Topic: Trade and Immigration

Has Trade Saved Us from Recession?

Good news on the economy, sort of. The Commerce Department reported this morning that it has revised the economy’s growth rate in the first quarter of 2008 to 1.0 percent. That is slightly higher than the government’s earlier two estimates and it means we have probably dodged a technical recession, at least for the first half of this year.

Politicians on the campaign trail should take note of the report for a couple of reasons. First, let’s not exaggerate the U.S. economy’s current difficulties. Politicians love a full-blown crisis because it can be used to justify all sorts of regulatory and spending programs. This is not a crisis (and government “stimulus” efforts typically have little effect, anyway).

Second, they should give thanks to America’s more globalized economy for smoothing the business cycle and possibly saving us from full-blown recession this time around. Trade is one of the bright spots of the latest report. While the housing sector has contracted by a quarter, shaving more than a percentage point from overall GDP growth, exports have been going gangbusters. Exports rose by more than 5 percent in the first quarter on an annual basis, offsetting about two-thirds of the negative effect of the housing market.

As I wrote in a Cato Free Trade Bulletin earlier this year on the subject:

[E]xpanding trade and globalization have helped to moderate swings in national output by blessing us with a more diversified and flexible economy. Exports can take up slack when domestic demand sags, and imports can satisfy demand when domestic productive capacity is reaching its short-term limits. … A weakening dollar has helped to boost exports and earnings abroad, but the main driver of success overseas has been strong growth and lower trade barriers outside the United States.

Instead of blaming trade for our current economic slowdown, politicians should be thankful that trade has spared us from something worse.

U.S. Sugar Program Costs Another $1.75 Billion

The state of Florida announced yesterday that it will pay $1.75 billion to buy out the nation’s largest sugar producer and 300 square miles of land it owns north of the environmentally sensitive Florida Everglades. Although most news stories ignored the connection, the deal is yet another cost Americans continue to pay for our misguided agricultural programs.

The company selling the land, United States Sugar, has for decades benefited from a federal program that guarantees a minimum price for United States Sugar’s crop through a system of loan guarantees and strict import quotas. This means American families and sugar-consuming industries are typically paying two to three times the world price for sugar.

The sugar program also imposes damage on the environment, which motivated yesterday’s announcement. Like other farm programs, the sugar program encourages over-production. In the case of United States Sugar, that means the extraction of fresh water that would otherwise flow naturally into the Everglades, and the over-application of fertilizers that artificially raise the phosphorous content of the runoff, causing a sharp decline in periphyton, such as algae, that supports bird and other animal life in the Everglades. [For more about the environmental damage caused by U.S. farm programs, see my 2005 article published by the Property and Environment Research Center.]

In large part because of the damage caused by subsidized domestic sugar producers, Congress allocated $8 billion in 2000 for cleaning up the Everglades. Florida’s purchase of United States Sugar was just the latest installment in an ongoing clean-up operation.

Of course, Congress could have avoided much of this mess years ago by repealing the sugar program. If Americans had been free to buy sugar at world prices, our domestic sugar industry would have been smaller and more efficient with a much smaller environmental footprint. Converting the sugar-cane fields to more environmentally friendly uses would have been much less expensive because the annual subsidies would not have been capitalized into the value of the land.

When the Democrats took power in Congress in 2007, they pledged themselves to be in favor of reform, fiscal responsibility, and protection of the environment. Yet the new farm bill that Democrats voting overwhelmingly in favor of last month, and that their likely presidential candidate Barack Obama endorsed, strikes out on all three counts.

The Unmanageability of Managed Trade

Last week the U.S. International Trade Committee gave the green light to impose countervailing (anti-subsidy) and antidumping duties on imports of circular welded carbon steel pipe from China. The decision was noteworthy because it represents the first affirmative finding of injurious subsidization against China since the Bush administration lifted the informal 22-year old moratorium on using the CVD law against China. (The coated paper case last year was the first CVD case against China initiated post-moratorium, but ultimately the ITC did not find the domestic industry to be injured in that case, and thus no duties were imposed).

But the steel pipe case is noteworthy for another reason. It perfectly exemplifies the absurdity of our trade remedy laws. Under the antidumping and countervailing duty laws, consumers of the subject merchandise have no formal standing in the process. Under the statutes, the ITC is not permitted to consider the impact of prospective duties on these interests, nor is it required to even hear arguments from consuming interests.

Now, let’s juxtapose economic and business reality on this trade remedy law setup.

In 2001, the United States imposed antidumping duties on imports from several countries (including China) of hot-rolled carbon steel. (Despite record revenues, profits, and the unprecedented market power of U.S. steel producers, the ITC voted to continue those 2001 antidumping orders for another five years in 2007.)

Hot-rolled steel is a commodity product from which many different kinds of steel products are made, including circular welded carbon steel pipe. Before the 2001 order was imposed, Chinese producers could sell hot-rolled steel to Chinese and American producers of downstream steel products. After the antidumping order was imposed in 2001, the supply of hot-rolled steel for Chinese producers of downstream products – like circular welded carbon steel pipe – increased, and the price declined. Meanwhile, the supply of hot-rolled available to U.S. pipe producers, declined, and the price increased. What to make of all this?

