Topic: Trade and Immigration

The Chinese Currency Issue Is No Longer

In its first statutory, semi-annual report on foreign currency practices, the Obama Treasury Department refrained from designating China a “currency manipulator,” further affirming the view that an aggressive, sticks-only approach to the bilateral trade relationship advocated (mostly) by campaigning politicians is simply untenable. After serving more than 5 years as a great source of bilateral trade tension, the Chinese currency issue is dead.

Senator Obama and presidential candidate Obama both talked tough about Chinese currency practices, identifying an undervalued yuan as a source of unfairness to U.S. producers and an important cause of the bilateral trade imbalance. Treasury Secretary-designate Geithner, during his confirmation hearing in January, reiterated President Obama’s commitment to dealing with the issue before the Senate Finance Committee:

President Obama - backed by the conclusions of a broad range of economists – believes that China is manipulating its currency. President Obama has pledged as President to use aggressively all the diplomatic avenues open to him to seek change in China’s currency practices. While in the U.S. Senate he cosponsored tough legislation to overhaul the U.S. process for determining currency manipulation and authorizing new enforcement measures so countries like China cannot continue to get a free pass for undermining fair trade principles.

Those who relied on hyped-up media accounts of Geithner’s testimony, which generally homed in on the terms “aggressively,” “tough,” and “enforcement” in the above passage to imply that Obama would take action against China on this matter, are probably utterly surprised that Treasury balked yesterday. But those who read the rest of Geithner’s response to the question may have noticed this broad canvas for inaction:

The question is how and when to broach the subject in order to do more good than harm. The new economic team will forge an integrated strategy on how best to achieve currency realignment in the current economic environment.

Those last two sentences of Geithner’s response contained the answer—nearly three months beforehand—to the question of whether Treasury would label China a manipulator. And, taken in its entirety, the response is a perfect summation of the distinctions between criticizing policy as a challenger and being responsible for policy as the guy in charge. You can talk tough as a challenger because you don’t have to account for the consequences of your actions. But when you are responsible for the consequences of potentially incendiary policy changes, circumspection is a rediscovered virtue.

As President Obama knows by now, the consequences of simply labeling China a “currency manipulator” (let alone attempting to do something remedial about it) would undermine broader U.S.-China relations, invite recriminations, inspire potentially adverse policy changes in China, and would inject heaps of uncertainty into global currency and financial markets. Besides, as yesterday’s Treasury report concludes, the yuan continues to appreciate against the dollar, the government’s accumulation of foreign reserves has decelerated, and policies are in place to encourage greater domestic consumption in China and to reduce the economy’s reliance on exports.

I remain hopeful that this distinction between Obama the president and Obama the candidate will become and remain evident in U.S. trade policy more broadly.

The REAL ID Revival Bill Should Not Get a PASS

A draft Senate bill to revive the REAL ID Act has been leaked to to the anti-immigrant Center for Immigration Studies, and they find it wanting.

The bill is an attempt to smooth down REAL ID and make the national ID law more palatable. CIS is unhappy because they want a national ID implemented right away.

REAL ID is, of course, failing. Just ten months ago, the Bush Administration’s Secretary of Homeland Security granted waivers to every state in the country - not a single one of them was in compliance by the May, 2008 deadline, and several have statutorily barred themselves from complying.

Legislation to repeal REAL ID in both the House and Senate was introduced in the last Congress, but with an administration and Department of Homeland Security eager to demagogue the issue against a Democratic Congress, that legislation did not move. Repealing REAL ID would not have the same problem in the current Congress.

But since then, Washington’s wheels have been turning. The National Governors Association has turned into an advocate of reviving REAL ID because it hopes that federal dollars will flow behind federal mandates. They won’t, but reviving REAL ID will cement NGA’s role as a beggar for federal dollars in Washington. (Maybe other state legislator groups, as well.)

Everbody in Washington, D.C. salivates over the chance to make “deals” even if that means switching positions on issues of principle like whether the U.S. should have a national ID. We’ll be watching to see which political leaders reverse themselves and support this attempt at a national ID for their love of political dealmaking.

The working name of the REAL ID revival bill is the “PASS ID Act.” It should not be given a pass by opponents of a U.S. national ID and the REAL ID Act.

A (Baby) Step in the Right Direction on Gambling

Semi-good news for lovers of civil liberties and the rule of law. PartyGaming, a UK -based internet gambling company, has reached a deal with the Department of Justice. In exchange for a $105m “fee”, prosecution proceedings against PartyGaming will be dropped.

