Topic: Trade and Immigration

Sign the Petition against Protectionism

You only have to glance at the headlines to know that protectionist pressures are rising around the world – from the “Buy American” provision in the stimulus bill to the unnecessary trade war with Mexico to the World Bank’s report last week that 17 members of the G-20 have recently implemented restrictive trade measures.

And you only have to read a history of the 1930s to know that a worldwide turn to protectionism deepened and lengthened the global depression.

So some people are starting an international campaign to protect and expand free trade. The Atlas Economic Research Foundation, the International Policy Network, and the Atlas Global Initiative for Free Trade, Peace, and Prosperity are sponsoring a global Freedom to Trade Petition to be released just before the upcoming G-20 meeting in London. To help head off another Smoot-Hawley-type spiral, please sign the petition. Academic economists, business and labor leaders, authors, and all concerned citizens are encouraged to sign.

And click on ShareThis below to tell your friends!

EDLs on the Ropes

With the REAL ID Act floundering in state resistance, DHS officials and government contractors have been pinning their hopes on “enhanced drivers licenses” or EDLs. These are state-issued driver’s licenses that the Department of Homeland Security and State Department have agreed to treat as proof of citizenship for purposes of border crossings.

With the flexibility of doing things by fiat, outside of a statutory process, the bureaucracy had gotten some traction with this ID system – most notable for its use of long-range RFID (radio frequency identification tags) to track people.

But news comes today that the Canadian province of Saskatchewan is scrapping its plans to create EDLs for U.S. border crossings, mostly due to cost.

“I was comfortable in the $25 to $50 range, but when I saw those costs (for an enhanced driver’s licence) go above $50 and nearing the cost of getting a passport, the argument for just having a passport became stronger and stronger and I think logically we’ve made the right decision here,” [Crown Corporations Minister Ken] Cheveldayoff said.

With more vocal opposition to RFID-based tracking in EDLs south of the border (that is, here in the states), the U.S. EDL may run into more than just cost concerns. And there is discomfort brewing with federal agencies cooking up an identity system on their own.

For all its faults, at least REAL ID had a statutory mandate. EDLs could end up being anything bureaucrats want them to be, which could be worse than what Congress put together in REAL ID.

Too Much Hysteria about Trade

The World Bank issued a press release on Tuesday announcing the results of a study published March 2, which concludes that 17 of the 20 so-called G-20 countries have invoked at least some protectionist measures since pledging last November to avoid protectionism for at least one year.

Of course the Washington Post—which now specializes in printing run-of-the-mill stories about trade that rarely come close to justifying the sensational headlines, provocative subheads, or gripping leads — jumped all over the report as evidence that: “Trade Barriers Could Threaten Global Economy: World Bank Finds Protectionist Trend.”

Well, we all know that trade barriers do threaten the global economy — in times of economic expansion and contraction. But most of the measures cited in the report are not particularly spectacular or unusual from a trade perspective. For better or worse, most WTO member countries do have some latitude to raise trade barriers — sometimes unconditionally. But also, in any given year, governments institute policies that happen to have adverse affects on trade (even if the measure wasn’t intended to be protectionist).

Sometimes aggrieved interests in affected countries prevail upon their governments to protest or otherwise seek resolution. And more often than not, under those circumstances, resolution is achieved. But sometimes, a protectionist measure doesn’t even provoke any kind of protest. So, quantifying protectionist measures is one thing, but qualifying them is quite another, more important exercise, if one is interested in making judgments about protectionist trends.

The by-line of the WP story belongs to Anthony Faiola, who last week wrote story titled: “U.S. to Toughen Its Stance on Trade: New Policy Reflects Growing Dissatisfaction With Global Markets.” The lead paragraph of the story read:

The Obama administration is aggressively reworking U.S. trade policy to more strongly emphasize domestic and social issues, from the displacement of American workers to climate change.

But nothing in the story supports the assertion that anyone is “aggressively reworking U.S. trade policy.” Nothing supports the subhead that there is a growing dissatisfaction with global markets. Trade policy may be in for some changes simply because there’s a new sheriff in town, who is beholden (to what extent we shall see) to interests that oppose competition, but not because of dissatisfaction with global markets.

