Topic: Trade and Immigration

The Wrong and Right Approach on U.S.-China Trade

The economic illiteracy that drives the “revalue-your-currency-immediately-and-dramatically-or-else-we’ll-impose-a-27.5 percent tariff” mantra has become a huge political problem.  The more that policymakers (and columnists) imply parity between the economic effects of a stronger Chinese Yuan and those of a huge import tax on Chinese goods at the U.S. border, the more likely we are to cross the precipice into astoundingly stupid economic policy.

On that score, Washington Post business columnist Steven Pearlstein deserves scorn.  In his column on Sunday, Pearlstein touted his preference for populist bromides over any desire to comprehend and convey truth to his readers about trade.  Pearlstein has joined the ranks of those agitating for an across-the-board tariff on Chinese imports since China “cannot take the one step that would restore some [trade] balance—revalu[ing] its currency.”  Though Pearlstein has grown increasingly hostile to trade recently, Sunday’s column, in which he describes the upside of a massive levy against all Chinese imports, is probably the most irresponsible one I’ve read from him. 

The “currency issue” is the most prominent source of contention afflicting the U.S.-China economic relationship.  But it is merely a proxy for broader concern over the U.S. trade deficit with China.  From the large and growing deficit, many policymakers conclude that we are losing at trade, and we’re losing because China is cheating.  Intervention in the currency market by China’s central bank to keep the Yuan artificially low is the chief form of cheating, which acts as a subsidy on exports and a tax on imports.  Fix the currency manipulation, and you fix the trade account.

That is an extremely simplistic take on the cause and effect of Chinese intervention in the currency market. 

And even if trade balance or a trade surplus were a legitimate and worthwhile objective of policy, measures to encourage consumption in the surplus country or to encourage savings in the deficit country or some combination of both would be the proper course of action.  (Note: To those who believe a trade surplus should be the objective of policy, take a look at Japan and Germany.  Both have had large and persistent trade surpluses for decades.  But for the better part of the past two decades, Japan has experienced anemic economic growth. Germany, during the same period, has had mostly double-digit unemployment.  Meanwhile, the United States, with its large and growing deficit, has experienced steady, consistent economic growth and job creation over the same period.)

But the trade account has very little to do with trade policy.  Attempts to achieve greater trade balance by tinkering with trade policy levers, particularly the levers that discourage trade and investment altogether, should be avoided.  The trade account is a function of habits of savings and consumption, which are to some degree a function of fiscal and monetary policy, as well as relative confidence in local institutions and general outlook.

In that regard, last week’s Strategic Economic Dialogue between U.S. and Chinese officials in Washington was quite successful.  Of course the meetings were characterized by those who fail to look beneath the surface as the last chance for China to bow to U.S. demands and avoid sanctions.  That the Chinese didn’t say “how high” in response to U.S. demands to “jump” is evidence of the failure of the SED.  But the SED is part of a process, and that process has yielded very important progress (if progress is defined as movement toward greater trade balance, which has become a political, rather than an economic, necessity).

In the weeks leading up to last week’s SED congregation in Washington, through its conclusion on Thursday, all sorts of incremental steps have been taken in the name of achieving greater trade balance.  The Chinese announced a broader band within which the Yuan can fluctuate on a daily basis.  The Yuan can now appreciate more quickly than in the past.  Since July 2005, the Yuan has appreciated by over 8 percent against the dollar.  It is now on a steeper appreciation trajectory.  (But has it even occurred to anyone that the deficit has only grown larger during this period of Yuan appreciation?  That fact certainly hasn’t deterred the currency-or-sanctions hawks.)

In response to a U.S. WTO complaint filed in March, the Chinese agreed to cut export tax rebates, which allegedly subsidize Chinese exporters, and to reduce certain import taxes, which allegedly hamper import competition in China.  Also, the Chinese agreed to improved market access for U.S. commercial airliners and other industries, and they agreed to go on a shopping spree to boost U.S. exports (even though U.S. exports to China have been growing by leaps and bounds – by 32% in 2006 versus about 15% overall). 