Well for one thing, it’s not only plausible, but probable, that the reason U.S. pipe producers may be struggling is that access to their most important material input is stunted relative to their Chinese competitors’. The price of hot-rolled steel in the United States has been at record highs over the past couple years. And the antidumping order against hot-rolled is a tax on U.S. pipe producers and a subsidy to Chinese pipe producers.

If the antidumping law included a consumer interest provision (see “Mandate a Public Interest Test” on page 33), where the impact of prospective antidumping measures on downstream users and, indeed, on the economy as a whole was considered, there would be less demand for protectionist measures to compensate for the effects of protectionist measures.

E-Verify: What’s Going on with the 5.3%?

In a recent post on E-Verify, the system for conducting federal immigration background checks on American workers hired to new jobs, I criticized an assumption on the part of DHS Assistant Secretary for Policy Stewart Baker that the 5.3% of people who receive “final nonconfirmations” from the system are illegal immigrants:

Baker’s conclusion that the 5.3% of workers finally nonconfirmed are illegal workers is without support. The statistic just as easily could show that the 5.3% of law-abiding American-citizen workers are given tentative nonconfirmations, and they find it impossible to get them resolved. More likely, some were dismissed by employers, never informed that there was a problem with E-Verify; some didn’t have the paperwork, the time, or the skills to navigate the bureaucracy; and some were illegal workers who went in search of work elsewhere, including under the table.

Yesterday at a meeting of the DHS Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee, a new data point opened a small window onto the situation of the 5.3%. To review, 94.2% of the workers submitted to the system are confirmed as eligible for work within 24 hours. Of the 5.8% tentatively nonconfirmed, .5% successfully contest their nonconfirmations, leaving us with 5.3% who receive final nonconfirmations for reasons yet unknown.

Staff of the DHS’ U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services bureau reported yesterday that they had recently added a “doublecheck” on tentative nonconfirmations, asking employers to review the data they had entered for errors. During the two months this has been in place, it has lowered the tentative nonconfirmation rate by 30%. That’s right - 30% of the tentative nonconfirmations had been caused by employers’ fat fingers. (“Fat fingers” is not a knock on employers’ fitness - it’s a techie term for data entry errors.)

If we assume that the figures recited above are from a period before the new fat-finger doublecheck, the 5.8% tentative nonconfirmation rate should have dropped 1.74% since the double-check was implemented. Next, assume (generously) that all of the .5% successfully contesting their tentative nonconfirmations were part of this cohort - the victims of employers’ fat fingers. This leaves 1.24% of workers submitted to E-Verify during this period who were eligible to work but victims of employers’ data entry errors - and who failed to contest their nonconfirmations.

There is plenty of room for error in this extrapolation, and I’ll happily publish refinements or corrections to what I’ve written here, but it looks like more than 1 in 100 employees are tentatively nonconfirmed by E-Verify and go on to final nonconfirmation even though they are eligible to work under the immigration laws. That’s a huge percentage considering that millions of Americans’ employability is on the line. The burden is on DHS and other proponents of electronic employment eligibility verification to figure out what’s going on and to fix it.

E-Verify is not ready for prime time, and we wouldn’t want it even if it was.

Spending Money to Restrain Economic Growth

Sayeth the GAO:

Although DHS has not prepared official cost figures, USCIS officials estimated that a mandatory E-Verify program could cost a total of about $765 million for fiscal years 2009 through 2012 if only newly hired employees are queried through the program and about $838 million over the same 4-year period if both newly hired and current employees are queried. USCIS has estimated that it would need additional staff for a mandatory E-Verify program, but was not yet able to provide estimates for its staffing needs. SSA has estimated that implementation of a mandatory E-Verify program would cost a total of about $281 million and require hiring 700 new employees for a total of 2,325 additional workyears for fiscal years 2009 through 2013.

No Need for a General Election; Obama Already Has Mandate

An article [$] today in CongressDaily AM outlines the plans of trade-skeptic congressional Democrats wishing to formalize that “time-out” on trade we’ve heard so much about during the Democratic primary campaign.

A bill introduced yesterday (H.R 6180 and its companion S.3083) would slow down the process of approving new trade agreements by requiring the GAO to review existing agreements and judge them not, as logic would seem to dictate, according to the standard of increasing trade, but against the domestic policy standards contained in the bill:

The bill would require GAO to review existing trade deals by June 10, 2010, and an analysis of how the deals stack up against labor, environmental and safety standards enumerated in the bill.

If gaps are found by GAO, the president would be required to submit renegotiation plans for current trade pacts before negotiating new ones and congressional consideration of pending trade pacts. Committees of jurisdiction would then review the renegotiation plans.

