Topic: Trade and Immigration

Law Waves U.S. Flag at Pirates

Yesterday the U.S. House passed by voice vote a resolution praising the captain and crew of the U.S.-flagged ship Maersk Alabama that was seized by Somali pirates earlier this month. It was a riveting story that ended well for the brave crew and their Captain Richard Phillips, thanks to the work of Navy Seal sharpshooters. But one question that has yet to be adequately discussed is just what that ship was doing over in such dangerous waters off the coast of strife-torn Somalia.

The answer may surprise you: the U.S. government sent them there.

The ship and its American crew of 20 were delivering U.S.-government food aid to Africa. Under the Food Security Act of 1985, food aid sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Agency for International Development must in most cases be delivered by U.S.-owned, flagged and crewed ships. The law is one of several, including the Jones Act, that are designed to steer business to generally high-cost U.S. shipping companies.

The laws in that narrow sense have worked: While 95 percent of international cargo arriving in the United States each year is carried by lower-cost, non-U.S.-flagged ships, 83 percent of U.S.-sponsored food-aid cargo is carried by U.S.-flagged ships. [You can read a WTO critique of U.S. cargo shipping preference programs beginning on page 121 of its 2008 review of U.S. trade policy.]

Such laws are anti-competitive and cost U.S. companies and taxpayers millions of dollars a year in higher shipping costs. But the case of the Maersk Alabama reveals another unintended cost. Almost by definition, food aid goes to regions troubled by war, civil strife and oppressive governments. The Food Security Act essentially requires American civilians to be inserted into dangerous places, which creates yet another inviting target for pirates and another argument for a U.S. military presence.

The U.S. government could ship its official cargo at lower costs, and keep civilian American citizens out of harm’s way, by repealing all its protectionist, anti-competitive cargo preference laws.

Springtime for U.S. Trade Policy?

In a Cato paper to be released on April 28 (here’s a link to related policy forum), Scott Lincicome and I explain how President Obama can help restore the pro-trade consensus in America. “How?” is one question, but a skeptic might also ask: Why would the president want to do that given his anti-trade campaign rhetoric and the preferences of many fellow Democrats in Congress for a moratorium on trade liberalization and a focus on enforcement?

The answer is quite simple: we believe the president understands the importance of both trade and U.S. trade leadership to the broader objectives of economic growth and good will among nations.  Since he is inevitably going to alienate some of the constituencies who helped get him elected by embracing trade openness, he could be forgiven for his perceived apostasy if he can articulate his rationale convincingly.

The most comprehensive and convincing articulation would begin with the moral case for free trade: that every American has the right to transact with whomever he chooses, regardless of the nationality or location of the other party.  Voluntary exchange between consenting parties is inherently fair, while government coercion in that process on behalf of some citizens at the expense of others is inherently unfair, inefficient, and subversive of the rule of law. We are not holding our breath that this president will make this principled case for free trade.  But his articulation of other pro-trade arguments, after so many years of hyperbole, myth-making and fear-mongering from his colleagues on Capitol Hill, could go a long way toward correcting and reversing Americans’ artificially-induced aversion to trade.

Why are we so sure that President Obama is going to embrace trade openness? Well, we’re not so sure, but it’s more than a hunch. Here are two broad reasons:

First, like all presidents in the modern era, Obama takes a national perspective on economic matters, and not a local or regional perspective, as most members of Congress do. Unlike a candidate or a member of the opposition party in Congress who is free to criticize the incumbent administration’s policy errors without having to seriously consider the pros and cons of the alternatives, the president has to concern himself with the consequences of policy changes. It’s potentially his mess to clean up. As a senator and presidential candidate, Obama promised to aggressively pursue remedies to China’s alleged currency manipulation. As president, Obama declined to act accordingly when given the explicit opportunity, knowing that provocation in that regard would inject more uncertainty into financial markets and could spark retaliation. A protectionist measure that briefly benefits producers in Illinois (which is why a Senator Obama might support it) could have consequences that penalize an array of interests across the country (which is why a President Obama might oppose it).

Second, President Obama—like all Democratic and Republican presidents in the post-WWII era—sees trade policy as a tool of foreign policy. And from his early trips abroad, Obama has learned that to many countries around the world, U.S. trade policy is the most consequential aspect of U.S. foreign policy. So a president who appears determined to repair the damage caused by eight years of unilateralist foreign policy can only embrace trade openness.