Certainly there is no evidence of dissatisfaction with global markets in the story, which was occasioned by Ron Kirk’s confirmation hearing as U.S. Trade Representative. Kirk testified—before a Senate that already has before it legislation to make enforcement, rather than negotiation, the priority of trade policy for the next couple years—that he intends to focus on enforcement, rather than negotiation. Well, duh! What else is a nominee whose fate depends on the blessing of the people who want more enforcement going to say? For the record, it’s been known for quite some time that the administration would focus on systematizing enforcement efforts, so that’s not really news.

What is newsworthy, however, are the parts of Ron Kirk’s testimony that went unrevealed in Faiola’s reporting. For example, Kirk said that “at an appropriate time and with proper congressional input and concerns addressed,” the administration would ask Congress to grant the president fast-track trade negotiating authority, which is a tool required only by presidents interested in negotiating and expanding trade.

Kirk also said that “We are mindful that the benefits of trade are diffuse, while its pain is often concentrated. It is within that context that we seek to restore and build new bipartisan support for a progressive trade agenda for America.”  Where, then, is the reporting that the Obama administration does not reject trade? Where is the headline that Obama seeks support for a progressive trade agenda? (Cato is publishing a paper next month by Scott Lincicome and me that explains how President Obama can help restore the pro-trade consensus, which includes a large section on the role the media has played in perpetuating destructive myths about trade and globalization).

Where is the reporting that Democrats in Congress are not all opposed to trade liberalization? Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus told Kirk during the hearing: “I also want to find a way to begin consideration of the three pending trade agreements. We should start with Panama. That’s the agreement that’s most ready for action. And it’s the agreement that will win the greatest level of support.” Reporting on these matters would be newsworthy and constructive since so few in the media seem to be willing to publish stories that contravene conventional wisdom about trade.

The fact of the matter is that there isn’t any discernible trend toward protectionism in the United States or in the world right now. World leaders issue warnings about the consequences of protectionism, but there are not trends. There are incidences, but no trends. The ballyhooed World Bank paper cites 78 trade measures “proposed and/or implemented,” 66 of which involved trade restrictions, 47 of which eventually took effect. The long footnote associated with the presentation of these numbers (footnote 1) includes the following sentence: “It is important to note that it is difficult to distinguish the trade policy measures that are taken in response to the current crisis from measures that might have been taken anyway.”

Most of the 47 measures cited in the report happened in November and December of 2008, and Faiola already ranted about them in the WP on December 22, 2008:

Moving to shield battered domestic manufacturers from foreign imports, Indonesia is slapping restrictions on at least 500 products this month, demanding special licenses and new fees on imports. Russia is hiking tariffs on imported cars, poultry and pork. France is launching a state fund to protect French companies from foreign takeovers. Officials in Argentina and Brazil are seeking to raise tariffs on products from imported wine and textiles to leather goods and peaches, according to the World Trade Organization.

There may be nothing necessarily incorrect about the facts reported. But the tone and implications are possibly misleading. It is hard to accept the otherwise marginally significant facts without also accepting the provocative metaphors and sense of impending doom. Those actions have less antagonistic explanations and more benign interpretations.

For example, the actions of Indonesia, Argentina, and Brazil are consistent with their rights under the WTO agreements and will have a negligible collective impact on world trade. Russia is not even a member of the WTO and frequently behaves outside of international norms, so its actions have very limited representative value. And France has intervened to block foreign takeovers of French companies on other occasions this decade, so its actions are not particularly noteworthy.

At least the World Bank study is careful enough to report some of the positive trade developments and reasons for optimism that I discuss in more detail in this paper that Cato published last week. The World Bank notes 10 instances of trade liberalization around the world, which presumably includes Mexico’s admirable decision to reduce tariff rates on 70 percent of the products listed in its tariff schedule; Brazil’s decision to scrap tariffs on certain raw materials, components, capital goods; China’s decision to forego inclusion of Buy China provisions in its own massive spending bill; and the signing of new free trade agreements between Australia, New Zealand, and the ASEAN countries.

