Topic: Trade and Immigration

The Real Scandal of ‘Tariff Suspensions’

Two weeks ago (yes, I know, an eternity in blog time, but I’ll explain in a moment), the Washington Post published a gotcha front-page expose on a long-established if little noted congressional practice of suspending miscellaneous tariff duties. The article, headlined “A Quiet Break for Corporations” (September 20, 2006), supposedly uncovered yet another pork-barrel scandal. The real scandal of the story, however, is not that U.S.-based producers seek relief from damaging tariffs, but that those tariffs exist in the first place.

For years, Congress has voted regularly on miscellaneous tariff bills that suspend a hodgepodge of duties on obscure products that often are not even made by companies in the United States. In those cases, the tariffs don’t even perform the dubious duty of “protecting” domestic producers.  They only make it more expensive if not impossible for consumers and producers to import certain products.

The Post article emphasized the potential revenue lost to the government by suspension of the duties, while downplaying the costs to consumers and importing producers from the artificially higher prices imposed by the tariffs. Economics 101 teaches that with almost any tariff, the damage to the economy from higher prices and less efficient production will outweigh the duties collected by the government.

The story implied a scandal in the fact that some American companies would actually be hurt by suspension of tariffs on their foreign competition. But since when is it the duty of the government to protect certain producers against their competition? Should the same government that harasses U.S. companies with anti-trust laws be shielding other U.S. companies from the same competitive forces that anti-trust laws supposedly promote? If Americans can buy dog collars more cheaply from a foreign producer, the federal government should keep its nose out of the deal.

One example in the story involves the proposed suspension of duties on basketballs and volleyballs imported by the sporting-goods company Spalding. Again, the real scandal is why the government imposes any duties at all on such goods. The federal government should not be raising revenue with a special “basketball tax,” in the process making basketballs more expensive for American kids while hurting the sales of an American company.

Supposedly adding to the scandal is that fact that many of the “beneficiaries” of the suspended duties would be foreign-owned affiliates located in the United States, especially German and Swiss chemical companies. That fact does not make the special duties any less damaging to the U.S. economy. Foreign-owned affiliates in the United States employ nearly six million Americans (one out of eight manufacturing workers), pay domestic taxes, and serve American customers.

The story tried to clinch the scandal thesis by citing campaign donations and lobbying expenses by the companies seeking removal of the damaging tariffs. Again, the real scandal is not that these companies are trying to change laws that damage them, but that they need to seek specific relief in the first place.

Import duties invite corruption by giving the government power over a range of otherwise innocent and private transactions. A policy of free trade, without arbitrary duties aimed at punishing foreign producers and protecting domestic ones, would eliminate any need to lobby the government over the imposition or suspension of duties. The latest Economic Freedom of the World  report shows that nations with relatively free and open economies are generally less corrupt than those with closed and government-dominated economies. (Check out the chart on page 26.)

By repealing targeted tariffs that damage our economy and that should never have been imposed in the first place, the proposed miscellaneous tariff bill would make our system a bit less corrupt, not more so.

P.S. So why am I blogging about all this two weeks after the fact? I did not want to jeopardize the chances of the Washington Post actually publishing an edited version of this critique in its letters to the editor section. My patience was rewarded this morning with publication of an edited version of my letter.

Wanted: An Excuse to Stop Hurting the Economy

From the Washington Post online: a synopsis of the speech given yesterday by U.S. Trade representative Susan Schwab. In that speech, which I heard, Ambassador Schwab made it clear that the U.S. was not going to offer any more cuts to agricultural subsidies as part of the Doha round of trade negotiations under the auspicies of the WTO. According to her, a “bold” offer on subsidies didn’t elicit the desired response (i.e., an offer from the European Union of further cuts to agricultural tariffs) when it was tried last October. So we shouldn’t expect anything from the U.S. soon, and certainly not before the mid-terms.

To her credit, and this was not reported in the Post article, Ambassador Schwab did admit that unilateral liberalization of trade barriers and subsidies is in America’s best interests, but she went on to say that the administration needed “an excuse” for taking that step. Apparently the significant burden on taxpayers and consumers from the current trade policy is not a large enough reason to liberalize trade.

The negotiation-via-press-release approach is not working, and Ambassador Schwab referred to the “quiet conversations” that were going on among trade ministers to try to revive the round. She gave absolutely no clue on how the talks went with EU trade commissioner Peter Mandelson when he visited Washington DC last week, except to say that the talks were “healthy.” Boy, would I like to have been a fly on that wall.

One last comment on Ambassador Schwab’s speech: her belief in a “critical mass” of bipartisan support for free trade is, I think, misguided. I can’t see the Democrats, should they take control of the House(s), giving the Bush adminstration any wins on trade. That leaves us with the original deadline of July 2007 (when the current trade promotion authority expires) for any Doha deal to come to fruition.

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.