According to congressional Democrats, Senator Obama’s win in the Democratic primary is justification enough for introducing a bill that mirrors his plans. Those plans include, yes, loading up trade agreements with possibly deal-killing standards and, at least judging by Senator Obama’s voting record so far, very little new trade liberalization (details here).

If that sounds like a bad idea, it is music to the ears of some members of Congress. Here’s a quote from Rep. Michael Michaud (D, ME):

“I feel very comfortable with Sen. Obama’s position on trade; he understands the devastation that trade has caused to the American people and how flawed these trade deals are.”

We at Cato’s Center for Trade Policy Studies would refute that. Strenuously.

An E-Verify Triple: That’s a De-De-Debunker

Department of Homeland Security Assistant Secretary for Policy Stewart Baker has weighed in with another post on the DHS “Leadership Journal” blog about the E-Verify system for conducting federal immigration background checks on all people hired in the United States. He takes on three supposed myths about E-Verify.

Myth 1: That E-Verify is burdensome for employers.

Baker says that E-Verify is a bit less burdensome than ordering books for the first time on Amazon.com. It would be fun to actually run that test. But just for starters, here’s the 600-word form you have to read and fill out before you even register as an employer. The word count of the Memorandum of Understanding you have to read and sign is well over 3,000 words - eight pages of legalistic instructions. Jeff Bezos! Call your bankruptcy lawyer!

Buying a book from Amazon.com doesn’t require you to check someone else’s documents, doesn’t put you at risk of violating federal law, and so on, and so on. These just aren’t comparables.

Baker’s most interesting evidence? An anonymous commenter on one of his earlier posts who just gushes about E-Verify. In fact, the first two comments on that post - both anonymous - come within nine minutes of each other. One praises E-Verify’s ease of use. The other comes from the “worker” perspective - just like a PR flack would want to have covered. Here’s the actual quote: “This E-verify system will let you know if you have a mistake that you need to correct before it is just too late for you!” So very like an infomercial …

But let’s cut to the chase: Regulators in agencies across the federal government are constantly coming with burdens on employers. Oh, they claim that each one is wafer thin, yes. But the cumulative results are disgusting.

Myth, the second: That E-Verify is discriminatory.

Critics “conjure up evil employers who disfavor certain ethnic groups when they apply government hiring rules,” says Baker. That’s not quite it. Unfortunately, rational employers would disfavor certain ethnic groups. Here’s how I put it in my paper “Electronic Employment Eligibility Verification: Franz Kafka’s Solution to Illegal Immigration”:

With illegal immigrants today coming predominantly from Spanish-speaking countries south of the U.S. border, identity fraud and corruption attacks on the EEV system would focus largely on Hispanic surnames and given names. Recognizing that Hispanic employees—even native-born citizens—are more often caught up in identity fraud and tentative nonconfirmation hassles, employers would select against Hispanics in their hiring decisions.

But this is against the rules, protests Baker. And it’s true that the program’s rules forbid this behavior. But Baker is thinking quite a bit like the economist in this old joke:

An economist, a physicist, and an engineer are trapped on a desert island and all they have to eat is a can of baked beans. The engineer first tries to open the can by putting at an angle to the sun to try and burn a hole in it. That doesn’t work. So the physicist gets a rock and does some calculations as to how much force he would have to hit the can with to get it open. No luck. Finally, the economist turns to them both and says, “You’re doing it all wrong! What we need to do is assume we have a can opener …”

“If there are rules against it, it won’t happen.” Friends, avoid South Seas adventures with economist Stewart Baker.

Myth 3: That E-Verify does nothing about identity theft.

E-Verify does something about identity theft. You have to have a matching name and Social Security Number pair to get through the system. That makes defrauding employers harder. It will also make identity theft more profitable and more common if E-Verify goes national. Again, from my paper:

Faced with the alternative of living in poverty and failing to remit wealth to their families, illegal immigrants would deepen the modest identity frauds they are involved in today. Their actions would draw American citizens, unfortunately, into a federal bureaucratic identity vortex.

But Baker is talking about in-system fraud, and the idea of accumulating more biometric information into a national identity system. Currently, a “photo screening tool” in E-Verify shows employers the picture that was printed on DHS-issued permanent resident cards and employment authorization documents. This suppresses forgery of cards, while it may lull employers into checking the card against the computer screen - not against the worker. Whatever the case, DHS is seeking access to passport photos from the State Department and driver license photos from state governments across the country so that it can knit together a national biometric database. (Pictures are biometrics - relatively crude ones, of course. When having a picture database fails to secure against illegal immigration, they’ll move to stronger ones.)

Baker is exaggerating to say that the photo screening tool is a significant step in countering identity fraud. It’s only in very limited use, the system itself would promote identity fraud, and countering identity fraud this way requires a national biometric database, with all the privacy ills that entails. This is why we wouldn’t want E-Verify even if it was ready for prime-time.

Three myths debunked? Or three debunkings de-debunked? Secretary Baker’s commentaries are welcome because they illustrate key points of disagreement, allowing you, the American public, a fuller view into the issues at stake.