The WB study, like my paper, points out that the sturdy legal and institutional infrastructure of the GATT/WTO system combined with the fact of growing interdependence between countries that are now linked by transnational supply chains will likely diminish prospects for more consequential protectionist indulgences.

Of course Anthony Faiola is not the only person at The Washington Post guilty of hyping protectionist rhetoric and war metaphors in trade stories (and the WP is not the only media outlet engaging in hype). But one of the more egregious disconnects between headline/subhead/lead and the body of the story is found in an article on U.S.-China trade relations by Faiola’s colleague, Ariana Eunjung Cha (which is dissected and analyzed here).

World policymakers and policy watchers do need to be vigilant about ensuring that the world doesn’t descend into a protectionist abyss. They will have plenty of help from their domestic constituencies who rely on open trade in both directions. But some vigilance must be reserved for a media that, if left unchallenged, could provoke a trade war on its own. The more reporting there is about protectionist measures—even if it is just more reporting about the same protectionist measures (as today’s WP article is)—the more justified or compelled policymakers will eventually feel in turning to that poison. If a Congressman’s aide can point to articles that cite rising protectionism, even if the measures cited don’t justify the label of protectionism, it becomes less taboo to propose or support protectionist policies. That kind of fear mongering needs to be identified as such.

Yes, some countries are likely to dabble in some degree of protectionism—either with border measures or the more camouflaged regulatory variety. But the costs of that protectionism will quickly become apparent in a world where capital and talent flow to the jurisdictions with the fewest physical and administrative frictions.

Maybe that story will be written as the economy is on its way back up.

Not-so-COOL Rules Stoke Xenophobia

Come Monday you can thank the federal government for making food more expensive by requiring retailers to provide useless information.

On March 16, federal regulations will finally kick in that require perishable food at the grocery store to sport “country of origin labeling,” known as COOL. The rules were originally passed by Congress as part of the 2002 farm bill, but are only being implemented now because of understandable resistance from retailers.

The COOL regulations will require that all perishable food products be labeled at retail to indicate the country of origin. The regulations cover beef, pork, lamb, goat, chicken; wild and farm-raised fish and shellfish; fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables; peanuts, pecans, macadamia nuts, and ginseng.

In a recent statement announcing final implementation, Obama administration agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack said, “I strongly support Country of Origin Labeling — it’s a critical step toward providing consumers with additional information about the origin of their food.”

This is nothing but a form of regulatory harassment designed to play to anti-foreign prejudices. COOL provides zero health or safety information; foreign meat and produce must conform to exactly the same health and safety standards that apply to domestic-made goods.

In the past, the U.S. Department of Agriculture had estimated that COOL regulations will cost $89 million to implement in the first year and $62 million annually. (My Cato colleague Dan Ikenson wrote the definitive critique of COOL not long after Congress first mandated the rules.)

The fact that a piece of meat or a fresh vegetable comes from a foreign country tells us nothing about its quality or safety. In the past three years, Americans have been sickened and even killed by baby spinach from California and ground beef from Nebraska tainted by E. coli bacteria, chicken from Pennsylvania tainted with listeria, and peanut butter and peanut products from Georgia tainted with salmonella. Would Americans have been any safer if those products had been labeled, “From California” or “From Georgia” or “From Nebraska”?

Country-of-origin labeling was not meant to serve the public but instead to provide yet another unfair advantage to domestic producers at the expense of the public.

Let’s Be Fiscally Responsible, Starting Tomorrow

In his famous book, Confessions, the 5th-century theologian Augustine wrote that he used to pray before his conversion, “Lord, make me chaste, but not just yet.”

That quote came to mind as I read the news a moment ago that President Obama plans to sign the $410 billion catch-all appropriations bill even though it contains 8,500 “earmarks” that will cost taxpayers nearly $8 billion.

Recall that as a candidate, Obama said he and Democratic leaders in Congress would change the “business as usual” practice of stuffing spending bills with pet projects. Those earmarks, submitted by individual members to fund obscure projects in their own districts and states, typically become law without any debate or transparency.