Why am I only partially excited by this development? Although I think that dropping the case is a positive move, PartyGaming withdrew from the U.S. market when the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act was passed, so the case against the company (and therefore its punishment) is, in this non-lawyers opinion at least, dubious. The Wall Street Journal alludes to the retroactive nature of the DoJs case here:

After almost two years of discussions, the U.S. Attorney’s Officer for the Southern District of New York has agreed not to prosecute PartyGaming or any of its subsidiaries for providing internet gambling services to customers in the U.S. prior to the U.S. government banning the online gambling industry in October, 2006.” [italics mine]

Aside from their assault on civil liberties, U.S. laws on internet gambling go against the spirit and the letter of WTO law, and undermine the international trading system that has on balance served the United States well (see more here and an FT piece on the announcement here).

I Love You Too, America

People who don’t know me well don’t realize I’m not American.  I have no accent, am among the most patriotic people you could meet, went to college and law school here, interned for a senator, clerked for a federal judge, worked on a presidential campaign, spent time in Iraq, and speak and write about the U.S. Constitution for a living. I was born in Russia, however, and immigrated to Canada with my parents when I was little.  “We took a wrong turn at the St. Lawrence Seaway,” I like to joke.

The upshot is that, much as I’ve wanted to be American since about age eight — when I discovered that the U.S. governing ethos was “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” while Canada’s is “peace, order, and good government” — I am a Canadian citizen.  And, because of this country’s perverted immigration system, none of the time I’ve spent in the United States (my entire adult life save a 10-month masters program in London) got me any closer to the unrestricted right to live and work here (a “green card”). 

Don’t worry, I’ve always been legal, through a combination of student, training, and professional visas, but those were always tied to the school or employer, hindering the types of professional activities I could engage in hanging a sword of Damocles over my life. If I lost my job — as so many lawyers have, for example, in this economy — I would have to leave the country where about 95% of my personal and professional network is located.

When I came to Cato, the opportunity presented itself to finally be able to petition for a green card.  (I’ll spare you the overly technical and exceedingly frustrating details.)  Along the way, I even got a certificate saying that the U.S. government — or at least the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (what used to be the I.N.S.) — considered me an “alien of exceptional ability.”  I didn’t let this go to my head; when lawyers and bureaucrats come up with a term of art, it means less in real life than, say, one of you readers emailing me that you liked something I blogged here.

Anyhow, not expecting any action on my green card petition for at least another year (based on the processing times posted at the USCIS website), last night I came home to an unmarked envelope in my mailbox.  It was my green card! — complete with a little pamphlet welcoming me to America.

This is quite literally the key to the rest of my life in this wonderful country.  Those who know me well know how huge a deal this is for me personally, how long it has taken, and how many arbitrary and capricious obstacles our immigration non-policy places in the way of “skilled workers.”  (Three years ago I attracted media attention during the Senate immigration debate with the soundbite, “if this reform goes through, I’m giving up law and taking up gardening.”)

I’ve been very fortunate in the opportunities I’ve had and the people I’ve met — including, in significant part, through the big-tent movement for liberty — and I am eternally grateful that this day has finally arrived.  Believe me that I will never take for granted the great privilege that is permanent residence in the United States.  My sincere hope is that America remains a beacon of liberty and that shining city on a hill.

I may well blog or write more about this in the future, but for more on my personal story, see, e.g., here, here, and here.  More importantly, check out Cato’s excellent immigration work here.

U.S. Chamber on Electronic Employment Verification

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has a new paper out on electronic employment verification systems. Using government estimates, it finds that operating a nationwide worker background check system would cost $10 billion a year.

The Chamber is no opponent of requiring employers to check workers’ immigration status – I oppose the policy, preferring to live in a free country – but the paper has a lot of information about the practical impediments to giving the federal government a say in every hiring decision.

It also gives the last word to my paper, Electronic Employment Eligibility: Franz Kafka’s Solution to Illegal Immigration. In the paper, I discuss a method for verifying work eligibility under the current immigration law without creating a national identity system. It’s possible, but highly unlikely. As I say in my paper:

Unless the federal government can accept the risk of error and is willing to commit to lasting employment eligibility rules, it will require any internal enforcement program to use databases and tracking rather than just issuing cards that prove eligibility to work and nothing more. It will push Americans toward a national ID and worker surveillance system.

Should Immigration Agents Target Businesses Knowingly Hiring Illegal Immigrants?

The Obama Administration plans to shift immigration enforcement from workers to employers, but the whole policy of “internal enforcement” of immigration law is the problem, says Cato scholar Jim Harper.

According to Harper, aligning legal immigration rates with the demand for new workers in the country is the only solution to the problem of illegal immigration.

He appeared on Fox News this week to debate this issue.

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