Topic: Trade and Immigration

America’s “Help Wanted” Signs

While the U.S. House and Senate compete with each other to see who can authorize the longest wall along our border with Mexico, evidence continues to grow that the U.S. economy could use more foreign-born workers. Here are three examples from just the past few days:

The Washington Post reported this morning, in an article headlined, “Visas for skilled workers still frozen,” that the number of H1-B visas available each year remains capped at a number far below the ongoing needs of U.S. employers. As the article explains: “[M]any of the country’s largest technology companies and most prestigious research laboratories have said they are unable to find enough U.S.-born scientists and similar workers to fill their openings. … But only 65,000 H-1B visas are issued each year, and demand has been so high recently that all of them are taken instantaneously.”

Earlier in the week, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, Richard Fisher, noted in a speech in Monterrey, Mexico, that the U.S. economy has reached full employment and is beginning to feel the pinch of labor shortages in certain sectors. As Fisher told his audience:

I am hearing more and more reports about the difficulty of finding labor to work our oil fields or run our chemical plants. Bankers complain of a paucity of bank clerks and tellers. Truckers are experiencing a shortage of drivers. In Houston, we are hearing complaints about the difficulty of finding cashiers for retail establishments. A major hotelier told me last week that there is a shortage of housekeeping staff. … companies are now voicing the kinds of complaints about labor shortages most often heard in a full employment economy.

Adding to the evidence, a major report released Wednesday on the need to modernize America’s agricultural policies included a recommendation that Congress enact comprehensive immigration reform. The report, by a task force appointed by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, noted, “Immigrants today play a vital role in nearly every aspect of our agricultural and food processing system, often taking jobs that are low-paying or shunned by native-born workers.” The report cited Hmong poultry producers in the Ozarks and Hispanic workers in the meat processing plants in the Midwest, calling such workers “vital to the [agricultural] sector’s competitiveness.”

As members of Congress seek to reform U.S. immigration law, they should keep in mind that our nation’s economy is made stronger and more dynamic when peaceful, hard-working people are allowed to come here legally to fill jobs that not enough Americans are willing or able to fill.  

Tariff Bill Would Punish Millions of American Families

In an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal (subscription req.), Senators Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) threaten to demand a vote on their bill that would drastically raise tariffs on imports from China if the Chinese government does not move quickly to strengthen the value of its currency.           

The senators claim that China’s currency, the yuan, is 15 to 40 percent undervalued against the dollar, giving Chinese imports an unfair advantage in the U.S. market and discouraging U.S. exports to China. China revalued its currency by 2.1 percent last summer and it has appreciated another 2 percent since then, but the senators say this is not enough. They blame China’s currency for our large bilateral trade deficit with China and the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs. Their bill would impose a hefty 27.5 percent tariff if China does not sharply revalue its currency within six months after the bill’s passage.

In a Cato Trade Briefing Paper, “Who’s Manipulating Whom?” published in July, I documented the fact that imports from China have not reduced America’s overall manufacturing output. In fact, since China fixed its currency in 1994, real output at U.S. factories has actually increased by 50 percent. The sectors where China is most competitive—lower-end, labor-intensive goods such as shoes, clothing, and toys—have been in decline in the United States for decades. Goods we used to import from other countries anyway are now imported directly from China. U.S. factories employ fewer workers than they did a decade ago not primarily because of imports from China but because remaining workers are so much more productive.

Imposing the steep tariff called for in the senators’ bill would surely hurt workers and producers in China, but it would also victimize millions of American consumers. More than three-quarters of what we imported from China last year were goods Americans use every day in their homes and offices—not only all those shoes, clothing items, and toys, but also sporting goods, bicycles, TVs, radios, stereos, and personal and laptop computers. The Schumer-Graham bill would be a direct, regressive tax on millions of low- and middle-income American families. It would also jeopardize tens of billions of dollars of sales American companies now make in China, our major, growing export market.

Chances are slim that the Schumer-Graham bill will become law anytime soon, but the fact that such a reckless piece of legislation would be considered on the floor of the Senate should be as troubling to Americans as to the Chinese.