Saying he would sign the “imperfect bill,” President Obama offered guidelines to curb earmarks … in the future. “The future demands that we operate in a different way than we have in the past,” he said. “So let there be no doubt: this piece of legislation must mark an end to the old way of doing business and the beginning of a new era of responsibility and accountability.”

Lord, make us fiscally responsible, but not just yet.

NPR and El Salvador: Setting the Record Straight

NPR had a story this morning on “social inequalities and growing discontent in El Salvador.” Relying exclusively on anecdotal evidence, the story was full of mischaracterizations about the economic and social reality of that country.

Let’s see: Regarding the upcoming presidential election this Sunday, NPR says,

…whichever candidate wins, he faces a faltering economy, entrenched poverty, rampant crime and a population that’s still recovering from a civil war.

Granted, rampant crime is a major problem—unfortunately El Salvador is the most violent country in the world—but a faltering economy? NPR didn’t provide any evidence aside from anecdotes.

Actually, El Salvador has made enormous progress thanks to an aggressive agenda of market reforms. Once you account for revised population data due to a new census, El Salvador’s per capita GDP has grown by 3.3 percent since 1992—the third highest rate in Latin America during this period, after the Dominican Republic (3.8) and Chile (3.6). And as I point out in my new paper on El Salvador, there is ample evidence that official figures significantly underestimate the performance of the economy, mostly because the service sector—an area in which El Salvador leads the region—is grossly undervalued in the country’s estimation of GDP. The economy is probably more than 30 percent larger than indicated by the official data. Thus the average per capita growth rate since 1992 has been approximately 5.2 percent per year.

Entrenched poverty? Since the end of the civil war in 1992, the number of households below the poverty line has diminished by more than 25 percentage points. Extreme poverty has also declined by almost 18 percentage points. During the first decade of the market reforms, net enrollment in primary education increased by close to 10 percentage points, infant mortality declined by 40 percent, and the population without access to safe water was halved. Yes, almost 35 percent of Salvadoran households still live in poverty, but by any indicator, poverty is in retreat.

One of the most telling facts about how tough life is in El Salvador right now is that a quarter of its population chooses not to live here. An estimated 2 million Salvadorans out of a population of less than 7 million live and work in the United States.

It is true that approximately 2 million live outside, but the bulk of Salvadorans who immigrated to the U.S. left during the period of civil conflict. Immigration has certainly continued, but presenting it in its entirety as a sign of economic hardship, as NPR correspondent Jason Beaubien does, is misleading.

El Salvador has moved aggressively under the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance, or ARENA party, to align its economy with the U.S. In 2001, it adopted the U.S. dollar as its sole currency, and in 2006, it ratified a free-trade deal with the United States. The trade agreement led to a modest boost in exports, but in the market, shoppers and shopkeepers say it hasn’t helped them.

How does adopting free market reforms constitute an effort to “align” the economy to the U.S.? By liberalizing their economy, Salvadorans authorities are protecting the cash value of pensions and salaries, lowering interest rates, have incentivized savings,  and provided modern and affordable public services, etc. Their goal was to make the Salvadoran economy more dynamic and competitive, not to “align” it to the U.S.

Also, the increase in exports since CAFTA was implemented three years ago has been anything but “modest.” Exports were 34 percent higher last year than in 2005, the year before CAFTA went into effect. From 1991 to 2007 El Salvador had the highest export growth rate in all Latin America.

This is not to say that there aren’t serious challenges facing El Salvador. As I said earlier, crime is the most serious of all, and the main source of popular discontent in the country. The country is feeling the consequences of the global economic downturn, as are most developing countries. But the way that NPR presents life in El Salvador demands a serious reality check.

You Don’t Say

President Obama recently indicated that he would cut the fiscally irresponsible (yet minimally market distorting) direct payments that flow to farmers regardless of their production. An outcry from farming groups has, predictably, ensued.

Just as predictably: “A source in the administration says the proposal is being reconsidered because of the opposition it has received.