Topic: Trade and Immigration

Disappointing Start for Immigration Reform

The good news is that a bill has been introduced in the House this week under the broad heading of immigration reform. Even during a recession, Congress should be working to change our immigration system to reflect the longer-term needs of our economy for foreign-born workers.

The bad news is that the actual bill put in the hopper by Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-IL, on Tuesday would do nothing to solve the related problems of illegal immigration and the long-term needs of our economy.

As I argued in a recent blog post and a Washington Times op-ed, immigration reform must include expanded opportunities for legal immigration in the future through a temporary worker visa.

Any so-called reform that is missing this third leg will be doomed to fail. We will simply be repeating the mistakes of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which granted amnesty to 2.7 million illegal workers and ramped up enforcement, but made no provision for future workers. Rep. Jeff Flake, R-AZ, agrees.

Hell Freezes Over (Or At Least Gets Cooler)

Well here’s an interesting, if three-weeks-old, story. Apparently the North Dakota Farm Bureau’s annual convention recently passed a policy calling for the elimination of all agricultural programs.  Reading between the lines of the original press release indicates that the call was part of a broad political position by the NDFB to move away from government intervention in many areas of the economy apart from farm programs, including cap-and-trade and health care:

“As people in this country expect more from the government and less from themselves, our delegates are urging everyone, including farmers, to step away from the public trough and get back to the principles of individual responsibility and initiative,” said NDFB President Eric Aasmundstad….
The only way government can get money is to take it from its citizens. We don’t believe raising taxes to pay for health care or climate change will help our country get out of our economic slump or even improve health care or the environment. And the more they take, the less we have to find the innovative solutions to the problems we face.

He sounds like a Catoite.

To what extent the NDFB’s position flows through to the rest of the farm lobby remains to be seen, so hell hasn’t quite frozen over yet. But this is positive news. At the very least it spells sweet, sweet trouble for long-time free trade nemesis and farm bill supporter Sen. Byron Dorgan (D), who is up for reelection next year.

HT: Chris Edwards.

“Send Us Your Tired, Your Poor, But Only if They’re ‘Culturally Unique’ ”

That’s the title of a Wall Street Journal article detailing the latest idiocy to come out of our immigration system.  It seems that if you’re a musician trying to get a visa to perform in the United States, you have to prove to some bureaucrat’s satisfaction that your music either is “culturally unique” or has “achieved international recognition and acclaim.”  (Query: Does the Department of Homeland Security now require immigration caseworkers to have degrees in musicology or fine arts?)

The article chronicles the various travails of performers who are either so innovative – perish the thought! – as to not fit into an easily defined cultural category or haven’t yet reached U2-like levels of popularity. 

Reads one denial: “The evidence repeatedly suggests the group performs a hybrid or fusion style of music … [which] cannot be considered culturally unique to one particular country, nation, society, class, ethnicity, religion, tribe or other group of persons.”

Reads another: “Being internationally acclaimed is not equivalent to performing on stages overseas.”

You can’t make this stuff up!  It reminds me of my own immigration plight – which ended happily earlier this year – whereby I shot myself in the foot by, among other ridiculous things, getting my education in the United States instead of acquiring legal expertise abroad (at lesser institutions, making myself less valuable to the U.S. legal market).

I’ve heard some talk that Congress will take up immigration reform after it finishes with health care, though I can’t imagine that happening in an election year.  In any event, I’ve long believed that our immigration non-policy is the worst part of the U.S. government (which should say something, coming from someone at Cato).

For more on our work on immigration policy, go here.

How to Kill a Company: A Beginner’s Guide (Chapter 1, P. 1.)

As described in the current Cato Policy Report, one of the “Hard Lessons from the Auto Bailout” is that management at GM is likely to be “highly erratic, as the president and Congress wrestle for decisionmaking primacy at this majority taxpayer-owned entity.”  The “dealerships” issue is Exhibit A.

One of GM’s first decisions upon emerging from bankruptcy was to announce closures of a number of dealerships to help reduce costs. Then-nominal-CEO Fritz Henderson explained that the planned closings would save GM about $100 in distribution costs per vehicle–a few hundred million dollars per year when factoring in the millions of units GM expects to produce.

But many of GM’s congressional CEOs cried foul, demanding reconsideration from a company that had taken public funds.  The House of Representatives even passed a bill requiring companies that received federal funds to reestablish terminated dealership agreements, though no action was taken in the Senate.

However, as reported in The Hill today, Congress is fast-tracking legislation to restrict GM’s (and Chrysler’s) closings, by subjecting each decision to an arbitrator, who will “balance the economic interests of the terminated dealership, the car companies and the general public.”  A Senate aide is cited as saying legislators intend to pass this measure before Christmas.

