Topic: Trade and Immigration

Free Trade Is Good for Poor People

A piece in the New York Times today suggests that rich people are more likely than poor people to support free trade:

The Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal making its way through Congress is the latest step in a decades-long trend toward liberalizing trade — a somewhat mysterious development given that many Americans are skeptical of freer trade.

But Americans with higher incomes are not so skeptical. They — along with businesses and interest groups that tend to be affiliated with them — are much more likely to support trade liberalization. Trade is thus one of the best examples of how public policy in the United States is often much more responsive to the preferences of the wealthy than to those of the general public.

Skepticism toward free trade among lower-income Americans is often substantial. Data from a 2013 CBS/New York Times poll show that 58 percent of Americans making less than $30,000 per year preferred to limit imports to protect United States industries and jobs, while only 36 percent preferred the wider selection and lower prices of imported goods available under free trade. But the balance of opinion reversed for those making over $100,000. Among that higher-income group, 53 percent favored free trade versus 44 percent who wanted to limit imports.

Similarly, a Pew Research Center survey released on Wednesday found that a plurality of Americans making under $30,000 per year say that their family’s finances have been hurt by free trade agreements (44 percent) rather than helped (38 percent). By contrast, those making more than $100,000 per year overwhelmingly believe free trade has been beneficial — 52 percent said trade agreements have helped their family’s finances versus only 29 percent who said they have hurt.

I am sometimes skeptical of polls on these issues, mainly due to badly phrased questions.  But regardless, I would be interested to see if the answers were affected by information on who actually pays the most in tariff revenue (as a percentage of their income), which, it turns out, is poor people:

Trade Promotion Authority and the Trans-Pacific Partnership: The Heavy Lifting Lies Ahead

On Friday night of Memorial Day weekend, the U.S. Senate passed the Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities and Accountability Act, better known as Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), by a vote of 62-38.  In light of what appeared to be formidable opposition pressing difficult demands that could have seriously prolonged the Senate TPA debate or derailed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations altogether, passage of the bill in relatively short order is a credit to the commitment of Majority Leader McConnell, Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, and Finance Committee Ranking Member Ron Wyden to getting it done.  But proponents of the trade agenda still have a long road ahead.

When Congress reconvenes next week, debate and consideration of a similar TPA bill will be one of the first orders of business in the House of Representatives.  Getting to 218 votes will test the persuasive powers of Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan, Speaker John Boehner, and President Obama, who will need to woo Democratic support without losing Republican support in the process. The goal is to pass TPA in a form that is sufficiently similar to the Senate version to avoid the need to reconcile different versions in conference, which would necessitate a second vote in the House. 

Meanwhile, with trade negotiators seeing some progress on TPA, the TPP talks appear to have begun to move into the “end-game” phase.  Although it is uncertain how long this phase of the negotiation might last – because it remains unclear how many issues are outstanding, how much distance there is between the parties, and whether unexpected demands requiring alterations to previously settled parts of the agreement will be made – it is now evident that the soonest Congress could vote to implement the TPP is early 2016, with the distinct and growing possibility that the matter will fall to a lame duck Congress and president or, even, to the next president and the 115th Congress.

Stay tuned for an analysis that fleshes out some of the issues likely to affect the direction and outcome of the trade agenda, including some possible hurdles and other twists and turns in the road.

The Folly of Ex-Im, Export Promotion Agencies, and Export Promotion in General

On May 19, I testified at a hearing titled “Trade Promotion Agencies and U.S. Foreign Policy,” which was held by the House Foreign Affairs Subcommitee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade. The subject agencies were the Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im), the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), and the U.S. Trade and Development Agency (USTDA). The focus of my remarks, which follow, was on Ex-Im and the myth that exports are the benefits of trade.

Good morning, Chairman Poe, Ranking Member Keating, and members of the subcommittee. I am Dan Ikenson, director of the Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute. Thank you for the invitation to share my views with you today concerning “Trade Promotion Agencies and U.S. Foreign Policy.” The views I express are my own and should not be construed as representing any official positions of the Cato Institute.

To the extent that today’s hearing will help clarify some of these issues and prompt a serious effort to reform and retire some of the redundant, distortionary, and, frankly, scandal-prone agencies among the panoply of federal offerings, I am pleased to be of assistance.

