Topic: Trade and Immigration

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.

What Goes Around Comes Around

Last week’s formal WTO challenge of certain Chinese tax laws by the United States should obviate an important reality. If China is running afoul of its commitments and the United States expects China to make amends, the United States must lead by example. That brings us to the zeroing dispute, with its latest twists and turns.

After much internal deliberation, the Commerce Department announced late last year that it would alter its antidumping calculation methodology by no longer “zeroing” dumping margins under the average-to-average comparison methodology in original investigations (described in this post). This decision was in response to a WTO indictment stemming from a complaint filed by the EC in 2003. January 17, 2007 was to be the effective date of the change, but implementation was postponed at the request of Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) and Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY), chairs of the Finance and Ways and Means Committees, respectively, who wanted more time to educate Congress about the ruling, the change in practice, and its implications.

Just before the announced postponement, another indictment was issued by the WTO Appellate Body concerning the zeroing practice in a complaint lodged by Japan in 2004. That ruling was much broader in scope, condemning zeroing under almost every conceivable comparison methodology and in both investigations and administrative reviews.

As a result of that latest ruling, the Ways and Means Committee has been soliciting comments from interested parties on how the United States should respond. Congress and the administration are said to be working closely, exploring U.S. options, one of which is simply NOT to comply. 

Noncompliance is a legitimate option, and that is part of the beauty of the rule of trade law within the WTO. Contrary to the view of some of its detractors, the WTO is not world government. It does not impose the will of some faceless bureaucracy on powerless countries. It does not usurp national sovereignty. On the contrary, the WTO is powerless as a stand-alone entity. Its rules are the product of the consensus of its members, and to establish new rules, consensus among all of its 150 members is required. (This helps explain the slow going of the Doha Round and the eight-year duration of the previously-concluded round of multilateral trade talks — the Uruguay Round). Members do not have to comply with rulings, which are always framed in the benign, “sorry-to-trouble-you” tone that “recommends” that rules or laws or measures be brought into conformity with this or that WTO agreement.

Despite this comply-if-you-will approach, the dispute settlement system has endured 12 years and 358 disputes with compliance or mutually-agreed resolution achieved in every case concluded thus far. One reason for this record of success is that, should members choose not to comply, the complainant whose gripe goes unresolved is often entitled to retaliate or “suspend concessions.” This retaliation often takes the form of raising tariffs, but could include other measures. 

Another incentive to comply is that noncompliance could be contagious. It’s nice to have the theoretical option of disregarding the verdict, but exercising that option can be costly and risky. If the United States chooses to ignore the Appellate Body’s findings in the Japanese zeroing case and fails to revise its zeroing practice, the Chinese may be more inclined to take this approach if and when its tax laws are found to violate its WTO commitments. One of the major justifications for encouraging and welcoming China’s membership in the WTO was that membership would improve prospects that Chinese policies going forward would be transparent, predictable, and fair. And that would encourage greater commercial engagement. If China comes to view its WTO obligations as optional, the economics of the trading system and the political support for it will suffer immensely.

Endorsing the U.S. Trade Complaint Against China

On Friday, the U.S. Trade Representative initiated a formal challenge of various Chinese tax programs within the dispute settlement system of the World Trade Organization. It was only the third formal challenge of Chinese policies since that country joined the WTO in 2001.

Specifically, the United States alleges that Chinese tax policies that encourage production for exportation and that discourage the use of imported materials and components in the production process constitute subsidies that harm U.S. interests and violate the obligations China undertook when it joined the WTO in 2001.

I have been critical of the administration’s various trade policy errors of commission and omission over the years. Last week I lamented U.S. trade representative Susan Schwab’s failure to articulate the broad case for trade.  Today, I have only kudos for the USTR. Not only was the United States well within its rights to bring this case, it was the right thing to do, politically and economically. 

Free trade purists might disagree, arguing that if China wants to subsidize its exports to the United States, Americans should write the Chinese thank you letters for financially supporting our consumption. And accordingly, we shouldn’t intervene if the Chinese want to squander their resources that way. I think that argument holds water up to a point — a point that we are well beyond and where the costs of the status quo outweigh its benefits. 

Yes, we benefit as consumers from subsidized Chinese production, but only until the consensus for a liberal trading order collapses. At that point, retrograde protectionism threatens not only the benefits of that subsidized consumption, but the benefits of trade more generally, and the conditions that make relatively freer trade possible. Furthermore, the U.S. trade relationship with China is wealth-creating in both countries without need of subsidization. Safeguarding continuation of the flow of the benefits of trade to both countries by expecting China (and the United States) to play by the established rules seems a reasonable compromise to me.

The rules-based trading system has been remarkably successful at promoting trade and investment, and its continued success depends upon adherence to its rules and respect for its institutions — particularly by the world’s large economies.

China has demonstrated that it doesn’t respond well to bilateral threats — if for no other reason than its desire to avoid the appearance of being bullied. China knows what its obligations are. But it also knows that one of the many benefits of its membership in the WTO is that its policies are above board unless and until the dispute settlement body of the WTO finds against them. If China wants to drag its feet with respect to compliance and reform, bringing cases against China within the WTO might become fashionable.  

We are already witnessing a deterioration of support for trade and its institutions in the United States precisely because of perceptions that policymakers are doing too little to enforce the existing rules. I don’t advocate knee-jerk invocation of our rights to dispute settlement — there is plenty of room for deliberation and consultation (which is perpetually in play under the radar). 

To the extent that Friday’s actions serve as a release valve for some of the political pressure that has been building in Congress for unilateral actions against China, it is already a success. By bringing the case through formal WTO channels, Congress will see that there are, in fact, alternatives to dangerous, unilateral sanctions. In that sense, this case could reduce the likelihood that Congress intervenes and mucks everything up and it could actually improve long-term prospects for the U.S.-China trade relationship.