Topic: Trade and Immigration

Solution Already in Place for Chinese Product Safety Problems

The recent spate of recalls involving products manufactured in China has elicited cries from the public for better regulatory oversight and glee from protectionists who seek to demonize all trade with China. But increased government screening or an outright import ban would be unnecessarily intrusive and prohibitively expensive. The solution that makes the most sense is already working.

There is nothing more immediately deleterious to the bottom line than the kind of bad publicity that connotes wanton disregard for the vulnerable and innocent. Think Exxon Valdez and oil-drenched, arctic sea mammals; think Kathy Lee Gifford and allegations of sweatshop labor; and now, think Mattel and sick children. Companies pay dearly even for the perception that they have transgressed.

Large quantities of poisonous products ending up in consumers’ toy chests, medicine chests, and refrigerators constitute serious transgressions, which should be punished and relegated to the very rare occurrence. For its recent woes, Mattel is being punished. The company’s stock value took a hit, its revenues are projected to decline as we head into the holiday buying season, it will incur huge costs refunding and replacing purchases of tainted toys, and it will be spending hundreds of million of dollars to improve its safety audits. Meanwhile, Chinese factories that compete for Mattel’s business have every financial incentive to clean up their own acts.

If Mattel fails to win back the confidence of American parents, it could be facing extinction. But allowing Americans to decide whether they will purchase Mattel products, or other products made in China, is preferable to Congress or the administration making that decision for them.

Pandering to the Protectionists

Given the audience, one could have expected a goodly amount of protectionist rhetoric from the Democratic presidential candidates in their debate last night at an AFL-CIO forum. But at times it seemed as though they were battling to see who among them could pander the most.

Dennis Kucinich has never been a promoter of open trade and markets, so it is hardly surprising that he said withdrawing from NAFTA and the WTO would be a “first week in office” priority. Thank goodness he’s not a serious candidate. What is worrisome is the cheers his pledge elicited. Do the members of the AFL-CIO truly believe that if two of our largest trade partners (Canada and Mexico) increased their tariffs on American goods, that would somehow benefit them? Is the WTO seen as such a negative force overall that withdrawing from its forums and its legal protections is perceived as wise?

The other candidates, to their credit, did not match Mr Kucinich’s pledge. But that is to damn them with faint praise, however, as most of them did undertake to “revise” trade agreements, including NAFTA, (presumably by putting in more stringent rules on labor and environmental provisions) and to put more emphasis on enforcement of trade agreements. None of them, not even Senator Clinton, whose husband showed a commendable commitment to trade during his time in office, stood up and defended the benefits of trade.

Senator Obama, given the chance to acknowledge the positive effect of trade on working families – i.e., cheap goods – demurred, making an emotive, if economically illiterate, point about how a cheap T-shirt is useless if one doesn’t have a job. As though the U.S. economy was not demonstrating that consumers can have access to cheaper goods as well as record employment.

Perhaps the next Democratic presidential candidates debate should be held at a consumer- or taxpayer-group forum.

Brother, Can You Spare a Z$200,000 Note?

Hyperinflations would be almost comic if it were not for the misery they inflict on the people they affect. In the misruled African country of Zimbabwe, the inflation rate of the Zimbabwean dollar has reached an annualized rate of 13,000 percent. According to a story Thursday in the Financial Times, an IMF official predicts the annual rate could be heading towards an incredible 100,000 percent.

One sure sign of a hyperinflation is that the central bank must issue new currency notes in ever higher denominations so that people won’t have to carry bags or wheelbarrows of money around to make everyday purchases. Sure enough, the government of Zimbabwe is now wrestling with that very question. According to the FT story:

The launch yesterday of a new large-denomination bank note of Z$200,000—worth [US$13] at the official exchange rate and [US$1.30] at the more realistic parallel rate—underlines the disarray. The central bank had wanted to issue a Z$500,000 note, but a bank official said this was vetoed by the finance ministry because senior staff thought such a large denomination would have reinforced an impression that inflation was out of control.

At a 13,000 percent rate, that cat is probably already out of the bag.

If You’re Not a Farmer, Then Shut Up

I blogged about the arrogance of some members of Congress during last week’s farm debate in the House.