U.S. trade promotion agencies are in the business of promoting exports, not trade in the more inclusive sense. That is worth noting because despite some of the wrongheaded mercantilist assumptions undergirding U.S. trade policy—that exports are good and imports are bad—the fact is that the real benefits of trade are transmitted through imports, not through exports.

In keeping with the conventional wisdom, in January 2010 President Obama set a national goal of doubling U.S. exports in five years. Prominent in the plan was a larger role for government in promoting exports, including expanded nonmarket lending programs to finance export activity, an increase in the number of the Commerce Department’s foreign outposts to promote U.S. business, and an increase in federal agency-chaperoned marketing trips.

The Benefit of Free Trade Is Not Exports, It’s Lower Prices on Things We Want

In the news this morning, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R–UT), author of the Trade Promotion Authority bill, makes the usual case for trade agreements and TPA:

We need to get this bill passed. We need to pass it for the American workers who want good, high-paying jobs. We need to pass it for our farmers, ranchers, manufacturers, and entrepreneurs who need access to foreign markets in order to compete. We need to pass it to maintain our standing in the world.

It’s certainly good that the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee supports freer trade. But I fear he’s as confused as most Washingtonians about the actual case for free trade.

This whole “exports and jobs” framework is misguided. Thirty years ago in the Cato Journal, the economist Ronald Krieger explained the difference between the economist’s and the non-economist’s views of trade. The economist believes that “The purpose of economic activity is to enhance the wellbeing of individual consumers and households.” And, therefore, “Imports are the benefit for which exports are the cost.” Imports are the things we want—clothing, televisions, cars, software, ideas—and exports are what we have to trade in order to get them.

And thus, Krieger continues, point by point:

Cheap foreign goods are thus an unambiguous benefit to the importing country.

The objective of foreign trade is therefore to get goods on advantageous terms.

That is why we want free—or at least freer—trade: to remove the impediments that prevent people from finding the best ways to satisfy their wants. Free trade allows us to benefit from the division of labor, specialization, comparative advantage, and economies of scale.

I write about this in The Libertarian Mind (buy it now!):

The TPP and GDP: Let’s Wait and See

In discussions of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), there are often very specific figures put out there as the estimated economic gains of this trade deal.  $78 billion of annual income gains for the U.S. is a commony cited number.

It is important to keep in mind, however, that these gains are based on assumptions about what might be in the TPP, not what is actually in the TPP.  That’s because there is no TPP yet.  

The estimates come from this study, and a more detailed previous study, by a group of trade economists.  But if you read the fine print, for example on p. 23 of the second link, they make clear that they are simply estimating the TPP benefits based on the liberalization coverage of past agreements among the same parties.

The extent of the liberalization that will be in the TPP is not clear because that’s what the parties are negotiating about right now: How much to liberalize each sector.  If trade policy were run by free market economists, everyone would liberalize on their own right now.  But trade policy is influenced heavily by special interest groups.  As a result, some import restrictions remain even after a trade negotiation.

Many commentators have come out for or against the TPP already, based on assumptions about what will be in it.  I’m waiting to see the full scope of what’s in the TPP (if the negotiations are ever concluded) before making a decision.  Any liberalization needs to be balanced out against “governance” parts, such as intellectual property protection, where the impact on GDP and welfare more generally are more uncertain.  We can’t really make that calculation until we see the final deal.

How a WTO Meat Labeling Dispute Could Prompt Congress to Change a Bad Law

After losing again at the World Trade Organization, U.S. regulations mandating country of origin labels (COOL) on meat may finally end.  Driven by the possibility that Canada and Mexico could retaliate with increased tariffs, Congress has already begun consideration of a bill to repeal the protectionist program.  If COOL regulations are indeed repealed, American consumers, meat packers, and retailers owe a debt to the WTO’s dispute settlement system.

In the latest WTO decision, the United States lost its appeal of a report originally issued last October.  At that time, I wrote about how the WTO process can help alter the political dynamics in ways that favor free market reform.

