Topic: Trade and Immigration

A New Solution to the Trade Deficit ‘Problem’

I’ll be honest with you folks — in Australia we have an expression, “Only in America!” It is used whenever outlandish, seemingly crazy, or especially unusual ideas or events occur over here. It is frequently used by news-readers. Please don’t be offended.

Anyway, I am proposing a new expression, “Only from Congress.” It could be used to describe, well, whenever an outlandish, seemingly crazy, or especially unusual idea is announced by members of Congress. And to kick things off, I would like to introduce the first item for your consideration.

Two Democratic senators, Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, have proposed that any company wishing to import goods into America would need a government-issued certificate. The senators, according to this New York Times article (link requires subscription), view this as a “market-based system to cut the trade deficit to zero within 10 years.”

It would work thus: Any company that exports goods would be issued an import certificate that would allow it to import goods. The “exchange rate” would fall from $1.40 in the first year (i.e., $1 worth of exports would earn $1.40 worth of imports), to $1.30 in the second year, and so on until we achieve “balance.” If a company does not wish to import anything, it can sell the import certificate to someone who does. I guess that’s the “market-based” part.

Sherman Katz of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace was quoted in the article as saying that “’it looks on the face of it to represent an enormous intrusion of government activity into business totaling trillions of dollars each year.”

“Enormous” doesn’t seem to quite capture it though, does it? How about “insane”?

Can you imagine the type of federal oversight this would require? And how would our trade partners react to the U.S. market being restricted in this way?

And what about oil? Ah, the wise senators have already thought of that. Oil would be given a 10-year phase-in, to allow the economy “time to find and develop alternative energy supplies.”

Imports of goods keep inflation in check and imports of capital keep interest rates down and help finance economic growth. Restricting imports would necessarily restrict capital flows into the economy because of the necessary balance between the current and capital accounts. To bring investment in line with savings, domestic interest rates would need to rise, reducing investment and economic growth. (More here.)

Question for the senators: What sort of certificate would you issue to cope with those sorts of macroeconomic effects?

I’m guessing we can expect lots of “Only from Congress” ideas in the coming campaign season. I’m excited.

Don’t Count on China

Following on from the visit last month of United States Trade Representative Susan Schwab, the Director-General of the World Trade Organization, Pascal Lamy, is visiting China this week to drum up Chinese support for reviving the Doha round of multilateral trade negotiations. He appears to have been given the same non-response as the USTR.

The Chinese have put the ball squarely back in the court of the EU and the United States, saying it was up to the major developed countries to take the lead in reviving the talks. (full story here).

China has so far kept very quiet in the trade talks, limiting their participation to argue for a ‘time out’ from trade liberalization for newly-acceded members. Having given major “concessions” to join the club, they figure they’ve paid their dues and should be given time to soak up the atmosphere. And given the often poisonous rhetoric surrounding China’s role in the world economy (not least from certain U.S. Congressmen), one can hardly blame them from keeping their heads below the parapet in the negotiations proper.

It is true, as Ambassador Schwab and DG Lamy have argued, that China has gained a lot from joining the WTO (although many of those gains would have been realized anyway as a result of unilaterally liberalizing their economy) and would stand to lose from a failed WTO. Similarly, China should be held to account for the commitments it made upon joining the WTO. But expecting China to take a more active role in the negotiations, and reverse their stance of the past five or so years, is a bit much. And, as they have proved on the currency issue, the Chinese won’t be bullied.

The “quiet diplomacy” to revive the round will likely continue, including at the IMF and World Bank shindigs later this month. But if a miracle occurs and the Doha round is concluded, it won’t be because of China’s efforts.

Rural Newspaper Calls for the President and the Senate to “Mind Their Business”

The Enid News and Eagle posted an opinion article last week on the new farm bill. Admittedly, it is a rural paper (based in Enid, Oklahoma) catering to a rural readership. Most of you will probably not have seen it. But I was struck by a number of passages.

Take this one, for starters:

“It seems the 2002 farm bill was one of the more popular farm bills to come out in the history of farm bills, according to Frank Lucas. The Third District representative has been traveling the state getting input from agricultural officials and farmers on what should be included in the 2007 version of the farm bill.”

