Topic: Trade and Immigration

Jeff Flake, Take (Another) Bow!

Further to Tom’s post on Monday, our friend Jeff Flake (R–AZ) has written an excellent op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal (subscription required) on the need for Republicans to apologize for betraying their small-government principles. Mr. Flake points to the farm bill, up for renewal next year, as the best opportunity to ” hew back to our [i.e., Republicans’] first principles.”

Yes, please. And may I propose the dairy policy, one of the most egregious examples of Soviet-style intervention, as one of the first to be reformed? Here’s a study I released yesterday on that very topic.

Bravo, Mr. Flake. I wish you the best of luck.

America’s Record Capital Surplus

The Commerce Department announced the latest U.S. trade deficit figures on Thursday. Although the monthly deficit for September was down from previous months, Americans are still on track to run a record merchandise trade deficit for all of 2006 that will reach nearly $900 billion by the end of the year.

The trade deficit numbers are sure to provide fodder for the incoming 110th Congress, which because of Tuesday’s election will probably take a more belligerent tone toward global trade than the previous, Republican-controlled Congress.

How worried should we be about the large and growing trade deficit? I’ve written extensively about what the trade deficit means, and what it doesn’t mean. (See here and here for details.) One unappreciated aspect of the trade deficit is the offsetting capital surplus that flows into the U.S. economy year after year.

Think about it for a moment: What on earth are the Chinese, Japanese, Canadians, and Mexicans doing with those hundreds of billions of dollars they earn each year exporting into the American market? They are not stuffing them in cookie jars and under mattresses. Almost all those dollars come back to the United States to buy U.S. assets — real estate, stocks, corporate and Treasury bonds, and bank deposits. In other words, they invest those dollars in America.

According to the basic rules of supply and demand, the surplus of global savings flowing into the United States each year to finance the trade deficit puts downward pressure on U.S. interest rates. A new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research, “International Capital Flows and U.S. Interest Rates,” by Francis Warnock and Veronica Warnock, confirms the positive effect of international capital flows on long-term U.S. interest rates. “Large foreign purchases of U.S. government bonds have contributed importantly to the low levels of U.S. interest rates observed over the past few years,” the authors concluded. Specifically, they found that current inflows of foreign capital reduce long-term U.S. interest rates by about 100 basis points, or one percentage point.

If you are among the tens of millions of American families that are paying off a home mortgage, you can thank the trade deficit and the offsetting foreign capital surplus for saving you thousands of dollars a year in interest payments.

Schumer-Bloomberg on Sarbanes-Oxley

Apparently I am not alone in the skepticism I expressed last week concerning an oped by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, in which the duo decries the ill effects of regulation and frivolous lawsuits on New York’s financial services sector.  Four of the five letters to the editor in today’s Wall Street Journal expressed incredulity that these two pols could possibly expect to be taken seriously on the subject, given their otherwise steadfast support for government intrusion into our lives. 

I don’t know the newspaper business, but I have an inkling the WSJ ran their piece not so much for the good ideas it contained, but because it knew that the juxtaposition of those ideas with that by-line would elicit a spankfest from its readership that would lend itself to today’s title of the Letters to the Editor section: ”Schumer and Bloomberg Are For Less Regulation? Is This a Joke? (sorry, subscription required).

There was one letter, however, that actually defends Sarbanes-Oxley and the huge regulatory burdens imposed upon financial services firms operating in New York because it “gives our New York financial market a distinct competitive advantage [relative to London].”  Come again?  Yes, this letter argues that, ”while it is quite true that there are more regulatory bodies and higher fines in New York than overseas, that is only a temporary situation.”  The author argues not that those U.S. regulations will be relaxed, but that the regulatory burden on firms operating in the London market will be just as heavy in the future, and that New York firms are lucky to have a head start on the learning curve.

To put this all in context, the author of the pro-regulation letter is a vice president at Orchestria Corporation (a New York company), which is an entity that “helps companies achieve compliance and good governance through electronic communication control.”  Orchestria is in the business of helping it’s customers “to efficiently manage the burden of regulation and ensure compliance.”  In other words, Orchestria (and probably hundreds of companies like it) is the Frankenstein of Sarbanes-Oxley.  Although people like Schumer and Bloomberg are recognizing rhetorically the damage caused by regulatory overkill, righting the ship will be more difficult than just publishing an oped.

Sarbanes-Oxley has created a whole new industry that benefits from the status quo.  I wonder if they know any politicians who would enjoy their financial support.

Taking Labor Markets Seriously

Perplexity over economic statistics – in particular, the decades-long trends of flat median real wages and increasing income inequality, combined with a recent disconnect between productivity growth and wage increases – is provoking serious, sober-minded people on the center-left to worry whether there might be something badly wrong with America’s economic system.

