Topic: Trade and Immigration

India Reveals Its Preference

My favorite concept in economics (it should tell you something about my dorkiness that I even have a favorite economics concept) is the theory of revealed preference. Basically, this theory (one of Samuelson’s) says that if you want to know the preferences of a rational economic actor, you just need to observe their behavior. It is basically the economists’ way of saying (and showing, using the ubiquitous diagrams) that actions speak louder than words.

India has treated us to a beautiful display of the theory by announcing yesterday that it will unilaterally reduce its tariffs on some goods and reduce its maximum tariff on non-agricultural goods to 10 percent (from a previous cap of 12.5 percent) in an effort to control inflation (more here).

This is the same India that is one of the main hold-outs in the Doha Round of multilateral trade talks. The same India that, in the poisoned atmosphere of the failed talks in Cancun, formed the G-20 in an attempt to assert developing countries “rights,” and to generally disrupt talks. Particularly in the agriculture negotiations, India has been frustratingly adamant that developed countries do more to open markets than developing countries and has been a strong proponent of mechanisms by which developing countries can shield a certain (20 percent, insists India) share of their “sensitive” agricultural products from tariff reductions.

Why, one is then tempted to ask, are India’s trade negotiators still clinging to the same tired mercantilist position in the Doha round, while the treasury goes ahead with (albeit limited) trade liberalization? Bureaucratic inconsistency, perhaps. Or maybe India enjoys, in the theater of the WTO, stickin’ it to the man. It’s a pity that the man they’re stickin’ it to is the man on the Indian street.

China and France May Copy America’s Punitive Tax Penalty on Non-Resident Citizens

America is the world’s only developed nation to impose tax on its citizens that live and work abroad – even though they already are subject to taxation by the foreign country where they reside. As the Wall Street Journal notes, China has decided to adopt this foolish policy:

The U.S. is the only developed nation to tax its citizens abroad. Now China has picked up on Mr. Grassley’s grand idea. From March 31, all mainland citizens working abroad will be taxed on their world-wide income. That might give some comfort to U.S. protectionists worried about China’s labor competitiveness, even though mainland employees aren’t so far a huge force abroad. But as America is now discovering, punitive taxation is an export that comes with a high price.

Not surprisingly, French socialists are intrigued by this self-destructive form of double-taxation. A column in The American comments on Segolene Royal’s interest in extending bad French tax laws to those who have escaped to friendlier jurisdictions:

…a report recently prepared for Royal’s camp floated a creative proposal—a “citizen contribution” (read: tax) for all French citizens residing abroad. The “contribution” would be designed to collect revenues from all French people residing abroad, irrespective of their reasons for leaving France: businessmen, families, retired workers, successful artists, etc. would all be affected. Former finance Minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn laid out the rationale: “It is no longer acceptable that French citizens be able to escape taxes by installing themselves outside of France. We propose to define a citizen contribution that will be paid in accordance with contributive capacities by each Frenchman residing abroad who does not pay taxes in France.” … If she implements her Socialist rhetoric, like Mitterrand in the early 1980s, financial forces beyond her control will quickly force her to change. For France’s sake, it is a situation she would do well to avoid.

Would You Like Fries with that Arrogance?

This isn’t really my beat, but it pushed my buttons (and not in a good way) all the same. Prince Charles, first in line for the British throne, has reportedly called for a ban on McDonald’s.

A known organic food advocate, Prince Charles was touring a diabetes center in Abu Dhabi when he made what McDonald’s assumes was an “off the cuff” remark about how banning McDonald’s was the “key” to improving diets.

This offends me on so many levels. First, as a libertarian I object to anyone telling others what they can put in their mouths. Second, the fact that the remarks come from someone whose power is derived solely through heredity (and, to my knowledge, has no qualifications in nutrition or public health) annoys me even more.

But mainly I am offended by the gall of a Brit casting aspersions on the quality of any cuisine.

“Cleaning Those Foreigners’ Clocks”

While a lame argument is disappointing for the opportunity cost of having read it, a lame argument put forth as rebuttal to one’s own assertions can be affirming.  But, to paraphrase a colleague, there’s nothing better than being challenged with lame arguments by adversaries who have wide media circulation.  For that, I thank you, Pat Buchanan.

Buchanan takes exception to the arguments I make in this piece, which appeared in the Washington Times last week.  The theme of my op-ed was that Congress should curtail its instinct to blame trade for everything that’s wrong with America.  I even go as far as to suggest that, with strong economic growth, strong job creation, and a low rate of unemployment, things might not be all that bad in America.  And at the very least, Congress should take the time to honestly assess the meaning of the trade deficit.  What Congress would find is that the deficit is highly pro-cyclical (meaning that is shrinks when the economy contracts, it grows when the economy expands, and grows faster when the economy grows faster – see some of Dan Griswold’s work on this topic).  I also suggested that the trade account has very little to do with trade policy, and much more to do with demand in the United States and abroad, as well as differences in habits of savings and consumption.