Of course the 2002 Farm Bill was popular, Congressman, at least with the “agricultural officials and farmers” you are talking to. A significant backtrack from previous farm bills, payments to farmers under the 2002 Farm Bill are projected to average over US$20 billion per year from 2005 to 2007. Agriculture officials are hardly going to support huge cuts to the agriculture budget, either.

Or consider this gem:

“…the House committee knows the most about agriculture and has the most contact with the people it will affect…”

The Enid News and Eagle is suggesting that the “people it will affect” are farmers and ranchers. This is undeniably true. But this farm bill, like all the others before it, will also affect every taxpayer and consumer of food in the country, not to mention commodity producers abroad. (more here)

On the one hand, it seems fairly reasonable that as part of the 2007 Farm Bill preparations, the administration and House and Senate Committee Members are holding a series of hearings all over the country. But on the other, who shows up to those hearings? Is it the consumers and taxpayers who, while collectively shelling out billions of dollars every year to agricultural subsidies and paying over-market prices, shoulder relatively little burden as individuals? No. Most of them have jobs to go to and little incentive to harangue Congressmen and officials. Farmers, on the other hand, are relatively well organized and have large incentive to ask for more money (or, in their more modest moments, ‘just’ the status quo).

Finally, for good measure, the Enid News and Eagle proposes letting the House agriculture committee and the farmers have full and exclusive rights over the farm bill:

“While we encourage input from farmers and ranchers, we discourage a lot of input in the bill from the president and the Senate.”

I’m new to this country, but isn’t there supposed to be a system of checks and balances here? Why do these opinion writers assert that there is no role for the administration or the Senate in crafting a new farm bill? While I, too, think there should be “little input” from government in farm policy, I don’t restrict my skepticism to only one chamber and the president.

If you missed our forum today on the farm bill, you can watch it here within the next 24 to 48 hours.

Hat-tip to Keith Good for the tip on the Enid News and Eagle.

More Welfare, More Poverty

News that the poverty rate remained at 12.6 percent last year, statistically unchanged from the year before, has set off a predictable round of calls for increased government spending on social welfare programs.

Yet, last year, the federal government spent more than $477 billion on some 50 different programs to fight poverty.  That amounts to $12,892 for every poor man, woman, and child in this country.  And, it does not even begin to count welfare spending by state and local governments.  For all the talk about Republican budget cuts, spending on these social programs has increased an inflation-adjusted 22 percent since President Bush took office.

Despite this government largesse, 37 million Americans continue to live in poverty.  In fact, despite nearly $9 trillion in total welfare spending since Lyndon Johnson declared War on Poverty in 1964, the poverty rate is perilously close to where we began more than 40 years ago.

One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.  What does that say about our welfare policy?

Boudreaux’s Time Machine

Over at Cafe Hayek, George Mason economics chair and Cato adjunct scholar Don Boudreaux has come up with a wonderful thought experiment to illustrate just how absurdly inaccurate the government’s methods for calculating real wages are. Don looks at the Census Bureau report (from the depths of which the New York Times editorial page draws forth the blackest despair) and finds that real median family income has increased an unimpressive 31 percent in the 37 years from 1967 to 2004. In 1967 it was $35,379 (in 2004 dollars), and in 2004 it was $46,326.

Are we really only 31 percent–less the 1 percent a year–better off? Don’s thought experiment asks us to imagine that the incomes and years are swapped, and then see how we feel. Would you rather live in 1967 on $46,000 a year (the 2004 median), or in 2004 on $35,000 (the 1967 median).

Let’s take it up a notch. So, it’s 2004 and you make $35,000 (let’s pretend it’s individual, instead of family income). A gangly professor with crazy hair drives up in a time-traveling Delorean and offers you the 1967 equivalent of $46,000 (that’s a 31 percent raise!) if you’ll let him drop you off in 1967, where you’ll live for one year. You say, “Right on!” and take a lift to yesterday.

So now you’re in 1967 with about $8,500 in your pocket, and you’re ready to roll. Have you become wealthier?