Doctors without Borders

I have to join Ezra Klein in copying in its entirety this Dean Baker post to The American Prospect’s blog Tapped:

NPR had a piece this morning on the possibiity that Medicare reimbursements for doctors will be cut. It told listeners that if this cut went into effect, then there may be a shortage of doctors who are willing to serve Medicare beneficiaries.

In other contexts, such as supplies of farm workers, custodians, and restaurant workers, NPR has told listeners that shortages meant that the country needed immigrant workers. No one interviewed for this segment mentioned the possibility of more immigrant doctors, even though doctors receive much higher pay in the United States than they do in the developing world, or even Europe. Surely, if the United States worked to eliminate the barriers that make it difficult for foreigners to train to U.S. standards and practice in the United States, there would be large numbers of foreign physicians who would be willing to do the work that NPR tells us American workers do not want to do.

The great thing about economic models is that you can use the same models for almost anything, you just have to change the words that appear on the axis. If getting immigrants, who will accept low pay, to work in our farms and factories makes economic sense, then getting foreign doctors, who are willing to accept low pay, also makes sense. Maybe NPR will one day get reporters who know economics, if we elimiante [sic] barriers to trade among journalists.

Perhaps a cut in Medicare reimbursements could spark a conversation about liberalizing immigration and licensure restrictions on physicians and allied health professionals.

Peter Mandelson Still Wants to Date Us, He Was Just Washing His Hair

The Cairns Group is a group of 18 major agricultural exporting nations. This week they held their 20th anniversary meeting in Cairns, Australia (the site of their first meeting, hence the name of the group). Unfortunately, but perhaps predictably, they were able to make little headway in moving the struggling Doha round of trade talks forward. (The special importance to agriculture in the Doha talks was presumed to give the Cairns Group a strong voice.)

There are a few reasons for this:

First, the Cairns Group has lost some of its gravitas now that the G-20 (a developing country block of WTO members that was formed and at least partly responsible for the disastrous end to the 2003 WTO meeting in Cancun) has entered the fray. The G-20 (which has some overlap in membership with the Cairns Group) is less inclined toward liberalization in general, unless it is liberalization in other countries.

Second, and more importantly, the EU’s trade commissioner, Peter Mandelson, refused to attend the Cairns meetings because of a “prior commitment.” I’ve used that excuse to get out of an unappetizing social engagement, too, Mr. Mandelson, and I’m almost always telling a white lie. In this case, however, the refusal to attend is not so “white.”

Mr. Mandelson’s job, and inclination if we are to believe his press statements, is to do all he can to revive these talks. Mandelson is visiting the United States for talks with U.S. trade representative Susan Schwab, agriculture secretary Mike Johanns, and congressional leaders next week so he’s not completely disengaged. But sending Smithers EU Ambassador to the WTO, Carlos Trojan, to Cairns in his place was not appropriate.

The upshot of having a conspicuously empty seat in Cairns: yet more sniping. The EU (through Ambassador Trojan and comments from his Brussels master) and the United States both dismissed the Australian compromise of lowering EU tariffs by a further 5 percent and U.S. farm support by an extra $5 billion. Then, both members said that the other needs to move first. 

The best, possibly only, chance for a Doha result is between November (i.e., post mid-term elections in the United States) and March, when the U.S. administration’s fast-track authority deadline really starts to pinch. A small window indeed.

Getting Better All the Time (Generally)

A few weeks ago, Don Boudreaux (on Cafe Hayek) and Will (here at Cato@Liberty) offered a thought experiment challenging the claim that American middle class living standards have been stagnant since the 1970s.

The stagnancy claim is rooted in federal statistics indicating that middle class wages have barely kept pace with inflation. Since childhood, I’ve heard many sober-faced adults (including some of my political science and econ professors in undergrad) voice this claim by saying that my generations would “be the first to have lower living standards than its parents.”

Don and Will respond to this claim by pointing out that the quality of “stuff” that a person can purchase with those wages has increased dramatically over that time. Federal statistics may see no difference between X real dollars spent on an 8-track player in 1970 and the same X real dollars spent on an iPod today, but consumers certainly do (especially joggers who don’t have to lug 8-track players and extension cords on their evening runs).

This response is the thesis of today’s New York Times “Economix” column by David Leonhardt. Leonhardt opens the article describing Chicagoan (and Northwestern economist) Robert J. Gordon and his snowblower:

“People can die from shoveling snow,” Mr. Gordon said. “I bet a lot of lives have been saved by snow blowers.”

Yet the benefits of the snow blower, namely more free time and less health risk, are largely missing from the government’s attempts to determine Americans’ economic well-being. The same goes for dozens of other inventions, be they air-conditioners, cellphones or medical devices. The reasons are a little technical — they involve the measurement of inflation — but they’re important to understand, because the implications are so large.

Gordon has worked on quantifying those benefits. The Times nicely captures the contrast between his research and the “stagnancy” federal data in this graphic on the median earnings for men, and notes that women do even better:

Two Views of Pay

This leads to two important conclusions:

  1. Living standards have improved markedly since the early 1980s.
  2. There has been a decline since about 2002.

Cato@Liberty readers may grumble about Leonhardt’s final graf, but the article is a great read.

As for my former profs, instead of their sobering worries, perhaps they should drop some Jiffy-pop in the microwave, turn on their plasma-screen TV, plop a Netflix in the DVD player or flip on the TiVo, and relax.

The United States of Agriculture?

Every year, Congress spends nearly $20 billion and maintains steep trade barriers to benefit a small group of farmers growing one of about half a dozen “program crops.” A hearing on U.S. farm policy before the full House Agricultural Committee today illustrates the problem beautifully.

All farmers together make up less than 2 percent of the U.S. population, and those receiving federal production subsidies or trade protection are less than 1 percent of the population. Yet our farm programs are designed not to serve the interests of the 99+ percent of us who pay the taxes and consume the food, but the small fraction who grow certain favored crops. In fact, U.S. farm programs benefit a small number of producers at the expense the majority and the nation as a whole.

[In a major Cato study last year, we documented six ways that current U.S. farm programs hurt the average American—through higher food prices, lost jobs, more government spending, environmental damage, stifling of rural development, and the undermining of America’s image abroad. We also hosted a policy forum last month featuring the pro-reform Secretary of Agriculture Michael Johanns.]

So why do these programs persist despite their cost to the general public? Classic interest group politics. Agricultural producers, although small in number, are concentrated, well organized, and highly motivated to save programs that can mean big bucks to their bottom line. Meanwhile the mass of consumers and taxpayers, although an overwhelming majority, are diffused, disorganized and mostly unaware of the cost they pay as individuals for those same programs.

Which brings us to today’s hearing in the House. Who do you think Congress will be hearing from as it begins to rewrite the farm bill? Of the 17 witnesses, not a single one will represent taxpayers, consumers, or non-farm businesses that use those commodities to make their final products. Every witness represents a sector of farm producers. No wonder Congress routinely ignores the interest of the vast majority of its constituents when it writes farm legislation.

Here is the witness list:

Bob Stallman - president, American Farm Bureau Federation

Tom Buis - president, National Farmers Union

Allen B. Helms Jr. - chairman, National Cotton Council, Clarkedale, Ark.

Paul T. Combs - chairman, USA Rice Producers’ Group, Kennett, Mo.

Dale Schuler - president, National Association of Wheat Growers, Carter, Mont.

Gerald Tumbleson - president, National Corn Growers Association, Sherburn, Minn.

John R. Hoffman - first vice president, American Soybean Association, Waterloo, Iowa, also representing National Sunflower Association and U.S. Canola Association

Greg Shelo - president, National Grain Sorghum Producers Association, Minneola, Kan.

Jim Wysocki - president, National Potato Council, Bandcroft, Wis., representing Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance and National Potato Council

Jack Roney - director of economics and policy analysis, American Sugar Alliance

Mark Kaiser - board member, Alabama Peanut Producers Association, Seminole, Ala., representing Alabama Peanut Producers Association, Florida Peanut Producers Association, Georgia Peanut Commission and Mississippi Peanut Growers Association

Richard Groven - vice president, National Barley Growers Association, Northwood, N.D.

Jim Evans - chairman, USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council Inc., Genesee, Idaho

Mike John - president, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, Huntsville, Mo.

Joy Philippi - president, National Pork Producers Council, Bruning, Neb.