For those empirically sound (and verifiable) assertions, Buchanan lampoons libertarians for possessing some religious-like devotion to their beliefs regardless of the facts before taking two of my points out of context to serve as springboards into his xenophobic, isolationist, nationalistic rage.

When we win at trade, it doesn’t mean they lose (“cleaning those foreigners’ clocks”).  We are all winning at trade as the economic pie grows larger and larger—so much so that the large U.S. economy can grow at a moderate-to-strong pace every year with the exception of two for the past quarter century, while the small-to-medium-sized Chinese economy simultaneously can grow by double digits every year during the same period.  

But rather than reinvent the wheel under which arguments like Buchanan’s have been reliably squashed throughout the years, I invite you to peruse this collection of timeless commentaries from Cato scholars and others about Buchanan-like views on trade and globalization.

The Growing Welfare State

Unemployment is low, the stock market is booming, we’ve had 10 years of welfare reform – and “America’s welfare state is bigger than ever,” reports the Associated Press.

The number of families receiving cash benefits from welfare has plummeted since the government imposed time limits on the payments a decade ago. But other programs for the poor, including Medicaid, food stamps and disability benefits, are bursting with new enrollees.

The result, according to an Associated Press analysis: Nearly one in six people rely on some form of public assistance, a larger share than at any time since the government started measuring two decades ago.

Note that this story only looks at the welfare state for the poor. Far more than one in six Americans are dependent on such government programs as Social Security, Medicare, unemployment compensation, and so on, as Sen. Jim DeMint has been warning for years. More than 48 million people received a Social Security check last year, for instance.

But the AP investigation does show the weakness of welfare reform after 10 years. As Cato scholars have noted, many people have left the “welfare rolls” only to remain dependent on Medicaid, food stamps, housing subsidies, and other means-tested transfer programs.

The AP report was printed on many newspaper websites, but it didn’t appear in the nation’s largest papers. It should get more attention. Presidential candidates should be asked whether they think it’s bad that almost 50 million Americans are on welfare or welfare-related programs. What would they do to reduce dependency? And how long can a nation remain free if half its citizens are dependent on government hand-outs?

Fine-Tuning Competition

The Washington Post reports today that the Justice Department has ordered Arcelor Mittal (the world’s biggest steel company) to sell off its Sparrows Point mill in Baltimore “to preserve competition in the eastern U.S. tin mill market.” 

Prior to the Arcelor-Mittal merger last year, three firms supplied most of the tin mill products (steel used for food, paint, and aerosol cans, etc.) consumed in the eastern United States: U.S. Steel, Mittal, and a Canadian subsidiary of Arcelor.  Post-merger, only two firms supply most of the tin to that market and the Justice Department deems that to be a threat to competition. 

Interestingly, just eight months ago, the U.S. International Trade Commission voted to continue antidumping restraints against tin mill products from Japan, citing a domestic industry that was vulnerable to a recurrence of injury from imports in the foreseeable future. 

So, while the Justice Department forces companies to break up to promote competition, the ITC sanctions duties to quell it.  If both agencies took long sabbaticals, I suspect the competition thing would resolve itself.

U.S. to Comply with WTO Ruling on Zeroing

I have been warning on this blog that U.S. failure to comply with the latest WTO ruling against the antidumping calculation technique known as zeroing could open a Pandora’s box that could undermine and eventually destroy the rules-based trading system.  Well, in the words of the old Gilda Radner character from SNL, Emily Litella, “Nevermind!”

The U.S. mission in Geneva announced yesterday that, despite its view that the Appellate Body’s decision was intrusive and wrongheaded, the United States intends to comply.  That is very good news, for at least two reasons. 

First, zeroing severely and unjustly inflates antidumping duty assessments and collections, creating bigger trade barriers.  Depriving the Commerce Department of that methodological trick will undoubtedly lead to lower dumping margins overall.

Second, it is important that the United States show some respect for the outcomes of dispute settlement.  Berating and disregarding those outcomes only serves to erode support for the system.  And if the United States expects to get some mileage as a complainant out of its likely string of cases before the WTO (a subsidy case against China was filed two weeks ago, and the Democratic congress is at least rhetorically fixated on enforcement, enforcement, enforcement), it should show some deference to the rules.

Compliance with the zeroing ruling will likely take at least one year (and probably more), so it’s not entirely out of the question that sentiments could change in Congress or the administration before then. 

On the broader question of whether the WTO dispute settlement system is fair, please check out the online debate between Robert Lighthizer and myself, hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations.