Topic: Trade and Immigration

Correspondence with a Presumed Proponent of Auto Bailouts

As a supporter of free trade, I’m used to getting angry letters and emails whenever I do media. Below is one of the more civil, reasonable emails, which I received following my appearance on last night’s Lou Dobbs:

I would have liked to see the rest of what you said about the auto industry on the show but what I did see angered me. You said something to the effect that bad business decisions by the Detroit automakers should not get them a bail out and that one of them should be allowed to fail is what I heard you say. I am assuming that the out of control greed that has run unchecked for years and terrible government policies have allowed the investment banks to basically destroy thousands of peoples lives should deserve a bail out. My thinking is that none of them should get one penny. As for the auto companies failing. Lets see. The banks fail then they will not lend to anyone now. I with a 780+ credit score can no longer get a loan for a car which then hurts the auto company is one cause. The fact that people are losing their jobs by thousands is not helping, the people losing their houses and high gas prices are killing the sales of cars. I don’t know if you know that if lets say GM goes under 100’s of thousands jobs could be lost. Engineers, designers, line workers, computer guys, and so on, not to mention all the other business that supply the automakers. Did you give any of this any thought? I also would like to know what you think about the good paying jobs that go overseas. Plus can you tell me one benefit to this Global economy has had for the USA. Please don’t give me the cheaper prices line either.

Here’s my response:

Thanks for your thoughtful comments.  More often than not, the messages I receive from people who disagree with my perspective tend to be nasty and poorly articulated.  So, yours is a welcome dissent.

I am opposed to interventions of any kind. The Wall Street bailout and the subsequent partial nationalization of what were private U.S. financial institutions is in essence a penalty on prudent behavior and a subsidy for risk taking. It is patently unfair and grievously unwise to use taxpayer dollars to insulate people or institutions from the consequences of their actions, as it is unfair and unwise to deprive risk takers of the full fruits of their efforts.

The story is no different in the auto industry. Yes, the industry employs thousands of workers and there are many jobs in related industries that depend on a healthy (or at least functioning) auto industry. I am sympathetic to your suggestion that auto’s woes are at least in some part attributable to the credit freeze, which is a response to, among other things, circumstances beyond its control. But there’s much more to the picture than the one you seem to want to paint of the auto industry as an innocent victim. 

The fact is that much of the Big Three’s problem is self-made. The credit crunch and the contraction of demand is just the latest dark cloud, and a problem that affects all industries, not just autos. Thus, if there is a bailout for Detroit, where, how, and why do we draw the line to exclude other manufacturers, home builders, coal miners, and masseuses, who are all suffering from the same contraction in demand caused in part by the credit crunch? Don’t tell me we should bail everyone out. For starters, we can’t afford that.

Detroit’s problems predate the financial meltdown. Management and labor, together, consigned the Big Three to a future of troubles when ridiculously liberal work rules that flew in the face of basic economics were agreed upon, requiring management to pay workers at 90% of their salaries when they were laid off. The “Cadillac Platter” of health and retirement benefits granted to the UAW also dramatically raised the cost of producing vehicles at unionized auto plants in the United States. And let’s not forget about the far-in-excess-of-average manufacturing wages that auto workers “won” through concessions by management over the years. Management agreed to all of these conditions — and labor pushed them — because both sides assumed that the U.S. governent would come to the rescue (that the industry was too big to fail) when the chickens came home to roost over this inefficient, uncompetitive cost structure. That, to my mind, reflects labor’s and management’s greed.

On the demand side, Big Three management demonstrated an egregious failure of imagination, if not downright dereliction of duty, in assuming that large pick-up trucks and SUVs would never fall out of favor. Of the top 10 selling cars (not trucks or SUVs) in the United States, Big Three offerings have barely made the list this decade. Not one has been a top 5 seller. Shouldn’t producers try to make things that people want to consume before scapegoating their failures and seeking government bailouts?

One of the points I made in my interview with the Lou Dobbs show that didn’t make it to air is that a bankruptcy and liquidation or two in the auto industry wouldn’t be the end of the world. In fact, it would be a welcome development for the producers and their workers who remain in operation. They would be able to compete for a larger share of a pie that is currently shrinking, but will again expand. Which companies remain and liquidate should be determined by market forces, not by the coercive, thieving actions of the Michigan congressional delegation and Governor Granholm. 

I think an instructive example for the auto industry is the U.S. steel industry. During this decade, the steel industry responded to waning fortunes and dozens of bankruptcies by finally allowing unproductive, inefficient mills to shut down. As a high fixed cost industry with dozens of producers at the time, the industry finally did what is should have done long ago: it consolidated. In 2001, 12 firms accounted for 75% of U.S. hot-rolled steel production. In 2007, 3 firms accounted for over 80 percent of hot-rolled steel production. The consolidation has afforded the steel industry an alternative to requesting bailouts in the face of declining demand: it curtails output, which affects prices favorably for the mills. If there were fewer automakers in the United States making products Americans wanted to buy, and if labor costs were more variable and less fixed by unaffordable contracts, the auto industry might be similarly equipped to weather storms.

As to your questions about my views on trade, there is plenty of commentary and analysis on our website (www.freetrade.org) that I invite you to check out.

FTC to Examine Intellectual Property Dec. 5; Cato to Examine Intellectual Property Monday

The Federal Trade Commission has announced that it will hold “a series of public hearings beginning on December 5, 2008, in Washington, D.C., to explore the evolving market for intellectual property (IP).”

It’s timely, then, that we will be having a forum Monday on a provocative book whose thesis is the title: Against Intellectual Monopoly. Co-author Michele Boldrin will present the book, and Rob Atkinson of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation will critique it.

Highlighting one of the issues at Monday’s forum, the Arts+Labs blog points to Atkinson’s testimony about the value of American intellectual property on the export market. Over 50 percent of U.S. exports depend on some form of IP protection, according to Rob Atkinson.

It’ll be a good, interesting discussion. Register here now.

A Breezy Slide From Vote Integrity to National ID

Writing at Slate, Richard Hasen makes the case for nationalizing voter registration.

Yglesias approves (as does Drum at Mother Jones) and he ultimately concludes - though “nobody’s supposed to say this” - that “implementing a National ID Card system would help solve a lot of problems at what looks to me to be an extremely low cost in civil liberties.”

Tell that to the dead in Rwanda. It never occurred to the Belgian government that the identity card system they put in place there would be used to administer genocide 60 years later, but it was.

Bruce Schneier calls it “bad civic hygiene” to build a technology infrastructure that can be used to facilitate a police state. That’s what a national ID system is.

It’s easy to arrive at facile conclusions about national IDs if you don’t think it all the way through. Joseph Eaton published a book in 1986 called Card Carrying Americans that did just that (and didn’t, as to the thinking through). My write-up of it in 2005 called it “full of ‘would’s and ‘could’s - an exercise in imagination with few tethers to real-world practicalities.”

Same with Hasen’s article:

The federal government could assign each person a unique voter-identification number, which would remain the same regardless of where the voter moves. The unique ID would prevent people from voting in two jurisdictions, such as snowbirds who might be tempted to vote in Florida and New York.

Except that it doesn’t work that way. Simply giving people a unique identifier gets you the Social Security number. To prevent people voting in multiple jurisdictions, you don’t give, you take - take a biometric identifier, database it, and use it at every polling place (leaving the door still wide open to absentee ballot fraud).

Voting issues can’t be solved consistent with our national values quite so glibly. If it were easy, it would already have been done. Thoughtful people should resist, not indulge, the temptation to stab at voting concerns with a national ID.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see a national voter registration system converted to lots of purposes that aren’t as congenial as regularizing voter registration. Citing the fate of Rwandans was overly dramatic, of course. It’s only the most recent example among apartheid South Africa, Stalinist Russia, and Nazi-occupied Europe, none of which can happen here … .

