Topic: Trade and Immigration

My Least Favorite False Note on Trade in Last Night’s SOTU

My colleague Dan Griswold has a post below about some of the good things President Bush said in his State of the Union address last night (transcript here). While the President deserves praise for the remarks he made about the importance of trade to the American economy, he made much of the importance of exports and of opening markets overseas, with only a cursory glance at the benefits of imports.

That mercantilist rhetoric, in my opinion and in the opinion of my colleague Brink Lindsey, has boxed the administration and other lawmakers into a corner: people now erroneously assume that if the exports fail to materialize, or if the trade deficit worsens, then the trade policies have been a failure. The present skepticism about trade deals (even allowing for the fact we are in fully-fledged campaign mode) is a direct consequence of that flawed thinking.

Putting aside my ranting about the general state of public discourse about trade, though, there was one part of the SOTU address that particularly struck me as misguided. In making the case for trade deals, President Bush talked about the negative effects of trade liberalization on some workers and made a pitch for renewing trade adjustment assistance:

for some Americans, trade can mean losing a job, and the federal government has a responsibility to help.

Wrong.

President Bush Keeps the Faith on Trade, Immigration

There was much for libertarians and small-government conservatives to pick apart in President Bush’s State of the Union speech last night, but the president deserves hearty applause for his two passages on trade and immigration.

On trade, Bush urged Congress to approve pending agreements that would lower trade barriers between the United States and Colombia, Panama, and South Korea. He reminded Congress that the agreements would reduce barriers to U.S. exports and deepen our commercial and diplomatic ties to friendly nations and their 100 million citizens.

Those non-economic factors loom especially large in the Colombia agreement. As the president told Congress:

These agreements also promote America’s strategic interests. The first agreement that will come before you is with Colombia, a friend of America that is confronting violence and terror, and fighting drug traffickers. If we fail to pass this agreement, we will embolden the purveyors of false populism in our hemisphere. So we must come together, pass this agreement, and show our neighbors in the region that democracy leads to a better life.

The president even reminded Congress, albeit subtly, that the gains from trade are not just about exports when he said. “Trade brings better jobs and better choices and better prices.” Yes, it’s about time somebody in high office put in a good word for the consumer benefits of more robust import competition!

On immigration, President Bush stood on equally solid ground. He touted the beefed up border security under his administration, but then reminded Congress that enforcement without reform is not enough:

… we also need to acknowledge that we will never fully secure our border until we create a lawful way for foreign workers to come here and support our economy. This will take pressure off the border and allow law enforcement to concentrate on those who mean us harm.

We must also find a sensible and humane way to deal with people here illegally. Illegal immigration is complicated, but it can be resolved. And it must be resolved in a way that upholds both our laws and our highest ideals.

In 89 words, President Bush effectively summarized what I’ve been saying and writing all along about the right way to reform our broken immigration system and protect our security.

Carter, Reagan and the Poor

My colleague Tom Firey is right on the mark with his nearby blog post dissecting a recent Paul Krugman column on the supposed myths of the Reagan economic record. Allow me to pile on.

Krugman wrote in a January 21 column for the New York Times that the economic record of President Reagan was one of failure. The Reagan years did encompass a recovery from a steep recession, he acknowledges, but then, “By the late 1980s, middle-class incomes were barely higher than they had been a decade before — and the poverty rate had actually risen.”

Let’s bore in on the poverty numbers and the operative phrase “a decade before.”

As everyone knows, Reagan was in office for exactly eight years, from January 1981 to January 1989. To compare his last full year in office (1988) to “a decade before” would take us back to 1978, a period that would include the last two years of Jimmy Carter’s single term. Those two years, it turns out, were absolutely brutal for America’s poor.

The last half of Carter’s tenure was marked by double digit inflation, record high interest rates, and a sputtering economy that fell into recession in the first half of 1980. That stagflationary mix caused the poverty numbers to soar. From 1978 to 1980, according to the Census Bureau, the number of Americans living below the poverty line rose by 4.8 million and the poverty rate jumped from 11.4 to 13.0 percent.

The poverty rate continued to climb under Reagan as the nation labored through a steep recession in 1981-82, a recession largely caused by the Federal Reserve Board’s efforts to slay the Carter-era inflation. After peaking at 15.2 percent in 1983, the rate declined steadily through the rest of Reagan’s time in office. By his last year in office, the poverty rate was exactly the same—13 percent—as it was in Carter’s last year in office. That’s nothing to crow about, but neither is it an increase or an obvious sign of failure.

To compare the last year of Reagan’s presidency to 1978 has the effect of saddling the Reagan record with the last half of the Carter presidency—a neat statistical trick worthy of the current presidential campaign season.

Freudian Slip by the WaPo?

A telling penultimate sentence in an article Friday in the Washington Post (online) about proposed changes (and none of them good) to U.S. sugar policy.

But the top Senate Republican in the negotiations, Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), represents a major Savannah refinery that could be hurt by the proposed agreement, sources said. (emphasis mine)

And here I was thinking that Sen. Chambliss represents the state of Georgia.

Economic Retardant Package

Whether you have faith that a blast of demand-side fiscal stimulus can jump start the economy or not, policymakers are moving with dispatch to rig up a defibrillator. 

A couple hours ago, President Bush announced his support for a $140 billion “tax relief” package (scare quotes because, as Chris Edwards points out, we’re talking about money borrowed by the Feds on our and our children’s credit to be repaid by us and our children with interest), which amounts to about 1 percent of GDP.

