Topic: Trade and Immigration

Obama Administration Sides With Special Interests and Status Quo on Sugar Imports

Pardon me while I pile on the post earlier today by my colleague Sallie James about the Obama administration refusing to allow more sugar to be imported to the United States. The U.S. Department of Agriculture this week declined to relax the quotas the federal government imposes on imported sugar despite soaring domestic prices and understandable complaints from U.S. confectioners and other sugar-consuming businesses about potential shortages.

For all his talk about change, President Barack Obama has shown no inclination to pursue meaningful reform of U.S. agricultural programs. He supported the subsidy-laden and protectionist farm bill that finally passed Congress in 2008. On the eve of the U.S. presidential election in October 2008, he wrote a letter to the U.S. sugar industry reminding growers that they were one special interest that had nothing to fear from an Obama administration.

In his letter, he offered the sugar lobby this assurance:

With respect to the sugar program specifically, while it’s true I have had concerns about the program, I will commit to listening and working with you in the future to ensure that we have a safety net that works for all of agriculture.

He then went on to criticize his opponent John McCain for opposing the farm bill and voting consistently against the sugar program (or, as Obama put it, “against sugar growers”).

In my new Cato book, Mad about Trade: Why Main Street America Should Embrace Globalization, I call the sugar program “the poster boy for self-damaging protectionism.” As I write in the book,

When the program is not raising prices for consumers at the store, it is savaging the bottom line for American companies. Artificially high domestic sugar prices raise the cost of production for refined sugar, candy and other confectionary products, chocolate and cocoa products, chewing gum, bread and other bakery products, cookies and crackers, and frozen bakery goods. Higher costs cut into profits and competitiveness, putting thousands of jobs in jeopardy.

If the president is looking for good bedtime reading on why he should dump the sugar program, I suggest he go straight to pages 147, 154-55, 160-62, and 170-72.

Sweet, and Yet Very, Very Sour

sugarMy colleagues have blogged before about the recent sugar “market” woes. There was some hope that the USDA, which manages sugar imports very carefully to maintain U.S. prices up to three times higher than world prices, would relax the sugar quotas this year and give sugar users some well-deserved and long overdue relief.

Alas, it was not to be. According to Congress Daily, the USDA announced today [$] that there would be no increase in the import quota for the time being, and that their models saw no cause for alarm because of predicted increases in domestic production and Mexican imports (allowed special import status through NAFTA). And who cares about sugar users’ concerns when you have models?

The American Sugar Alliance says (sigh) that the announcement “makes perfect sense. Supplies are adequate and will soon be building. If any tightness were to emerge, it would not be until next summer. USDA will have adequate time next spring to boost supplies.”

Do you hear that, sugar consumers of America? The USDA is on the case. Now, I’ve got nothing personally against the folks at USDA. I know many of them personally and they are fine people, and smart economists, who are just following congressional orders. But, really, are we still, in 2009, in an at least nominally market-oriented economy, seriously attempting to micro-manage supply and demand of commodities?

One last point from the Congress Daily story (which requires a subscription to read this far):

Last August, the Bush administration adjusted the tariff rate quota to allow an additional 300,000 short tons of sugar to enter the country…[American Sugar Alliance Economist Jack Roney] said the additional sugar … caused raw cane sugar prices to plummet from 23 cents per pound to 19 cents per pound. (emphasis added)

In November 2008, when U.S. raw sugar prices were 19.83 cents per pound, world prices were 12.87 cents per pound. Even allowing for the fact that domestic prices indeed fell quite a lot, on what planet does Mr Roney consider a domestic price over 50 percent above an (unusually elevated) world price to be a “plummet”? Is whether we are paying a lot more – rather than a lot, lot more – really the standard we are aiming for here?

To be sure, world sugar prices are high right now, at least by historical standards. (The average world raw sugar price last fiscal year was 13.67 cents per pound. Last quarter the average world raw sugar price was 16.09 cents per pound. See here for all my price data) But even if they fall back to to historically average levels, Big Sugar wants to keep domestic prices high, and to prevent Americans from having access to cheaper sugar, forevermore.

It really leaves a bitter taste in one’s mouth.

Harold Meyerson is Part of the Problem

I have argued time and again that America’s growing aversion to trade during the past few years is the product of myth perpetuation by campaigning politicians, captured policymakers, TV media charlatans, and woefully ill-informed newspaper columnists. Harold Meyerson always comes to mind as emblematic of this last category, so his fallacy-laden diatribe about the decline of U.S. manufacturing in yesterday’s Washington Post is par for the course.

Meyerson makes some claims that cannot be allowed to stand, such as.

“”We don’t [make things] any more – at least, not like we used to. Since 1987, manufacturing as a share of our gross domestic product has declined 30 percent.”

First of all, please note that Meyerson’s second sentence does nothing to support his first. A decline in the manufacturing sector’s share of the total economy speaks to the rapid growth of other sectors of the economy, but says nothing about the change in U.S. manufacturing output or value-added.

According to data from the 2009 Economic Report of the President, as gathered and reported yesterday by George Mason University Economics Professor Don Boudreaux, since 1987 real U.S. manufacturing output has increased by 81 percent – hardly a sign of manufacturing decline.

The facts – as reported by the Bureau of Economic Analysis – demonstrate that real manufacturing value-added reached a record high level in 2007 (the last year for which final data are available).  Notwithstanding the recent recession that has affected all sectors of the economy, U.S. manufacturing has been thriving in recent years.

Second, if the United States doesn’t “make things anymore,” then nobody does. According to data from the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, U.S. factories are the world’s most prolific, accounting for 25 percent of global manufacturing value-added. By comparison, Chinese factories account for 10.6 percent.