From the Congressional Record, check out this bluster from farm committee member Tim Walz (D-MN) during the floor debate. (Note that he is objecting to reforms proposed by Reps. Ron Kind (D-WI) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ):

I rise in opposition to my good friend from Wisconsin’s piece of legislation. It’s well meaning, but I believe it does not address the needs of my district. The people of the First District of Minnesota, I think, can probably lay claim to one of the richest agricultural pieces of land in the entire world … I had 14 hearings throughout my district with universal acceptance of making sure the safety net is maintained … When I need advice on the farm bill, I go to a couple of good farmers in my district, Kevin Papp, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, and Doug Peterson, president of Minnesota’s Farmers Union. I don’t need to go to the ideologues at the Cato Institute or Club for Growth to know what’s good for rural America.

Have you got it? If you are a taxpayer footing the bill for $30 billion or so of farm subsidies each year, then tough beans–just sit down and let Mr. Walz spend your money on his special interest friends.

A few questions to ponder:

Do you think that there was “universal acceptance” of big farm subsidies at his meetings because they were meetings of farmers?

If Mr. Walz’s district is “one of the richest agricultural pieces of land in the entire world” then why the heck does it need subsidies?

State and Local Workers Retain Advantage

The Bureau of Economic Analysis has released its annual data on employee compensation by industry. (See tables 6.2, 6.3, 6.5, and 6.6).

The new data for 2006 show that the nation’s 16 million state and local government workers earned an average $61,727 in total compensation (wages plus benefits). That is 11 percent more than the $55,470 average earned by U.S. private sector workers.

Looking just at wages, state and local workers earned an average $46,937, which is similar to the $45,995 average earned by private sector workers. Thus the primary state and local advantage is the generous fringe benefits.

The figure below shows that the state and local worker advantage has remained fairly constant since at least 1990. Private pay boomed in the late-1990s, but state and local pay has grown faster this decade.

Source: Chris Edwards, Cato Institute, based on Bureau of Economic Analysis data

For those interested in the welfare of teachers, the BEA data shows that teacher compensation has closely tracked the overall state and local average since 1990. The average compensation in state and local education in 2006 was $62,371

State and local workers are not paid as well as federal workers, on average, but they usually receive similar generous fringe benefits including high job security, and lucrative pension and health care plans.

Federal Pay: Shoot the Messenger

Fedsmith.com ran a commentary today about the new data I cited on average federal worker compensation.

Most of the 31 comments on my blog and the commentary so far are hostile, and many take a “shoot the messenger” approach. Folks, it’s not my data. I didn’t use “fuzzy math” or “twist” the data. The data comes straight from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Yes, averages are only one indicator of pay gaps. But is it justified that the federal average has grown so much more quickly than the private sector average? Why should fringe benefits in the government workforce be so much more generous than in the private workforce?

And shouldn’t we have a “government of the people” rather than a class of elite overlords increasingly separated from the realities of taking risks, being fired, facing salary cuts in downturns, and having to work hard to get pay raises?

Life without Farm Subsidies

When the House passed a massive farm bill last month, supporters justified ongoing subsidies as a “safety net” for family farmers. But a story in the New York Times this morning on the New Zealand dairy industry shows that farmers can survive and thrive in a free market without subsidies.

The story begins by describing how technologically sophisticated the country’s export-oriented dairy industry has had to become to meet global competition.

Dairy farming in New Zealand was not always this sophisticated. But ever since a liberal but free-market government swept to power in 1984 and essentially canceled handouts to farmers — something that just about every other government in an advanced industrial nation has considered both politically and economically impossible — agriculture here has never been the same.

The farming community was devastated — but not for long. Today, agriculture remains the lifeblood of New Zealand’s economy. There are still more sheep and cows here than people, their meat, milk and wool providing the country with its biggest source of export earnings. Most farms are still owned by families, but their incomes have recovered and output has soared.

For more on the lessons we should learn from New Zealand’s successful reforms, check out a Free Trade Bulletin we published in 2005 titled, “Miracle Down Under: How New Zealand Farmers Prosper without Subsidies or Protection.” The Kiwi example also featured prominently in an online debate I had in May with the chief economist of the American Farm Bureau.

The New Zealand dairy industry and our own fruit and vegetable sectors prove that farmers can thrive without government subsidies and trade protection. Yet it looks like we will be saddled for another five years with an expensive and anti-market farm bill.