Well, look, EVERY decision GM makes will produce winners and losers in terms of real and opportunity costs.   Hence, EVERY decision is just as worthy of legislative or executive scrutiny, if the dealership issue is the litmus test. 

With 537 CEOs, all but one of whom have bigger priorities than GM’s bottom line, GM’s future will be dictated by splitting differences, political logrolling, and managing by consensus–tactics that will assure GM’s demise.

University of Denver Panel Recommends You Have a National ID

If you have a job, a panel convened by the University of Denver thinks you should have a national ID card.

DU’s “Report of the Strategic Issues Panel on Immigration” says:

The idea of a national card for identifying citizens and non-citizens has become the third rail of immigration politics. But in truth, without a means of positive identification, it makes very little difference what immigration policies are adopted because they can’t be effectively enforced. A means of positive identification is essential to prevent the employment of illegal immigrants.

Only the panel’s narrow framing leads to this conclusion.

Restrictive immigration policies may require a national ID and federal background check system because such policies are so at odds with employers’ and workers’ interests. The federal government will have to continually investigate workers and employers to maintain them.

But policies that align immigration rates with our country’s demand for new workers would foster the rule of law naturally—without a national ID, worker surveillance, and an overweening federal government.

Much hand-waving animates the report. It imagines a card system that is “extremely difficult or impossible to counterfeit.” But that’s a product of how much value your card system controls—the more value, the more effort goes into forging it—and access to employment in the U.S. is worth a lot. The report says nothing about fraud in the card issuance process.

Nor does it calculate the expense to our nation’s seven million employers—many of them small businesses, families, and individuals—for getting card readers. Their proposal to hold employers harmless is an embossed invitation to fraud on the system—unless those inexpensive card readers are also fingerprint or iris scanners. If the system is going to work, someone legally responsible has to verify that the card belongs to the person presenting it. And if you’re going to use biometric scanners, there is a lot of work yet to be done to control error rates.

Of privacy concerns, the panel says it listened to “experts and advocates on all sides.” But the advisors listed in the report do not include any privacy expert or civil liberties advocate. They do include an advocate for restrictionist immigration policies, a police chief, a former U.S. attorney, a federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement official, a Colorado state homeland security official, a federal Department of Homeland Security official, a sheriff, the Colorado Attorney General, and a CIA officer. It is unlikely that the one “immigrant rights” advocate addressed the privacy issues for U.S. citizens, much less the technical and data security problems.

It’s not new for people focusing on one issue to think that a national ID is their solution. In fact, it’s typical for people to think that sprinkling technology over economic and social problems can solve them.

A Trade Proposal Unworthy of an Economist

Just when you have a pretty good sense of who is dishing protectionist nonsense and from where, along comes Robert Aliber, who – according to the byline of his commentary in yesterday’s Financial Times – is professor emeritus of international economics and finance at the University of Chicago.  Et tu, Chicago?

Aliber considers the US-China trade imbalance unsustainable and, because the Chinese government continues to prevent the value of its currency from rising sufficiently, proposes that the United States impose an across-the-board duty of 10 percent on all Chinese imports, which (after 6 months) would ratchet up 1 percentage point per month every month until the Chinese trade surplus with the United States declines to $5 billion per month. 

We’ve heard this tune before – but from politicians who are presumably far less adept at economics than a University of Chicago economics professor ought to be.  Yet, even Chuck Schumer ultimately acknowledged the banality of his (and Lindsey Graham’s) thrice-introduced legislation to impose a 27.5 percent tariff on Chinese imports as a proxy and incentive for renminbi appreciation.

If Aliber limited his argument to the assertions that the bilateral imbalance is unsustainable and that the Chinese government should allow the value of the renminbi to be determined by supply and demand, I’d have much less to quibble with.  I’d still be plenty skeptical that bilateral trade accounting tells us anything meaningful in this age of cross-border investment and transnational production and supply chains.  I’d still break from the implication that balanced trade should be an objective of policy or that it is more important than economic growth. And I’d still remain unconvinced that an increase in the value of the renminbi alone would have much of an impact on bilateral trade flows.  But I’d agree that a market-determined exchange rate would increase the likelihood that investment, consumption, and production decisions would better reflect underlying conditions in labor, financial, and goods markets, and in that regard would be a more useful guidepost for informed decisionmaking.

But Aliber’s proposal – and the numerous fallacies upon which it is predicated – goes well beyond that point, and appears to be the product of something like acute tunnel vision.  He is so fixated on the bilateral trade account that nothing else – including the impact of his proposal on the economy broadly – commands his attention. 

Aliber utters all of the classic fallacies about the insidious impact of China’s currency on U.S. manufacturing; the leverage and sway China allegedly holds over U.S. policymakers, as our banker of last resort; and, how China caused our trade deficit by purchasing U.S. securities.  I disagree with all of those assertions, vehemently, and have explained why in various places, but I want to focus presently on his proposal, which is one of the worst ideas in circulation.