In our paper, Scott and I present several other reasons why we are “audaciously hopeful” that the president will help restore the pro-trade consensus. But some nascent support for our audacity can be found in the following examples:

1. President Obama spoke out against the protectionist Buy American provisions in the original “stimulus” package, and Congress subsequently removed its most egregiously protectionist aspects.

2. The president has encouraged Congress to resolve the Mexican trucking ban and bring the United States into compliance with its NAFTA commitments.

3. The Obama Treasury declined to label China a currency manipulator in its first semi-annual report on the topic

4. The president informed Mexican president Calderon last week that he did not think NAFTA would need to be reopened—contrary to his campaign rhetoric.

5. The president said as much to Canadian PM Stephen Harper back in February.

6. There are increasing signs of interest and promise from the White House and Congress that the long-frozen bilateral trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea could start moving soon.

The pro-trade environment is not certain, and it could be fleeting, but there’s a case to be made that it’s not as dire as some predicted it would be. If the president intends to facilitate a liberal trade agenda, he should start laying the groundwork with strong pro-trade arguments now.

I Swear I’m Not Making This Up

From today’s Washington Post:

In another sign that the Department of Agriculture is embracing sustainable food, the agency today will unveil expanded plans for a People’s Garden that will include the entire six-acre grounds of the Whitten Building, the department’s neoclassic marble headquarters on the Mall.

The plans, to be announced at the agency’s Earth Day celebrations, include a 1,300-square-foot organic vegetable garden – slightly larger than the one at the White House – as well as ornamental flower gardens and bioswales, or mini-wetlands designed to reduce pollution and surface water runoff.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to find out exactly what a “bioswale” is, and why I should pay for one in our new “People’s Garden.”

Senate Negotiates REAL ID Revival Bill with Anti-Immigrant Activists

Anti-immigrant groups have done nothing but lead Republicans off the electoral cliff, but they are very aggressive and vociferous. This has evidently convinced Senate staff to negotiate with them about reviving the moribund REAL ID Act. REAL ID lobbyist Janice Kephart reports the state of play on the Center for Immigration Studies blog.

Interestingly, the National Conference of State Legislatures may join the National Governors Association in seeking to sell state authority over licensing and identification policy to the federal government, exchanging state power for the right to beg for federal funds evermore.

I wrote a little bit in a previous post about the dynamics at play when a group that supposedly represents state interests in Washington, D.C. begins to represent Washington, D.C.’s interests to states.

People Are Discovering A Beautiful Read

I’m a bit ashamed to admit it: I just finished reading The Beautiful Tree, Professor James Tooley’s new book recounting his remarkable travels through some of the world’s poorest slums discovering for-profit private school after for-profit private school. I’m ashamed because The Beautiful Tree is a Cato book and I should have read it long before it became publicly available. Fortunately, it seems many people outside of Cato caught on to the importance of Tooley’s work the moment they heard about it.

Yesterday, the Atlantic’s Clive Crook blogged about Tooley’s book, calling Tooley “an unsung hero of development policy” for bringing to light — and refusing to let others blot that light out — how mutual self-interest between entrepreneurs and poor families brings education to the world’s poorest children. And there’s the companion story: How billions of government dollars have erected some relatively nice public school buildings but have created an utterly dilapidated public school system, one that enriches government employees while leaving children — sometimes literally — to fend for themselves.

In addition to the blogosphere, the national airwaves have begun carrying the uplifting story of Tooley’s findings. On Wednesday, ABC News NOW ran a lengthy interview with Prof. Tooley in which he laid out many of the book’s major themes. And the book was only released, for all intents and purposes, that same day; much more coverage is no doubt forthcoming.

It needs to be.

The Beautiful Tree, quite simply, contains lessons applicable not only to slums or developing nations, but to all people everywhere, and they need to be learned. In the United States, whether the subject is  government-driven academic standards or the desirability of for-profit education, this book offers essential insights. But many readers will find the overall lesson tough to take: The cure for what ails us is not more government schooling — providing education the way we think it’s always been done — but embracing freedom for both schools and parents.

Whether or not this lesson is tough to stomach, it must be acknowledged by all who honestly seek what is best for our children. For as Tooley’s work makes abundantly clear, denying reality — no matter how unexpected or politically inconvenient it may be — only ends up hurting the people we most want to help.

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.