dubious example set recently by U.S. legislators, French politicians have informally proposed slapping punitive tariffs on goods from countries who refuse to curb greenhouse gas emissions. The German State Secretary for the Environment has, quite rightly, called foul:

There are two problems – the WTO (World Trade Organization), and the signal would be that this is a new form of eco-imperialism,” Machnig said.

 ”We are closing our markets for their products, and I don’t think this is a very helpful signal for the international negotiations.”

I have a paper forthcoming on the carbon tariff issue, but in the meantime here’s a recent op-ed (written jointly with Pat Michaels) on climate change policy mis-steps.

55% Duties on Chinese Tires Would Be Plain Stupid in Every Respect

Last month, I posted about the upcoming decision confronting President Obama on the question of whether or not he should impose trade restrictions (55% duties) on passenger tires from China, as recommended by the U.S. International Trade Commission.

I am in the process of finishing a short paper on the issue, explaining why doing so would be disastrous for the economy and foreign relations, but am taking a break to share this brilliant op-ed that appeared in today’s Detroit News. Ross Kogel, Jr., president of Tire Wholesalers, really hits the nail on the head, articulately and succinctly, explaining that there is no upside, only misery, in the proposed tariffs.

Michigan could sure use several more Ross Kogel and far fewer of the business-as-usual pols and union leaders who have run the state into the abyss.

Reporting the Minimum Wage

Economists generally agree that minimum wage laws tend to put low-skilled workers out of work. (Even economists who support minimum wage laws for reasons of politics or “justice” don’t really argue that the laws don’t raise unemployment.) But that message hasn’t really reached journalists. Today’s stories on the mandated rise in the minimum wage take one of two forms: Assuming that the raise is “good news” for low-paid workers, or quoting one economist on each side. The latter is certainly better, but it does convey the sense that “economists disagree about the effects of minimum wage laws,” which doesn’t really reflect the state of economic knowledge.

NPR used both versions. Some of its hourly newscasts led with “The minimum wage hike  means 70 cents more per hour for low-income workers.” But some also noted, ”That’s supposed to be good news for low-income workers, but economists disagree about whether it will help or hurt the economy.” NPR did a somewhat balanced story yesterday. 

Many journalists went with the easy, mostly wrong, “good news” approach, as these headlines and first sentences illustrate:

  • ABC News: Relief for Workers at Bottom: Minimum Wage Goes Up
  • Time: With the U.S. trillions of dollars in the hole, 70 cents an hour sounds like chump change. But it’s a big boost for the millions of workers who earn that much extra as of July 24.
  • Philadelphia Inquirer: Minimum-wage workers to get a pay bump today
  • WFMY (Greensboro, NC): Starting today, minimum wage workers will see extra cash in their pay checks.
  • News on 6 (Tulsa): Thousands of Oklahoma workers will receive a pay raise on Friday when a new federal minimum wage takes effect.

But some did at least acknowledge the controversy:

  • APMinimum wage hike could threaten low earners’ jobs
  • USA Today: The third minimum wage increase in three years, effective Friday, is a moneymaker and a money-taker: Millions of workers soon will see pumped-up paychecks, while many already-struggling businesses face the burden of increased payroll costs.
  • CNN: Minimum wage hike: More money or fewer jobs?/On Friday the federal minimum wage jumps to $7.25 an hour from $6.55. Economists differ as to whether that will hurt or help low-income workers.
  • Kansas City Star: The federal minimum wage rises today from $6.55 to $7.25 an hour, bringing with it controversy about whether the increase is good or bad for the economy.

The New York Times gets the prize for its stark decline in economic understanding. Its editorial today begins, in a triumph of hope over economic reasoning:

An estimated 2.8 million employees will get a raise on Friday, as the federal minimum wage rises from $6.55 an hour to $7.25. Another 1.6 million whose hourly pay hovers around $7.25 are also expected to get a boost as employers adjust their pay scales to the new minimum. The raise is badly needed. It is also wholly inadequate.

But for decades the Times’s editors knew better. Sure, Henry Hazlitt wrote some of their editorials back in the 1930s. But that doesn’t explain the paper’s continuing criticisms of the minimum wage into the 1990s. Richard McKenzie wrote a short book in 1994 called Times Change: The Minimum Wage and the New York Times. Bruce Bartlett reported some of the history in 2004:

For decades, that paper had carefully and consistently editorialized against the minimum wage. But 5 years ago, for no apparent reason, it reversed a policy dating back to 1937 and suddenly endorsed a higher minimum wage. Its latest editorial on this topic appeared on July 24, in which legislators in Albany were urged to agree on a “much-needed increase in the minimum wage” for New York State.

When I first began clipping Times editorials on the minimum wage back in the 1970s, they were unambiguous in their condemnation of it as misdirected, inefficient, and having negative consequences for most of those it was supposed to help. For example, an August 17, 1977, editorial stated, “The basic effect of an increase in the minimum wage … would be to intensify the cruel competition among the poor for scarce jobs.” For this reason, it said, “Minimum wage legislation has no place in a strategy to eliminate poverty.”

In the 1980s, the Times became even more aggressive in its denunciations of the minimum wage. Rather than simply argue against increases, it actively campaigned for abolition of the minimum wage altogether. Indeed, a remarkable editorial on January 14, 1987, was entitled, “The Right Minimum Wage: $0.00.”