Consider this passage, which Aliber apparently considers evidence of the cleverness of his plan (but really exposes its inanity):

Because many Chinese exports contain large amouts of embedded imports, the 10 per cent import tariff in effect is a tax of more than 30 per cent on Chinese value added. With electronics and other high-tech exports, where the import content may be 70 or 80 percent of their value, the  10 per cent tariff might be equivalent to a tax of 60 or 80 per cent on Chinese content.

Neat.  But isn’t the fact that Chinese exports contain so much import content enough to soundly reject Aliber’s plan in the first place?  Has he forgotten that we don’t import dangling Chinese value added?  What we import are products, some of which comprise 20 percent Chinese value added, some 80 percent, and according to the most recent research, an average of about 50 percent Chinese value added.  And what does that mean?

It means that on average 50 percent of the value of components, raw materials, and labor embedded in the typical cargo container from China unloaded in Long Beach, California is other countries’ value added.  It means that slapping a duty on imports from China is the same as restricting imports from countries indiscriminately (I know, non-discrimination is what the GATT/WTO rules are all about, but you get my point). It means restricting our own exports to China, which are embedded in the “high-tech” products that we import from China. (High tech is in quotes because the category consists mostly of computers and electronics, like cell phones and iPods, but protectionists like to exaggerate the security angle of our alleged trade follies by pointing to a bilateral deficit in “high tech,” even though Chinese value-added in those goods is well below average, and our imports of them support high-paying U.S. jobs). 

Having obviously not read my new paper, Aliber still sees global commerce as a competition between “Us” and “Them.”  He writes: “It should not take long for the Chinese to learn that they are much more dependent on access to the US market than Americans are dependent on Chinese goods,” and goes on to say that Americans can make those product here or buy them elsewhere.  Of course we could get them elsewhere, but the fact that we prefer to get them from China means that there would be costs associated with switching sources. 

Aliber is a fixed-pie-kinda-guy who fails to recognize the enormous wealth that has been generated by the elimination of political, trade, communications, and transportation barriers, and the highly stratified division of labor this barrier erosion unleashed.  He fails to recognize that Chinese labor and American labor are more often complementary than competing, and that the factory floor has broken through its walls and now spans oceans and borders. 

Imposing 10 percent duties on products invented and designed in the United States, consisting of components produced in Japan, Singapore, Thailand, and the United States,  consuming Australian minerals in the production process and Chinese labor in the assembly process is akin to taking a sledge hammer to a random station along a traditional production-assembly line.  It impedes the production process and raises the cost of bringing products to consumers, inflicting damage that is felt at all nodes in the design/production/assembly/supply chain, including those in the United States.

It means making it more difficult to support higher value-added U.S. manufacturing and service activities because with uncertain or compromised access to lower cost component production and assembly operations in China, it will be more difficult for ideas hatched in American labs to come to fruition in the form of the next gadget or convenience or life-saving device.

China’s position as the final point of assembly in so many different supply chains, as evidenced by the fact that 50 percent of the value of its exports to the United States consists of Chinese material, labor, and overhead, means that the impact of currency appreciation on the bilateral trade account is uncertain.  A stronger renminbi vis-a-vis the dollar means that Americans should pay more for imports from China, but a stronger renminbi also means that Chinese-based producers/assemblers will pay less for imported raw materials and components, lowering their cost of production/assembly.  That cost savings should enable Chinese exporters to lower their prices to American consumers, possibly compensating entirely for the higher renminbi-dollar exchange rate.

Of course, there are plenty of other reasons to eschew Aliber’s proposal, not the least of which is the fact that it certainly would be found WTO-illegal and would invite discrimination against U.S. exporters.  Considering that increased U.S. exports – and not just reduced imports – can help reduce the bilateral deficit, it is curious that Aliber would propose a remedy that would likely curtail U.S. exports.  It would also raise costs throughout the supply chain directly, and by introducing enormous uncertainty into the trading system.

Now that he’s seen the light, maybe Chuck Schumer should give Aliber a call.

Schumer Fouls Out

Chuck Schumer is perhaps my favorite U.S. Senator because of his endless capacity to make me laugh.  He often reminds me of Inspector Clouseau, the earnest but bumbling detective from the Pink Panther movies.

Through an excellent post by Scott Lincome today, I learned not only that official NBA jerseys (those worn by the players) are made for Adidas in upstate New York, but that Senator Schumer is attempting to thwart the company’s decision to move production to Thailand. 

I share Scott’s assessment of the absurdity of Schumer’s efforts, but more importantly, I wanted to share this humorous footage of Schumer’s awkward nativist appeal that basketball is an American-centric game….conducted in front of German-born NBA Star Dirk Nowitski’s jersey. 

Classic!