Topic: Trade and Immigration

A Correction

In my post last week on the House farm bill, I quoted a Congressional Quarterly article that said that “[chairman of the Agriculture Committee, Representative Collin] Peterson also worked to stave off a last-minute revolt by Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) members by dedicating $1 million [sic] in extra funding for historically black universities and for black farmers.” (link requires subscription).

Further reporting has disclosed that the figure dedicated to those causes was $100 million (see here). Apologies.

House Farm Bill: “A Major Achievement?”

On Friday, the Democratically controlled U.S. House of Representatives passed a massive new farm bill. In a front page story on Saturday, the Washington Post reported:

The House yesterday passed a far-reaching new farm bill that preserves the existing system of subsidies for commercial farmers and adds billions of dollars for conservation, nutrition and new agricultural sectors.

Passage of the 741-page bill by a vote of 231 to 191, after partisan battling unusual for farm legislation, was a major achievement for the new Democratic leadership.

“A major achievement?” It says a lot about the political culture in our nation’s capital that passing a bill that basically continues more than 80 years of failed farm policy with minimal reforms is considered a major achievement.

In Washington, achievement is measured by how much legislation is passed and how much money is spent, not by whether the nation’s interests are advanced. For reasons we have outlined in great detail at Cato, the policies contained in the House farm bill benefit a small number of farmers at the expense of the vast majority of Americans.

Some achievement.

Parliament of Whores, Indeed

Those hoping for reform of the outdated and economically damaging farm bill have cause for disappointment today, after the House defeated, by a margin of three votes to one, an amendment that represented some hope for change. (The roll call can be viewed here). That amendment, whilst by no means close to sufficient reform, included important changes to income eligibility requirements and payment limits for subsidies, and would have closed a loophole allowing producers to manipulate the marketing loan program.

Unscathed passage of the House Agriculture Committee’s bill (see my colleague Dan Griswold’s brief criticism of the House bill here) looked in doubt just a few days ago, but House majority leaders managed to sway Rep. Jim McGovern (D., MA), originally in the reform camp, to vote for the farm bill by promising about $840 million to his pet cause, overseas food aid. The Congressional Black Caucus agreed to support the farm bill after a promise to spend $1.1 million on settling racial discrimination claims from the 1990s.

As if the House proposal for the “new” farm bill wasn’t insult enough for the taxpayer and consumer, the proposal for funding some of the largesse is beyond the pale. The $4 billion increase in food stamps and nutrition programs, which could presumably be paid for by cutting the subsidies to farmers of chosen crops, will instead be financed by taxing “inshoring” companies — U.S.-based subsidiaries of foreign companies who employ American workers.

For a Congress supposedly concerned that international trade is threatening American jobs, taxing employment of American workers seems perverse — not to mention violative of tax treaties. Business groups and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson have expressed their deep dissatisfaction with the tax increase. Some Republicans, including the ranking member on the House Agriculture Committee Robert Goodlatte (Va.), have indicated they would vote against the farm bill (up for a final vote today) because of the tax increase. I’ll believe that when I see it.

On a more positive note, the proposed tax increase has led the administration to issue a veto threat, albeit of the less-than-clear “his senior advisers will recommend that the president veto this bill” variety.

The Media’s Snapshot View

An AP story on the minimum wage begins, all too typically:

The nation’s lowest-paid workers will soon find extra money in their pockets as the minimum wage rises 70 cents to $5.85 an hour today, the first increase in a decade.

Some versions of the AP story, though not the ones that ran in the Washington Post and the New York Times, did acknowledge the possibility that some low-paid jobs might disappear. But most of the news stories this week focus more on criticism of the increase for being too low than on the consensus of economists that minimum wage laws reduce employment for low-skilled workers. It’s enough to make you think Bryan Caplan’s right about the irrationality of the political process. But it’s really just an example of the tendency to look at market processes with a “snapshot view” rather than a dynamic understanding of costs and consequences.

On an unrelated note, unions are outsourcing the arduous job of picket lines to non-union workers. Apparently the carpenters and construction workers are too busy working in our booming economy to have time to picket non-union contractors. The picketers aren’t paid union wages, but they are paid above the minimum wage.

Meet the New Farm Bill

Prepare to pay more for your food. The House Agriculture Committee on Thursday unanimously passed a 2007 farm bill that, in the words of a committee press release, “makes historic investments in conservation, nutrition and renewable energy while maintaining a strong safety net for America’s farmers and ranchers.”

For “investments,” read “spending increases,” and for “a strong safety net,” read “subsidies and trade barriers to keep commodity prices and production artificially high.”

Sadly, the new 2007 farm bill looks a lot like the old 2002 farm bill that is due to expire on September 30. No real changes were made in the Title 1 commodity programs that lavish production subsidies on farmers who grow corn, wheat, cotton, and other program crops. Trade barriers remain against imports of lower-priced sugar, rice, and dairy products.

As we have pointed out in a number of recent Cato studies on farm policy, tens of millions of American families will continue to pay for these programs through taxes and higher prices at the grocery store. Once again, members of the House Agriculture Committee, Democrats and Republicans alike, have demonstrated that they represent a small number of farmers rather than the general interests of the American people.

Economics and Values

A recent NYT article has roiled the economics blogosphere by spotlighting several prominent economists who ostensibly challenge the “fundamental assumptions” of their field. A snippet:

“Economists can’t pretend that the consensus for free markets and free trade that existed 30 years ago is still here,” said Robert B. Reich, a public policy professor at Berkeley who served in President Bill Clinton’s cabinet.

Part of the reason is the growing income inequality and dislocation that global markets and a revolution in communications have helped create. Economists who question the free-market theories “want to speak to the reality of our time,” Mr. Reich said.

The article references some interesting material, including Alan Blinder’s criticism of offshoring and David Card’s provocative work ($) with Alan Krueger on employment and the minimum wage. However, contrary to its tone, the article is not (for the most part, anyway) about disagreements in economics — it’s about disagreements over values.

Consider, for instance, this bit from Blinder’s recent Washington Post op-ed:

And if the jobs do move offshore, displaced American workers may lose not only their jobs but also their pensions and health insurance. These people can be forgiven if they have doubts about the virtues of globalization.

We economists assure folks that things will be all right in the end. Both Americans and Indians will be better off. I think that’s right. The basic principles of free trade that Adam Smith and David Ricardo taught us two centuries ago remain valid today: Just like people, nations benefit by specializing in the tasks they do best and trading with other nations for the rest.

Blinder does not dispute (and indeed endorses) the economic orthodoxy that trade materially benefits participants. Instead, he notes that a change in trading partners produces both winners (the new trading partners) and losers (displaced partners), and that change can often be painful for the loser — a notion that most all economists would endorse.

Given this economic analysis, Blinder offers a values judgment: the United States should implement public policies to aid displaced workers caught in such change (but he expressly eschews protectionist measures that would prohibit change). Libertarians may disagree with Blinder’s policy proposals (perhaps on the grounds that such policies are not appropriate for limited government, or are economically inefficient, or would create perverse incentives and unintended consequences). But this disagreement is not about economics, it’s about competing values (e.g., limited government is preferable; economic inefficiency is undesirable, perverse incentives and unintended consequences are to be avoided).

Like “hard” science, economics is a non-normative field that attempts to determine certain types of relationships — in this case, economic ones (e.g., what is a minimum wage’s effect on employment; what market power effects result from industry regulation?) — and use those determinations to predict the future. Economic analysis often leads to policy recommendations, but those recommendations are the product of value judgments: Should the well-being of one group of workers (e.g., domestic, unionized, members of a particular group) be promoted over another? Should the harm experienced by displaced workers be mitigated, and if so, how?

From a policymaking perspective, it is useful to distinguish what part of economic policy is about economics and what part is about values. Economic analysis of U.S. farm subsidies and trade protections reveals their effect on farmer and consumer behavior, but good policy ultimately comes from answering such values questions as whether the tradeoff of higher consumer food prices for higher producer revenues is acceptable, or whether ag subsidies are a good use of the public fisc.  Or, concerning Prof. Reich’s comment above about income inequality, good policy would come from answering the values question of whether it is a problem that some people are rich or, instead, that some people are poor.

All of this is not to say that we should not question whether neat, simple economic theory plays out cleanly in this messy, complicated world. The debate ($) over Card & Krueger’s minimum wage findings is one of the most interesting in economics, and the burgeoning field of behavioral economics is reinvigorating long-simmering questions about the rationality of market actors — though those questions may not support the values judgments that the apostates and heterodoxoi presume. But I would argue that economics is not so different from the hard sciences — the core tenets are quite solid (though revolution does occur). What remains (appropriately) shaky is a pluralistic society’s attempts to apply its many values (as well as its hopes, fears, grievances, immediate concerns, and political aspirations), to economic phenomena.

Food Safety and Imports

Unhealthy products from China have been in the news lately. First it was poisoned pet food, then contaminated toothpaste, toy trains with lead paint, and now farmed fish containing unauthorized chemicals. For skeptics of trade, the news offers yet another reason to beware of imports in general but especially those “Made in China.”

Consumers have every right to be concerned about the safety of the products they buy, but the problem of potentially harmful products is not unique to China or even imports. As a New York Times story points out today, U.S. customs officials routinely intercept more potentially harmful food imports from Mexico and India than they do from China. Federal inspectors have turned away hundreds of shipments of produce from the Dominican Republic and even candy from Denmark.

Safety concerns are not confined to imports. Americans have been poisoned by beef from Nebraska, spinach from California, and peanut butter from Georgia. The same safety standards apply to imported food as to domestic food. The right response is not wholesale restrictions on imports, but to find better ways of keeping harmful products out of stores no matter where the products originate.

The large majority of food products imported to the United States, like those grown domestically, are safe and healthy. In fact, imports improve our health by making fresh produce available year around. Imports also keep prices down at the grocery store, which benefits low-income families most of all. Raising tariffs on imported food would certainly do more harm than good.