Everything in that editorial is still true today. “There’s a virtual consensus among economists that the minimum wage is an idea whose time has passed,” it said. “Raise the legal minimum price of labor above the productivity of the least skilled workers and few will be hired,” it correctly observed. In conclusion, “The idea of using a minimum wage to overcome poverty is old, honorable — and fundamentally flawed. It’s time to put this hoary debate behind us, and find a better way to improve the lives of people who work very hard for very little.”

Even in the 1990s, the Times remained skeptical about the value of raising the minimum wage. An April 5, 1996, editorial conceded that a proposed 90 cent increase in the minimum wage would wipe out 100,000 jobs. It said that Republican critics of the minimum wage as a “crude” antipoverty tool were right.

By 1999, however, the nation’s newspaper of record had completely reversed itself. In a September 14 editorial, it endorsed a sharp increase in the minimum wage, arguing that it would have no impact whatsoever on unemployment. “For millions of workers, a higher minimum wage means a better shot at self-sufficiency,” it stated.

Bartlett suggested that the Times ought to tell its readers why it changed a long-standing, well-grounded, and indeed correct editorial position.

Is Buying an iPod Un-American?

We own three iPods at my house, including a recently purchased iPod Touch. Since many of the iPod parts are made abroad, is my family guilty of allowing our consumer spending to “leak” abroad, depriving the American economy of the consumer stimulus we are told it so desperately needs? If you believe the “Buy American” lectures and legislation coming out of Washington, the answer must be yes.

Our friends at ReasonTV have just posted a brilliant video short, “Is Your iPod Unpatriotic?” With government requiring its contractors to buy American-made steel, iron, and manufactured products, is it only a matter of time before the iPod—“Assembled in China,” of all places—comes under scrutiny? You can view the video here:

In my upcoming Cato book, Mad about Trade: Why Main Street America Should Embrace Globalization, I talk about how American companies are moving to the upper regions of the “smiley curve.” The smiley curve is a way of thinking about global supply chains where Americans reap the most value at the beginning and the end of the production process while China and other low-wage countries perform the low-value assembly in the middle. In the book, I hold up our family’s iPods as an example of the unappreciated benefits of a more globalized American economy:

The lesson of the smiley curve was brought home to me after a recent Christmas when I was admiring my two teen-age sons’ new iPod Nanos. Inscribed on the back was the telling label, “Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China.” To the skeptics of trade, an imported Nano only adds to our disturbingly large bilateral trade deficit with China in “advanced technology products,” but here in the palm of a teenager’s hand was a perfect symbol of the win-win nature of our trade with China.

Assembling iPods obviously creates jobs for Chinese workers, jobs that probably pay higher-than-average wages in that country even though they labor in the lowest regions of the smiley curve. But Americans benefit even more from the deal. A team of economists from the Paul Merage School of Business at the University of California-Irvine applied the smiley curve to a typical $299 iPod and found just what you might suspect: Americans reap most of the value from its production. Although assembled in China, an American company supplies the processing chips, a Korean company the memory chip, and Japanese companies the hard drive and display screen. According to the authors, “The value added to the product through assembly in China is probably a few dollars at most.”

The biggest winner? Apple and its distributors. Standing atop the value chain, Apple reaps $80 in profit for each unit sold—an amount higher than the cost of any single component. Its distributors, on the opposite high end of the smiley curve, make another $75. And of course, American owners of the more than 100 million iPods sold since 2001—my teen-age sons included—pocket far more enjoyment from the devices than the Chinese workers who assembled them.

To learn a whole lot more about how American middle-class families benefit from trade and globalization, you can now pre-order the book at Amazon.com.

As Immigrants Move In, Americans Move Up

Critics warn that immigration reform would bring in its wake rising rates of poverty, higher government welfare expenditures, and a rise in crime.

In a new paper, Cato scholar Daniel Griswold says that Congress should not reject market-oriented immigration reform because of misguided fears about “importing poverty.”

Griswold argues that “Comprehensive immigration reform that included a robust temporary worker program would boost economic output and create new middle class job opportunities for native-born Americans.”

For more, read the whole thing.

“Employee Free Choice Act” Still Bad News

One piece of good news out of Washington yesterday was the decision among supporters of the Orwellian-named Employee Free Choice Act to dump a provision that would have virtually eliminated the secret ballot in union-organizing elections.

The bill is the number-one legislative priority of major U.S. labor unions. It is packed with provisions aimed at making it easier for unions to organize workplaces and halt the relentless 40-year slide in private-sector union membership.

The jettisoned provision would have allowed unions to organize a workplace simply by “persuading” a majority of workers to sign cards saying they want a union. Of course, such a system would leave individual workers wide open to intimidation, as I explained in a recent op-ed. Business-funded ads against the measure struck a cord with voters who are understandably fond of the secret ballot, and the provision became a step too far for moderate Democrats.

What remains of the bill is still bad news. It would reduce the typical union-organizing election from two months to as short as five days. This is a provision that could only be favored by the side that wants workers to be deprived of the information and the time they need to make an informed decision.  And it would force employers to accept the decision of a government arbitration panel even if the resulting union contract would threaten the company’s survival.

University of Chicago law professor Richard Epstein explained cogently in a recent cover story for Cato’s Regulation magazine why the  the bill is fundamentally at odds with our basic constitutional rights.