In a well-written piece (subscription required) for The New Republic, Jonathan Chait chronicles how the economic numbers are undermining confidence among Democrats in Clinton-style, pro-growth economic policies. The bottom line: what good is economic growth if it only benefits those at the very top?

Ezra Klein of The American Prospect is among the anxious. He’s written frequently on this point, but here’s a typical formulation of the perceived problem as he sees it: 

What worries me about inequality isn’t what it does, but what’s doing it, namely, a decades-long decline in worker bargaining power and the resultant redirection of productivity increases and corporate profits away from compensation and salaries. 

And here’s another:

[T]hrough mechanisms we’re not entirely sure of, the very richest are siphoning off the economic growth before it flows through the middle and lower classes.  

And here’s yet another that suggests what needs to be done: 

The right has tried to explain this accelerating inequality as an unstoppable structural feature of the new economy: It’s the meritocracy, or computers, or benefits, or global trade. Unfortunately, those explanations are largely bull****. Europe also has computers, and trade, and mobility, and benefits, and has easily avoided the widening chasm we’ve seen. So what makes us different?

In a word, power. Or the distribution of it. Europe has strong unions and active governments; countervailing powers that wrest a portion of the pie for their constituencies. We don’t.  

It’s one thing to be concerned generally about inequality: to hope that all people can participate in the blessings and opportunities that modern capitalism affords, and to look for policies that help those who are lagging. It’s quite another when that concern curdles into a belief that the capitalist system is fundamentally unfair – that workers are failing to get their fair share of the value they create because people at the top are hogging the gains from growth. It’s the difference between being an egalitarian liberal and being a collectivist. Or, in other words, between being a progressive and being a reactionary.

Here’s my question for Ezra et al.: is there something wrong with labor markets? Is there some market failure that is resulting in the systematic exploitation of workers?

I can’t imagine what that market failure would be. Labor markets are pretty vanilla, with lots of buyers (firms) and lots of sellers (workers). Local monopsony problems (e.g., the company town scenario) are unlikely to be significant in a diversified, modern economy with a highly mobile work force. I don’t know of any basis for thinking that firms’ competition for workers is less than robust. Accordingly, there are very strong reasons for thinking that wages and salaries are generally bid into line with the value of the various uses to which labor at a given skill level can be put.

As University of Chicago law professor Richard Epstein puts it:

The single most important thing to understand about the operation of a standard labour market in the world today is that it is immensely boring. It should be thought of in terms of the traditional intersection of supply and demand. It does not present any difficult transactional problems or generate negative externalities that require government control. 

In particular, there is no good reason to think that high earnings for managers and professionals at the top of the pay scale are coming at the expense of everybody else. Firms need workers at various skill levels. Exactly the same incentives guide firms when they are hiring highly skilled workers and when they are hiring less skilled workers. On the one hand, competition will cause them to bid up the price of labor to attract workers away from other job openings; on the other hand, concern with profitability will deter them from overpaying. There isn’t some pot of money in the company safe that’s dedicated to wages and salaries, so that more for some means less for others. Hiring and pay decisions are made at the margin: does adding this worker at this price improve our bottom line? For every new hire, whatever the job description or skill level, firms face strong pressures against either underpaying or overpaying.

(Note: I’m leaving aside for now the question of compensation for top executives, which raises complex issues of corporate governance. For now, it suffices to say that, even if CEOs are being overpaid, the problem affects only a tiny portion of the overall labor market.)

So I just don’t see those “mechanisms we’re not entirely sure of” that Ezra talks about. And just asserting they exist, without providing any theory or evidence of how they might work, won’t cut it as serious analysis.

But what about the decline of private-sector unions? Hasn’t that reduced workers’ bargaining power to their detriment?

Yes, it is true that, through collective bargaining, workers can obtain above-market prices for their labor – just as it is possible for price-fixing cartels to obtain above-market prices for their products. But it is also true that, over the long term, unionization has proved a disaster for affected U.S. industries. By cutting into profits, unions have deterred investment and R&D; the rigid work rules they imposed have hampered innovation and competitiveness; and the unsustainable pension and health care commitments they extracted have turned out to be financially ruinous in the long run.

A resurgence in union power wouldn’t improve the system. Union power distorted the system, ultimately with dismal consequences. Yes, some people came out ahead, but many others have suffered from the effects of underinvestment, inefficiency, and burdensome legacy costs.

Contrary to the fears of Ezra and the rest, America’s labor markets are working fine. Strong incentives are in place for companies to pay people what they’re worth. The system isn’t broken.