Under current U.S. COOL rules, retailers selling beef and pork must include labels stating what country the animal was in when it was born, raised, and slaughtered. This information might be interesting to a curious shopper, but it is completely useless in determining the quality or safety of meat. The same U.S. food safety standards apply regardless of where the animal came from.

Consumers are, of course, welcome to care about things that don’t really matter, and generally, more information is a good thing to have. Sometimes, though, the cost of providing that information is greater than its value. Mandating that companies provide consumers with information will overcome that hurdle by removing the low-information option and forcing consumers to pay the higher price. Making labels mandatory also introduces opportunities for rent-seeking by companies looking to shift costs onto their competitors.

That’s exactly what’s happening with the COOL regulations, and is the crux of the WTO complaint. Canada and Mexico are not complaining that American consumers, armed with their dinner’s travel itinerary will eschew immigrant cattle. Rather, they point out that complying with the rules imposes huge costs on U.S. meat processors who buy cattle that once lived across the border. If a slaughterhouse buys any cattle that rode on a truck traversing the 49th parallel, it must segregate those animals and their meat through the entire production and delivery process.

Time for Hillary to Speak Up on Trade

The Washington Post ran an editorial on Wednesday indicting Hillary Clinton for her silence on the trade agenda. Yesterday morning, the Post published an op-ed by Robert Kagan of Brookings titled “Clinton’s Cowardice on Trade.” Both pieces offer some valid observations, but the matter deserves more scrutiny still.

Is it just me or do others see it as presumptuous, disrespectful, and even contemptuous that the person who expects to head the Democratic Party ticket next year feels entitled to her silence on the single most divisive issue confronting that party? Trade policy is causing a schism between Democrats, and Clinton chooses to showcase her leadership bona fides by … refraining from taking a position? And what does that say about the judgment of her steadfast supporters, whose return silence countenances an evasion akin to deceit? On the other hand, Clinton’s supporters are accustomed to accommodating a more expansive definition of honesty, so perhaps they’re oblivious.

If I were an engaged Democrat, I’d demand to know, now, where Hillary Clinton stands on trade. And if I were a presidential candidate with a reputation for favoring expedience over principle and whose most compelling claim to the White House is that I really, really want to be president, I would want to demonstrate my worthiness by taking a firm position, explaining to my party why I believe that position is the right one, pointing out (as President Obama has) that many of the Left’s objections to trade are based on fallacies, and sticking to it, even if it alienates some factions. Making some people unhappy is a necessity of leadership.

Like President Obama, Hillary Clinton has a history of flip-flopping on trade, so people are understandably confused. As First Lady, she advocated on behalf of her husband’s efforts to forge NAFTA. As a U.S. senator, she was a solid protectionist, voting against trade barriers only 31 percent of the time and against trade-distorting subsidies only 13 percent of the time. As a candidate for president, she expressed skepticism and, at times, indignation about trade agreements and joined with the political left in vilifying NAFTA. As secretary of state, she not only embraced the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), but was instrumental in making it the centerpiece of the administration’s “pivot to Asia.” Today, in the midst of a debate that will make or break the TPP and shape next year’s Democratic Party platform and more, Clinton is mum.

The Trade Promotion Authority legislation struggling to gain support from congressional Democrats would extend the terms of TPA through the entirety of the next president’s first term and into the second (it would expire in July 2021). It is a tool that would be welcomed by any president who sees trade agreements as channels for economic growth and diplomacy. Clinton’s silence implies indifference to the outcome of the TPA debate in Congress and, thus, indifference to trade liberalization as a policy tool. Clinton is well aware that the most important aspect of U.S. foreign policy to most countries is our trade and commercial policy.

So, unless the former top U.S. diplomat, as president, would turn her back on the TPP she once embraced, and pull the rug out from under the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership—outcomes that would deprive the economy of valuable growth opportunities, offend 39 foreign governments, and reinforce perceptions of U.S. decline—she should affirmatively endorse TPA now.

Clinton’s endorsement would signal leadership and provide cover for scores of Democrats in Congress who are wary of the party’s dash to the far left. It would provide refuge for members who want to be on the economically responsible side of the schism. It would create an environment where it is safe to say the anti-trade, progressive emperor is stark naked.