Well, as Don notes, housing is smaller and more expensive. Central air conditioning, I should add, is a luxury. Your expensive and ridiculously large (but not the screen) TV gets three channels with fuzzy reception. No Deadwood (or the Wire, or Weeds, or Sports Center, or Project Runway, or Good Eats, etc.) for you! It’s a darn fine year for rock & roll, but you’d like to be able to listen to Dylan on your iPod (you used to download anything you wanted to listen to on demand) or in your car. Your car! It costs almost exactly the same as a 2004 car, but is less comfortable, has no auto anything, gets horrifying gas mileage, and is a death trap without a shoulder belt, airbags, or anti-lock brakes. It handles like a whale. You start to think your Jetta back in 2004 has rather more than an $11,000 edge on this bucket. That makes you a little depressed. Which is a problem, because your Prozac prescription ran out and there’s no recourse but a Freudian therapist who tells you your malaise has something to do with your mother. Trying to look on the bright side, you attempt to be grateful that you don’t need Cialis, or chemotheraphy. The food is terrible. You can’t get a cup of coffee that doesn’t taste like cardboard. The book stores seem to have nothing. A simple calculator costs about the same as your Blackberry. You lose a contact lens, and end up with Coke bottle “birth control” glasses. You want to go home.

The professor materializes again and tells you that he lied. Ha! You’re not staying for a year. You’re staying for the rest of your life. But he guarantees your salary each year will be that year’s inflation-adjusted equivalent of the salary that you have in the “stayed-in-2004” timeline. (In 1973, you’ll get your 2010 wages, etc.) You start to cry (no Prozac!). The professor exclaims, “What’s the problem, kid? You’ll always be wealthier than you would have been. And besides, it’s a simpler time. People bowl together!”
You get the idea. Don has a bunch of great examples of things you can’t get in 1967, only some of which I stole.

How much would you have to be paid each year to agree to live the rest of your life from 1967 on? Maybe I’m weird, since my entire life would be different–and almost certainly worse–if it wasn’t for the Internet. (I almost certainly wouldn’t have most of my friends, my very cool job, and more.) There are so many things I rely upon that you couldn’t buy at any price in 1967 that it’s pretty hard to think of a number that’s high enough to compensate for the loss. Personally, I don’t care that much about improvements in TV picture quality, or even how comfortable, safe, and gadget-laden cars are now. It’s the things that just didn’t exist in 1967 that do it for me.

Here’s another thought experiment: Suppose you get a medical procedure with new technology that saves your life. It didn’t exist last year, but now it does. If you had been sick like this last year, you’d be gone. So, in a year, you went from a condition in which no amount of money would have been able to save you from death, to one in which a mere $10,000 buys you the ability to see your daughter’s wedding. How much wealthier did you become in the space of that year? Is it more than 31 percent?

When Generous People Stop Kidding Themselves

Over at Tapped, Ezra Klein is wrestling with my interpretation of the new estimates of poverty and health insurance coverage released yesterday by the Census Bureau. I observed that after the 1996 welfare reforms made federal cash assistance less “generous,” poverty went down. In contrast, federal health care spending grew ever more “generous,” and the number of uninsured went up. I humbly submitted that perhaps Congress should stop being so “generous” with health care.

Klein thinks that’s “crazy,” but he misfires on poverty rates:

  1. He suggests that economic growth of the late 1990s and the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit were responsible for the post-1996 reductions in poverty. (The EITC does not directly affect the poverty rate, but it does affect the decision to earn other income that does.) Certainly each played a part. But prior economic booms did not have as dramatic an effect on the poverty rate even when the EITC was present, and scholars like June O’Neill have estimated that welfare reform had larger effects than did the economy. Moreover, although the EITC encourages some people to work more, it reduces work overall by encouraging others – those in the phase-out range – to work less. That might lift some out of poverty, but it traps them and others on the lower rungs of the economic ladder.
  2. He notes that poverty has increased every year from 2000 to 2004. True, but he is being selective in order to avoid the larger point that poverty remains lower now than at any point in the 17 years leading up to welfare reform. (Also, FWIW, poverty dropped slightly in 2005.)
  3. He confuses the poverty rate for families (9.9 in 2005) with the overall poverty rate (12.6 percent in 2005).
  4. Finally, he notes that the family poverty rate was lower in 2005 than in 1996. Yet he somehow believes this to be evidence that federal cash assistance does not contribute to poverty.

The political Left has had a really hard time dealing with welfare reform. When Congress pared back cash assistance, the Left assumed that bad things would happen (increased poverty, starvation, etc.). Instead, good things happened. But that evidence doesn’t fit in the Left’s model. They just don’t know where to put it.