But in my view, the most important breakthrough last week was China’s decision to open its financial services sector even further than it has bound itself to do under its WTO commitments.  This is more important than anything the Congress is raging about in Washington because it addresses a huge structural impediment to Chinese consumption: the dearth of consumer credit, life insurance, and disability insurance markets.  The scarcity of these services encourages thrift, as medical emergencies, education expenses, big ticket purchases, and expenses related to catastrophic events must be financed, in most cases, from personal savings.

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson has long held that the key to improving the trade balance is encouraging Chinese consumption.  The Chinese government is trying to encourage that as well.  Paulson’s suggestion that U.S. financial services providers can help in that task (given how skilled we are at consuming), and China’s acceptance of that proposal is testament to the validity and value of the SED.

While Schumer and Graham and Pearlstein advocate dropping the bomb, Paulson and Schwab and Wu Yi contemplate the keys to a successful bilateral relationship with economic growth for all.

Bravo, Sarko

Some more disappointing rhetoric from the mouth of Nicolas Sarkozy, the new French president. Once lauded as the great hope for a new France, he has revealed his protectionist instincts in Brussels.

In an article today in the Financial Times, Sarkozy mounts what the FT calls a “passionate defence of French farmers,” apparently calling for the EU to be even tougher in its defense of European agriculture in world trade talks and to “protect” its citizens from globalization. I wonder how Europe’s citizens feel about being protected from lower prices for food?

In a stunning display of perverse priorities, Sarkozy was quoted as saying, “I’m not going to sell agriculture to get a better opening for services.” But a quick glance in my Economist Pocket World in Figures 2006 suggests that Sarkozy has it all wrong: the contribution to services in the French economy in 2003 was 71.4 percent of GDP, and 74 percent of employment. Agriculture’s contribution? Just 2.8 percent (and 2 percent of employment).

Certainly many services are by definition non-tradeable (ever flown to Paris to catch a taxi?), but according to the World Trade Organization, France was the world’s fourth largest exporter of commercial services in 2004. You’d think Mr Sarkozy would want to do everything in his power to promote their growth, non?

Announcing: Harper’s Law

Mine is a simple — dumb, even — adaptation of Metcalfe’s Law.

“The security and privacy risks increase proportionally to the square of the number of users of the data.”

— First quoted in this eWeek article about the electronic employment verification system included in the current immigration bill.

(I actually suspect that Briscoe’s et al’s refinement of Metcalfe’s law is more accurate, but that’s just so complicated.)

Senate Amendment Guts Immigration Reform

The Senate’s vote yesterday to cut the number of temporary worker visas in half knocks a big hole in the comprehensive immigration reform proposal now being debated in Congress. As I’ve written in a recent Free Trade Bulletin, allowing a sufficient number of foreign-born workers to enter the country legally to meet the obvious demand of our labor market is absolutely necessary if we want to reduce illegal immigration.

Ignoring our policy advice, the Senate voted 74-24 to adopt an amendment by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) that would cut the number of annual temporary “Y visas” from 400,000 to 200,000. That number is almost certainly too low to provide the workers that our growing economy needs to fill jobs at the lower end the skill ladder for which there simply are not enough Americans available to fill them. The result, if the lower cap stands, will be continued illegal immigration.

The irony is that many of the senators voting to drastically reduce temporary visas are the same senators who warn that we should not repeat the mistake of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. That bill legalized 2.7 million illegal immigrants but was unable to stop more immigrants from entering the country illegally despite beefed-up enforcement. The real flaw of the 1986 law, however, was its complete lack of any temporary worker program to provide for future, legal workers.

By adopting the Bingaman amendment, a majority of senators have turned the current reform effort into something much more like the failed 1986 law. They have kicked the illegal immigration can down the road, leaving it to a future Congress to find a lasting solution.

Smoke on Your Pipe and Put That In!

Harvard economist George Borjas, perhaps the leading academic skeptic of increased immigration, has started a blog. In a West Side Story-themed post this morning, Borjas argues that the failure of Puerto Rico’s per capita GDP to converge fully with the United States’, despite the fact that the flow of people and capital between the two countries is completely unrestricted, challenges the idea that a liberal migration policy can make people in the developing world better off.

There are also no restrictions that hamper the flow of capital between the two places. Yet despite all these unrestricted labor and capital flows, there is still a sizable income differential between the United States and Puerto Rico. By 2003, price-adjusted per-capita GDP in Puerto Rico was still only two-thirds that of the United States (according to the Penn World Table). Whatever happened to the factor price equalization theorem? If 60 years is not the “long run,” maybe Keynes was right after all.

The fact that migration entails very high costs if an important–and often ignored–part of the economics of migration. The fact that wages don’t equalize even when a “country” loses a large chunk of its population and there are unrestricted capital flows is both interesting and important. It should give some food for thought to those who view migration as a policy tool that can help alleviate many of the developing world’s problems.

I think this is misleading. Mississippi, the U.S.’s poorest state, has a per capita gross state product of about $28,000 per person, which is not quite 2/3 of the overall U.S. per capita GDP, $43,500. The relevant comparison would seem to be the per capita GDP of Puerto Rico next to that of other Caribbean islands. Puerto Rico’s PPP-adjusted GDP per capita for 2006 was about $19,000.

First, it should be pointed out that the U.S. Virgin Islands, whose inhabitants have been U.S. citizens since 1927, does even less well, at about $14,500 per capita. (That’s a 2004 number, so it’s probably a bit higher than that.) But this isn’t a very good comparison, either; the Virgin Islands has a population slightly bigger than Davenport, Iowa, the economy basically runs on tourism, and the people who own the resorts don’t live there. Cuba, with a population about three times Puerto Rico’s, comes in with a GDP per capita of around $3900, less than a quarter of Puerto Rico’s. But we already knew that communism is terrible. The best comparison is probably the nearby Dominican Republic, which is neither a socialist dystopia nor a U.S. territory. GDP per capita in the Dominican Republic is $8000, less than half Puerto Rico’s.

But who cares about Puerto Rico, the territorial jurisidiction? How are Puerto Ricans doing? According to Wikipedia’s entry on Puerto Ricans in the United States, slightly more Puerto Ricans now live Stateside than on the island, and, “in 2002, the average individual income for Stateside Puerto Ricans was $33,927.”

I find it pretty hard to see this as anything less than a slam dunk for the humanitarian benefit of the freedom of movement.

On a more technical note, why would one really expect wages to fully equalize in the absence of the idealized conditions of the economic model? First, there’s the obvious fact that an island in the Caribbean is “off the grid” of the main U.S. trade infrastructure. Second, as Borjas points out, there is a high cost to immigration. Those able to foot the bill are likely the most productive workers with the greatest capacity to save. And those with higher levels of skill are likely to see a bigger relative returns from participation with U.S. labor markets, reinforcing the incentive for the more skilled to move. If that’s true, and Puerto Rico has lost disproportionately many higher-skilled workers to the U.S., then the fact that GDP per capita is still so high compared to neighboring democracies is really a slam dunk.

To drive the point home, a fun quotation from the the CIA World Factbook entry on the Dominican Republic:

Haitian migrants cross the porous border into the Dominican Republic to find work; illegal migrants from the Dominican Republic cross the Mona Passage each year to Puerto Rico to find better work.

And Puerto Ricans who can afford it “like to be in America.”

[Lyrics to Bernstein and Sondheim’s “America” here.]

A Rising Tide Lifts all Boats

Kennedy was right. Not Teddy Kennedy, of course, but his brother. President John F. Kennedy stated that a rising tide of economic growth generated benefits for all. A new study from the Congressional Budget Office looks at income trends for families with children and confirms JFK’s wisdom. The Wall Street Journal reviews the key findings:

A new study by the Congressional Budget Office says the poor have been getting less poor. On average, CBO found that low-wage households with children had incomes after inflation that were more than one-third higher in 2005 than in 1991. The CBO results don’t fit the prevailing media stereotype of the U.S. economy as a richer take all affair – which may explain why you haven’t read about them. … The poorest even had higher earnings growth than the richest 20%. The earnings of these poor households are about 80% higher today than in the early 1990s. … CBO says … earnings from work climbed sharply as the 1996 welfare reform pushed at least one family breadwinner into the job market. … earnings for low-income families have still nearly doubled in the years since welfare reform became law. Some two million welfare mothers have left the dole for jobs since the mid-1990s. Far from being a disaster for the poor, as most on the left claimed when it was debated, welfare reform has proven to be a boon. … The report also rebuts the claim, fashionable in some precincts on CNN, that the middle class is losing ground. … every class saw significant gains in income. … the CBO study found that, with the exception of chronically poor families who have no breadwinner, low-income job holders are climbing the income ladder. When CBO examined surveys of the same poor families over a two year period, 2001-2003, it found that “the average income for those households increased by nearly 45%.” That’s especially impressive considering that those were two of the weakest years for economic growth across the 15 years of the larger study.

A Good Start on Immigration Reform

Today, the Senate begins debating a comprehensive immigration reform bill. The compromise bill announced last week is not perfect, but it offers a reasonable opportunity to reduce illegal immigration, secure our borders, and keep our economy growing.

The key to successful immigration reform, as I argued just last week in a new Free Trade Bulletin, is a workable temporary worker program. The compromise would allow 400,000 temporary workers to enter the country each year on “Y visas” to fill a multitude of jobs for which there simply are not enough native-born Americans available. We know from experience with the Bracero program in the 1950s that if we expand the legal opportunities for foreign-born workers to come to the United States, illegal immigration will drop.

The bill also legalizes most of the 12 million people currently in the country illegally by granting them temporary, renewable “Z visas.” Opponents will call any legalization an amnesty, but the compromise provisions would exact a $5,000 fine―not chump change for a low skilled worker―while requiring them to return to their home country before applying for permanent legal status. Permanent status would only be granted after the government clears the backlog of immigration petitions already outstanding, a process that will take about eight years. This is a far less generous legalization than what was offered in the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which handed immediate green cards to about 2.7 million previously illegal immigrants.

The bill would also shift the emphasis on immigration from family relationships to a broader list of factors, including education, English proficiency, and work experience. The bill would still allow family visas for spouses and minor children, but being the parent, sibling and grown child of a naturalized U.S. citizen would not longer be sufficient qualification.

This provision is drawing flak from a number of immigration supporters, but the shift away from a family-dominated immigration system makes sense. It is easier today than it was a century ago to maintain ties to extended family because of international travel and international telecommunications. Although I believe fears of “chain migration” are over-blown, this compromise would help to alleviate some of those fears among people who would otherwise support immigration reform.

Any legalization would be put on hold until certain quantifiable “triggers” are met. The requirements include beefing up the border patrol to 18,000 agents, erecting a 370-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexican border, and expanding detention facilities to hold up to 27,500 illegal aliens per day.

My concern with the triggers is that they will needlessly delay the single most important remedy for illegal immigration―a temporary visa program for new workers. The problem of illegal immigration exists because our immigration system is out of step with the realities of the American labor market. As Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff testified before Congress in February, a legalization program would significantly reduce illegal traffic across the border, enhancing the ability of U.S. agents to capture people who would still be sneaking in to commit criminal or terrorist acts.

The bill also requires a nationwide employment verification program covering every U.S. worker, whether native or foreign-born. This is also troubling. An existing pilot program has exposed a disturbingly high error rate. U.S. citizens have been rejected by the system, requiring them to visit with immigration officials to prove their legal status. I doubt many native-born Americans will want to entrust their ability to earn a living to the reliability of a centrally controlled government data base.

These are kinks that can and should be worked out in the legislative process unfolding as we speak. Despite its shortcomings, the immigration reform plan unveiled last week and now before the Senate contains all the essential elements to finally address the growing problem of illegal immigration.