Ron Truex - president and general manager, Creighton Brothers, Atwood, Ind., representing United Egg Producers

Paul R. Frischknecht - president, American Sheep Industry, Manti, Utah.

Speak with Forked Tongue; Carry Large 2x4

The next time you meet a Canadian at a cocktail party and consider invoking fuzzy feelings of fraternity by toasting our countries’ recent softwood lumber accord, better to just smile, nod your head, and stare intently at your shoes.  Calling the U.S.-Canada Softwood Lumber Agreement (2006) an “agreement” mocks the fact that the Canadians had no viable alternative but to sign on the dotted line.

One option was to endure the cost and uncertainty of continuous litigation, continued restrictions on their lumber exports, and the specter of never again seeing the $5.3 billion in duties collected illegally by U.S. Customs on previous exports.  The other option was for Canadians to agree to impose export restraints (in the form of export taxes or quotas) on their lumber and see the return of about 80 percent of that $5.3 billion.

The U.S.-Canada softwood lumber dispute dates back many decades, but the most recent spate of protection, rulings, and edicts relates to litigation that began in the early 1980s, evolved into the Softwood Lumber Agreement of 1996, and then produced new trade remedy cases and a string of litigation beginning in 2001, when SLA 1996 expired.  (This paper attempts to present a chronology of events—but the most recent events are not documented therein.)

Make no mistake: the United States is the villain in the lumber dispute. 

Its agencies administered the trade remedy laws illegally and when they were required to make amends, pursuant to the terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement, they refused.

In short, antidumping duties can be imposed if the petitioning industry is materially injured by reason of dumped imports; countervailing duties can be imposed if the petitioning industry is materially injured by reason of subsidized imports.  In 2002, the United States imposed both antidumping and countervailing duties on Canadian softwood, which prompted Canada to challenge those findings under NAFTA’s dispute settlement procedures.  The NAFTA panel found that the U.S. International Trade Commission failed to meet the legal threshold for finding injury, and that the Commerce Department failed to find, legally, dumping or countervailable subsidization.

Second, third, and fourth attempts by those agencies to render affirmative findings within the law were also found wanting by the NAFTA panel, which eventually ordered the agencies to revoke the measures.  The United States refused, and instead insisted that an agreement to limit Canadian lumber sales was the only way to resolve the issue.  By that point, U.S. Customs had collected about $5 billion on softwood imported from Canada pursuant to those illegal antidumping and countervailing duty measures.  The U.S. industry was insistent that those monies be distributed to them, as beneficiaries of the now-repealed Byrd Amendment.  The importers (and the Canadian producers to whom many were related) demanded that those duties be refunded promptly.

Well, an ugly compromise was struck in the form of the Softwood Lumber Agreement (2006).  Under its terms, the importers/producers will be refunded about 80 percent of their rightful $5.3 billion, and despite the illegality of the measures and the fact that the United States completely disregarded its NAFTA obligations, the domestic petitioners will keep about $500 million and the U.S. government (actually, the Bush administration—these funds will be outside the domain of congressional appropriators) will keep about $450 million to be used for “meritorious initiatives.”  Such initiatives will include low-income housing projects, disaster relief, and various other vote-purchasing endeavors.

Meanwhile, the days when you could just pick up the phone, dial your favorite Canadian lumber producer, and place an order for 100 pallets of 2x4s at $344 per thousand board feet are over.  No longer will the purchasing agents at Home Depot, True Value Hardware, Ryan Homes, and elsewhere be able to negotiate lumber volumes and prices based on quaint considerations like supply and demand.  Canadian lumber will be required to sell for a minimum of $345 per thousand board feet.  If prices dip below that level, Canadian exports will be subject to a combination of export taxes (ranging from 5 to 15 percent) and volume restrictions.  So yes, the agreement does allow freedom of lumber trade to reign, as long as the prices are high enough.  Once the benefits of trade go too far and actually provide cost savings for consumers, freedom will be reined in.

On so many different levels, U.S. actions and attitudes in the lumber dispute–and the interventionist outcome it produced–betray an administration that is only rhetorically commited to free trade.  And that can’t possibly ignite the embers of global trade liberalization.