That may be hard to fathom, given that everyone’s favorite story about shopping in retail establishments these days is that it’s impossible to find anything labeled “Made in the USA.”  But that’s because, increasingly,  U.S. manufacturing produces sophisticated components, such as airplane parts, not consumer goods.

American manufacturing is by no means in decline.  What should be is Meyerson’s myopic way of seeing things.

Consequential Trade Decision Looms

By September 17, President Obama will decide whether to reject, adopt, or modify recommendations from the U.S. International Trade Commission to impose duties of 55 percent on tires imported from China.  As I’ve stated before, imposition of duties could be the most consequential trade policy decision in several years, since it is rare that the president is tied so directly to a decision to impose barriers.  Trade restraints would be perceived by the Chinese as the direct wishes of the U.S. president, which would not be taken lightly in Beijing.

Although I elaborate further in a forthcoming paper, here is some smart analysis from trade lawyer and Cato coauthor Scott Lincicome.

Time for a Change in Sugar Policy

Washington’s dysfunctional agricultural policy is costing consumers again.  Limits on sugar imports, designed to protect a few large sugar producers, are driving up prices in a tight market.  Reports the Wall Street Journal:

Some of America’s biggest food companies say the U.S. could ‘virtually run out of sugar’ if the Obama administration doesn’t ease import restrictions amid soaring prices for the key commodity.

In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack, the big brands – including Kraft Foods Inc., General Mills Inc., Hershey Co. and Mars Inc. – bluntly raised the prospect of a severe shortage of sugar used in chocolate bars, breakfast cereal, cookies, chewing gum and thousands of other products.

The companies threatened to jack up consumer prices and lay off workers if the Agriculture Department doesn’t allow them to import more tariff-free sugar. Current import quotas limit the amount of tariff-free sugar the food companies can import in a given year, except from Mexico, suppressing supplies from major producers such as Brazil.

While agricultural economists scoff at the notion of an America bereft of sugar, the food companies warn in their letter to Mr. Vilsack that, without freer access to cheaper imported sugar, ‘consumers will pay higher prices, food manufacturing jobs will be at risk and trading patterns will be distorted.’

Officials of many food companies – several of which are enjoying rising profits this year despite the recession – declined to comment on how much they might raise prices if they don’t get their way in Washington.

The letter is the latest salvo fired in a long-simmering dispute between U.S. food companies and the sugar industry over federal policy that artificially inflates the domestic price of U.S.-produced sugar in order to support the incomes of politically savvy sugar-beet farmers on the Northern Plains and cane-sugar farmers in the South. Most years, the price food companies pay for U.S. sugar is twice the world level.

President Barack Obama ran on the platform of change.  How about changing agricultural policies which enrich the farm lobby at consumer and taxpayer expense?

Another Indictment of the Bush-Obama Years

Here’s a depressing little blurb from the New York Times about the disparity between anemic job growth in the private sector and rising payrolls in the bureaucracy.

For the first time since the Depression, the American economy has added virtually no jobs in the private sector over a 10-year period. The total number of jobs has grown a bit, but that is only because of government hiring. …For the decade, there was a net gain of 121,000 private sector jobs, according to the survey of employers conducted each month by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In an economy with 109 million such jobs, that indicated an annual growth rate for the 10 years of 0.01 percent.

At some point, of course, the rising number of people dependent on government will overwhelm the shrinking number of people producing real wealth in the private sector. Nations such as France and Italy may be perilously close to that tipping point. Yet since politicians rarely think beyond the next election cycle, they have little incentive to arrest the downward slide. Instead, as the current health care debate demonstrates, they seek to add more fuel to the dependency fire.

GAO Finds that Trade Agreements Promote Trade

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report today that found that four trade agreements implemented during the Bush administration “have largely accomplished the U.S. objectives of achieving better access to markets and strengthening trade rules, and have resulted in increased trade.”

That is a finding that will be controversial only to the most hardened opponents of trade liberalization.

The GAO examined trade agreements with Jordan, Chile, Singapore, and Morocco, all enacted since 2001. Here’s the nut graph from the report:

While varying in details, the FTAs have all eliminated import taxes, lowered obstacles to U.S. services such as banking, increased protection of U.S. intellectual property rights abroad, and strengthened rules to ensure government fairness and transparency. Overall merchandise trade between the United States and partner countries has substantially grown, with increases ranging from 42 percent to 259 percent. Services trade, foreign direct investment, and U.S. affiliate sales in the largest partners also rose.

No big news here. Trade agreements are supposed to promote more trade, and each one of these agreements has delivered on that central objective. They have delivered the “level playing field” between U.S. producers and those in the FTA countries that members of Congress are always demanding. And as we have  amply documented through the years, more liberalized trade delivers faster growth, more consumer choice, better jobs, and higher living standards.

Opponents of trade have attempted to thwart such a straight-forward agenda by demanding that trade agreements become vehicles for enforcing more stringent labor and environmental standards in the partner countries. On this front, the GAO found that “FTA negotiations spurred some labor reforms in each of the selected partners, according to U.S. and partner officials, but progress has been uneven and U.S. engagement minimal.”

Critics will interpret this as a failure, but it really shows the limitations of FTAs as a club for imposing our social standards on what are often less developed countries. After all, we are talking about internal regulations of sovereign countries. The real question is not whether every provision of these agreements has been fully enforced, but whether most people in the participating countries are better off than they would have been without the increased trade promoted by these agreements. As the GAO report confirms, the answer is a clear, “Yes.”