Klein is as confused about the health care side of the comparison.

  1. Klein writes: “I don’t know any health care wonks who think medical cost inflation is a product of government spending…” He should get out more. He should start by hanging out with Maryland’s Mark Duggan and Yale’s Fiona Scott Morton, who estimate that prescription drugs are 13 percent more expensive in the private sector thanks to Medicaid. He should read up on crowd-out of private health insurance, which isn’t likely to make private insurance markets any more robust. Many people think that cost-shifting from Medicaid increases the cost of private coverage. Personally, I’d call that crowd-out of another sort, but the effect is the same. Klein should read about how MIT’s Amy Finkelstein speculates that Medicare led to increased medical expenditures in the private sector as well. All of which affects insurance premiums.
  2. Klein dismisses the idea of reforming Medicaid as Congress reformed welfare – by cutting back assistance. But that’s exactly what Congress did when it cut off Medicaid for non-citizen immigrants in 1996. Do I need to tell you what the Left predicted? Do I need to tell you what actually happened? Klein should add to his reading list Harvard’s George Borjas, who found that coverage levels for non-citizen immigrants increased after they were cut from the Medicaid rolls – a result that, Borjas argues, cannot be explained by the robust economy.
  3. Finally, Klein writes that yours truly “[doesn’t] want Big Government to start pummeling the medical-industrial complex.” But as I argue elsewhere, so long as the government controls the money, the medical-industrial complex will never get the beating it deserves because producers will always have a disproportionate influence over political decisions that effect their incomes. We will not discipline the medical-industrial complex until we have patients on the side of restraining spending, and that will not happen until patients own the money that’s being spent. Libertarians would love to pummel the medical-industrial complex. It would be (marginally) easier to do so were Klein to get out of the way.

Klein’s post reminds me of the passage Charles Murray used to close his seminal work Losing Ground:

Most of us want to help. It makes us feel bad to think of neglected children and rat-infested slums, and we are happy to pay for the thought that people who are good at taking care of such things are out there. If the numbers of neglected children and the numbers of rats seem to be going up instead of down, it is understandable that we choose to focus on how much we put into the effort instead of what comes out. The tax checks we write buy us, for relatively little money and no effort at all, a quieted conscience. The more we pay, the more certain we can be that we have done our part, and it is essential that we feel that way regardless of what we accomplish…

To this extent, the barrier to radical reform of social policy is not the pain it would cause the intended beneficiaries of the present system, but the pain it would cause the donors. The real contest about the direction of social policy is not between people who want to cut budgets and people who want to help. When reforms finally do occur, they will happen not because stingy people have won, but because generous people have stopped kidding themselves.

Middle Class Squeeze?

New Census Bureau numbers released today on income, poverty and health coverage in 2005 are bound to fuel charges that the poor are getting poorer while the middle class continues to be squeezed. See what 25 years of tax cuts for the rich, globalization, and declining union membership have caused? But a look at the numbers inside the report tells a different story.

If we define the middle class as households earning between $35,000 and $75,000 a year, the middle class in America remains a huge demographic group. According to the Census report, Table A-1, the middle class made up 33.3 percent of U.S. households in 2005. That share is indeed somewhat smaller than in 1980, when 38.2 percent of households earned between $35,000 and $75,000 a year in real (inflation-adjusted) 2005 dollars.

Aha, so the middle class really is shrinking if not exactly disappearing, the alarmists might respond. But the Census numbers also show that over the past 25 years, the share of U.S. households earning less than $35,000 a year has also shrunk, from 44.5 percent in 1980 to 38.4 percent in 2005. Meanwhile, the share of households earning more than $75,000 a year has jumped from 17.4 percent to 28.3 percent.

In other words, if the middle class in America has shrunk, it is only because so many formerly middle-class households have moved to the upper-income brackets, while a significant number of households previously in the lower brackets have moved up to the middle class and beyond.

The solid economic growth of the past two decades has indeed lifted all kinds of household boats. By the most basic measure of real household income, a broad swathe of Americans are better off than they were 25 years ago—thanks to growth fueled in good measure by lower marginal tax rates, expanding trade, and a more flexible domestic economy.