Of course you can be disappointed that more people aren’t doing better. In which case, you have a couple of options. Option one is to try to supplement the competitive market system. Let the system work, and accept that the prices it’s generating are offering reasonably accurate information about the economic value of different kinds of work. Then try to find policies that will (a) help people increase their value in the marketplace and (b) mitigate hardships for people with relatively low human capital.

Option two is to try to supplant the system by ignoring market signals and squelching competition. In other words, go against everything we know about how best to encourage innovation and wealth creation. Sure, a lucky minority may get windfalls, but everybody else will suffer from the reduction in economic growth.

Option one is egalitarian liberalism; option two is reactionary collectivism. As a libertarian, I am obliged to point out that perverse incentive effects and political dynamics make it very difficult for option one to work well. But option two is flat out doomed to make matters worse.

America’s Subsidized (and Amazingly Wealthy) Farmers

In a speech in Indiana last week, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Michael Johanns reminded his farm-sector audience that U.S. farmers have perhaps never had it so good:

“For the last three years in a row, farm net worth has grown by an amazing, if not eye-popping, $90 billion per year, and we expect the same to be true in 2006. Farm equity, ladies and gentlemen, well, it’s at a record high today: just an unbelievable $1.6 trillion. And we expect the debt-to-asset ratio, by the end of the year, to be the lowest in 45 years.”

So can somebody explain to me again why the federal government subsidizes and protects American farmers at a cost to American taxpayers and consumers of $40 billion a year?

Schumer’s Epiphany?

I had to do a double take of the by-line of an unabashedly pro-capitalism op-ed (subscription required) in today’s Wall Street Journal. Yes, indeed, that was Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) who co-authored a piece with New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg on the need to rethink stifling regulation of America’s financial services industries, and to consider tort reform.

Lamenting the relative decline of NYC as the world’s financial capital, Schumer and Bloomberg identify stifling regulation and frivolous law suits in the United States as major factors contributing to London’s and Hong Kong’s relative ascent as premiere locations for initial public offerings in recent years. Among the facts they cite is that in 2005, only one out of the top 24 IPO’s was registered in the United States, while four were registered in London. Moreover, “next year more money will be raised through IPOs in Hong Kong than in either London or New York.”

Schumer and Bloomberg cite regulatory costs that are 15 times higher in the United States than in Britain, an adversarial relationship between “tough cop” regulators and business in the United States, and the surging costs of securities-related class action suits as key factors driving business away from New York’s financial houses. The auditing expenses associated with the requirements of Sarbanes-Oxley are deemed to have grown “beyond anything Congress had anticipated.”

These are indeed serious problems, but it’s hard not to laugh about the irony. Schumer’s never met a regulation he didn’t like. He’s never been a friend of business. Of course he voted for Sarbanes-Oxley, along with all of his colleagues in the Senate, but he also led the charge against Kelloggs, General Mills, and the other cereal companies in the 1990s, when the price of Lucky Charms became unacceptably high to him. Just last summer, Schumer urged federal regulators to examine the behavior of oil companies to make sure they weren’t holding back production. And Schumer has been quick to ascend the podium to decry America’s growing trade deficit, urging, at times, government intervention to “correct” that growing problem.

That Schumer is suddenly opposed to stifling regulation and is saying things that are sure to upset the trial lawyers is welcome news. But it is likely just a fleeting flirtation with enlightenment. Let’s see what happens when someone points out to the Senator that New York’s capacity to attract IPOs, and the foreign investment that follows, is more a cause of the U.S. trade deficit than any “unfair trade” practices he assails. Which cause will he champion then?

The Upside of Nature’s Wrath

Fourteen months after Katrina devastated large swaths of the Gulf Coast, the Commerce Department has finally gotten around to promulgating new regulations that could relax antidumping and countervailing duty restrictions for a temporary period after the next national emergency.

In the weeks following Katrina, some observers (including this one) pointed to the absurdity of maintaining restrictions on foreign cement, lumber, and steel when the costs of those crucial building materials comprised a substantial chunk of the projected reconstruction bill.  Of course, trade restrictions raise the cost of production to U.S. businesses and the cost of living for U.S. citizens everyday.  But the effects of the hurricane provided an extreme example of the lunacy of trade restrictions, which is what was necessary to get the Commerce Department to acknowledge that its protectionist trade policies carry real costs.

The scope of circumstances that will trigger temporary lifting of trade remedy restraints prospectively is a bit unclear, but it requires the president to authorize Commerce “to permit the importation of supplies for use in ‘emergency relief work’ free of antidumping and countervailing duties.”  Considering that emergencies are typically met with a costly (and often mismanaged) federal response, a regulation that actually mandates loosening the federal noose is welcome news indeed.

Now, all we need is a president who will consider it “emergency relief work” to educate policymakers about the predictable impact of constrained supply on price.