The president is leaving to Congress the details of which citizens in which income groups get checks and how much. Chances are good that the Democratic Congress will produce a plan to get bigger checks into the hands of those who are most likely to spend it all and quickly — lower- and middle-income Americans. But if getting lower- and middle-income Americans to spend more is the key to reversing our slowing economy, why is the next big item on the House Ways and Means Committee’s docket antagonistic trade legislation that would make Chinese-produced goods more expensive? The committee is reportedly planning to put together a “China Bill” from the dozens of pieces of legislation introduced in the first session, including bills aimed at Chinese subsidization, dumping, and currency misalignment.

Think about it. Americans spent about $325 billion on imports from China in 2007 (actually, that figure is the customs value at the U.S. port, so U.S. consumers probably spent 10 to 20 percent more than that after factoring in the transportation, selling, and administrative expenses and profits reflected in the final prices). Lower- and middle-income Americans likely accounted for the majority of that spending.

Since the Chinese yuan was unhitched from a pure dollar peg in July 2005, it has appreciated against the dollar by almost 15 percent. Theory suggests that U.S. imports should decline in light of the higher relative prices to U.S. consumers, but they haven’t. Between July 2005 and July 2007, the yuan appreciated by about 10 percent against the dollar, yet imports from China increased by 36 percent between January-July 2005 and January-July 2007. (This paper goes into more detail about currency values and trade flows).

If, in 2008, the yuan increases in value 25 percent against the dollar (which is what many in Congress would like to see and is the object of some of the pending legislation) and U.S. demand is identical to 2007 (no new demand and old demand remains unresponsive to higher Chinese prices), then imports from China would total about $406 billion. In other words, $80 billion ($406 – $325) of the $140 billion “tax relief” package would go down the tubes, not supporting an ounce of additional U.S. economic activity.

So, is Congress not working at cross-purposes when it doles out cash to Americans to support economic activity and then limits the activity that can be supported by pursuing other policies that devalue that cash? Some might say that spending money on imported consumables doesn’t support U.S. economic activity, but they would be wrong. There is plenty of U.S. value-added in an import purchased on American retail shelves AND some percentage of the revenue that goes to China will be devoted to purchasing U.S. exports.

Perhaps the slowing U.S. economy juxtaposed against surging U.S. exports to a growing world economy will give Congress a fresh perspective on the benefits of trade.

Let Them Go Barefooted

Just about every American needs to buy socks every year, while a relatively tiny number of U.S. workers actually MAKE socks for a living. Yet the Bush administration may decide by this Friday whether to sock it to the many for the temporary benefit of one small and dwindling industry.

Under a provision of the Central American Free Trade Agreement approved by Congress in 2005, the Bush administration is weighing whether to impose special duties on socks imported from Honduras. According to today’s Wall Street Journal, the move would placate a particular lawmaker in Alabama with several sock factories in his district and a few other, mostly southern lawmakers whose votes may be necessary for upcoming trade deals the administration wants.

Has U.S. trade policy come to this? For the sake of a domestic sock industry that, by its own count, employs only 20,000 workers, the U.S. government would impose a temporary 13.5 percent tariff on the 8.3 percent of imported socks that come from the small neighboring democracy of Honduras—a country that entered into a free trade agreement with the United States only two years ago.

By design, the tariff would mean higher sock prices for the 300 million or so Americans who buy and wear socks. And the sock tax would fall disproportionately on lower-income families, who spend a higher share of their income on such staples as food and clothing.

The Bush administration should forget nose counting for future trade agreements if gathering votes means raising trade taxes on low-income Americans. If the administration wants to support free trade, it should resist any calls for higher tariffs.

Wannabe Software and Movie Pirates: Hold Your Fire

A story from the Associated Press today suggests that WTO-sanctioned piracy is still a way off. Antiguan Finance Minister Errol Cort arrives in Washington today to discuss the internet gambling dispute with U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab, in hope of resolving the case.

Last month I reported that a WTO arbitration panel had agreed with Antigua that the U.S. restrictions on gambling over the internet entitled the Antiguans to retaliation – in this case by suspending its obligations under the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) to protect U.S. trademarks and copyrights, as well as suspending market access for some U.S. services firms. Antigua has long maintained that retaliation is not its preferred option, and would rather negotiate with the Americans to allow regulated access to the U.S. internet gambling market.

Antigua has strongly rejected the WTO arbitrators’ decision about the level of damages – a decision that is made especially controversial given that one of the three panelists dissented from the opinion, a rare occurrence in WTO jurisprudence, and by their own admission that they were on “shaky grounds” in determining the level of damages. According to Antigua, by basing their analysis on the “most likely scenario of compliance” by the United States rather than the export opportunities foregone, the arbitrators were showing unfair sympathy to the American case. The Americans were pleased that the $21 million in annual damages was well below the figure sought by Antigua ($3.4 billion), but expressed concern over the form of retaliation authorized. The United States had originally argued that their restrictions were worth only $500,000 in damages.

Notwithstanding the back-and-forth over the amount of sanctions, a couple of problems remain. First, who is to say how much it is worth to, say, download illegally a new CD or movie. Is it equivalent to the market value of buying a legal copy of the material? Or is it worth the cost of the download itself (less than a penny, I imagine). That is important because the WTO would limit Antigua to $21 million fairly strictly, and the U.S., under instruction from Hollywood and the software industry, would be expected to pounce if they saw the limit violated. There is also the question of whether Antigua would be able to export the fruits of its copyright violation to other countries and “earn” the $21 million that way.

While this is not the first time that the WTO has sanctioned violating intellectual property protections by suspending obligations under (that first came in March 2000, when the WTO gave Ecuador permission to suspend TRIPS obligations to the tune of $201 million in their dispute over European banana tariffs), the authorization has never been “actioned.” And, if the U.S. comes to its senses and begins to allow its citizens to gamble online freely, this case may not bring that to fruition either.