What we could expect in the near term would be more and more thorough data collection, tighter and tighter government monitoring of commerce, work, housing, health care, education, and communications - for illegal immigration control, at first. But new uses would accrue with each shift in public urgency.

The most concerning of what Hasen has to say is this:

There’s something in this for both Democrats and Republicans. Democrats talk about wanting to expand the franchise, and there’s no better way to do it than the way most mature democracies do it: by having the government register voters. For Republicans serious about ballot integrity, this should be a winner as well. No more ACORN registration drives, and no more concerns about Democratic secretaries of state not aggressively matching voters enough to motor vehicle databases.

It’s deeply concerning, the prospect of the major political parties uniting against the people to “mature” our democracy and give us a national ID.

Damned With Faint Praise

Well, not faint exactly. Indeed, it is pretty hearty. But considering the source, I’m not sure it is an asset.

In an article in today’s Congress Daily, key sugar lobby groups praised Senator Obama’s newfound enthusiasm for the U.S. sugar program. As a senator from the candy-making state of Illinois, he was none too fond of the price supports and import restrictions that raised input prices for factories in his state.

Not anymore. In a letter to sugar groups, Senator Obama gave assurances that while he “has concerns” with the program, he would listen to and work with them to “reward [their] hard work with policies that will keep [their] industry and your communities strong”. Oh dear.

One former lobbyist pointed out that “…the candidate now “represents a broader range of interest” than when he was a state legislator…[and] added that Obama has never voted against the sugar program and supported the 2008 Farm Bill.” McCain, on the other hand, would likely have lost the support of formerly Republican-leaning farmers because “…[he] has consistently opposed the program and agreed with President Bush’s decision to veto the Farm Bill.” Another lobbyist said that “Sen. McCain seems to want to radically alter [the farm safety net].”

Considering the woeful sugar policies of the United States, an honorable person should be ashamed to receive Big Sugar’s support.

But Wait, There’s More!

The Democrat-aligned National Farmers Union is pushing for an increase (that’s right, an increase) in government price targets for agricultural commodities when (very few people seem to be using the word “if” these days) the Democrats take the White House and solidify their majority in Congress this fall.

Apparently, farmers’ production costs have increased above levels assumed by the current government price floors. Those floors therefore need to be adjusted upward so that if “prices stay low” (they are currently off their record highs, but still pretty high by historical standards) the safety net can be “bumped up,” according to the NFU’s president, Tom Buis. The increase in price-linked subsidies would be paid for by reducing direct payments, fiscally offensive but non–distortionary payments to farmers based on historical production. 

Hold on to what is left of your wallets, America.

Congratulations Paul Krugman

Today, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded Princeton University economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences “for his analysis of trade patterns and location of economic activity.”  

I recently debated Krugman on whether it’s a good idea for government to guarantee universal health insurance coverage.  But today I have nothing but congratulations for him.

On Krugman’s Nobel

The Swedish Academy of Sciences has awarded the 2008 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences to Paul Krugman, in recognition of his contribution to trade theory and specifically for his work on the effect of economies of scale in international trade.

Although Prof. Krugman is perhaps better known these days for his columns in the New York Times and his strong criticism of the Bush administration, trade wonks are well aware of his scholarly contributions, which number in the hundreds of scholarly journal articles and tens of books (including, jointly with Maurice Obstfeld, my undergraduate trade textbook). He won the John Bates Clark medal in economics in 1991, an arguably tougher prize to win than the Nobel.

I have my concerns with Prof. Krugman’s later work and his tendency to allow his political views to trump economic good sense. As the Economist [$] wrote in 2003 “A glance through his past columns reveals a growing tendency to attribute all the world’s ills to George Bush…Even his economics is sometimes stretched…” He is generally considered to be a big-government liberal. But the prize was not awarded for his NYT columns or his opinions on economic or foreign policy.

The Nobel is much deserved, even if Prof. Krugman’s rants have led him to stray far from his admirable trade-theory roots.