Topic: Trade and Immigration

Crony Catfish

If you were looking for an example to show just how awful the legislative process is in Washington, the ongoing saga over catfish inspection is just perfect.  On its face, the 2008 law requiring the U.S. Department of Agriculture to inspect catfish facilities seems relatively benign.  Who doesn’t want safer catfish?  In reality, though, the law has nothing to do with food safety and everything to do with supporting the Southern catfish industry at everyone else’s expense.

Switching catfish inspection from the FDA (where it is now) to the USDA won’t make catfish any safer.  This isn’t really a controversial point, either.  The USDA itself has said that catfish is a low risk food and can’t explain how its inspections will reduce that risk in any meaningful way.  The Government Accountability Office has advised Congress to repeal the program.  

The new inspection regime is slated to cost taxpayers $14 million more per year than the current one.  But there’s actually a much greater harm being done here.

Aside from the cost, the main impact of the new inspection regime—and its actual purpose—is that foreign catfish producers will be banned from the U.S. market until they can show equivalence to U.S. production standards.  Regardless of how they produce the catfish, showing equivalence will take years.  In the meantime, U.S. consumers will be left with nothing but domestic catfish at hugely inflated prices.

The good news is that a growing, bipartisan group of legislators has been trying to kill the program since its stealthy insertion into the 2008 farm bill.  Most recently, Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-MO) announced that she will propose an amendment to the 2015 Agriculture Appropriations Bill to defund the new inspection program.  This may be the last chance to kill the program before it finally goes into effect, exposing the United States to retaliatory action for violating our trade obligations.

The amendment will probably succeed, as similar amendments have in the past, but—just as before—that may not be enough.  The program exists not because half of our illustrious legislators have been fooled into supporting it but because Thad Cochran (R-MS) has seniority on key committees.  He and a handful of other legislators in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas are the only ones pushing for this program.  

I talk more with Caleb Brown about Thad Cochran’s Crony Catfish in this Cato podcast:

Russia Imposes Embargo on Itself

The American economist Henry George wrote, “What protection teaches us, is to do to ourselves in time of peace what enemies seek to do to us in time of war.” In Russia, Vladimir Putin started a war and then, in response to mild American and European sanctions, retaliated by imposing greater sanctions—on his own people.

Even American journalists, whose economic acumen I have been known to question, have noted the likely effects of Putin’s sanctions. See Michael Birnbaum in the Washington Post:

Russia on Thursday banned most imports of Western food products, a sweeping escalation in an economic war that will deal a multibillion-dollar hit to affected nations but will also unreel wide-ranging consequences at home.

The measures were a signal that Russia is not backing down from a confrontation that has sent Western-Russian tensions to heights not seen since the Cold War—and that it is willing to risk barer shelves and higher food prices at home in the name of striking a blow against countries that have tried to punish it over its role in the Ukraine conflict.

Russia has suspended imports of meat, fish, fruit, vegetables and milk products from the United States, the 28-nation European Union, Norway, Canada and Australia for a year. The move came in retaliation for sanctions those countries imposed on Russia….

In Russia, the food measures promised to hit not just city centers, where the urban middle class has grown accustomed to visiting supermarkets overflowing with high-quality imported European cheeses, fish and sausages. Analysts warned that food prices also would increase and that a wide range of Russian industries, including food processing plants, shippers and retailers, would be affected….

“It will be quite sensitive,” said Yevsey Gurvich, the head of the Economic Expert Group. “Not only rich people will feel it, but literally every family will be affected.” He said he estimated that Russian consumer prices would go up 2 percent this year because of the measures.

“Alternatives to imported foods will be more costly, and, anyway, I believe they will be insufficient, and our supplies will diminish. And, hence, prices will go up,” he said.

Americans who wished for more painful sanctions on Russia than President Obama has imposed are getting their wish—thanks to Putin. 

Cotton Subsidies and the Upside of Wasteful Government Incompetence

An internal audit by the U.S. Department of Agriculture of the “Economic Adjustment Assistance to Users of Upland Cotton Program” (EAAP) has revealed widespread misuse of subsidies given to owners of textile mills.  The program pays mills based on how much cotton they buy and requires that they spend the money on capital improvements at the mill.  It turns out some owners were just buying whatever the heck they wanted with the money—and that’s probably a good thing.

The primary purpose of the EAAP is to increase the demand for cotton.  The money goes to the mills, but the intended beneficiary is the cotton farmer, who gets an overpaying customer.  By conditioning the payment on an equivalent reinvestment in the cotton mill, the program also hopes to artificially increase the supply of cotton mills.  This, too, is meant to benefit cotton farmers by keeping their customers invested in buying their product. 

If the textile mill owners are using the subsidies to purchase—as the Washington Free Beacon reports—“Ford Explorers, artwork, sound systems, and elephant lamps,” then the program is ultimately less distortive of the U.S. and global cotton market.  That’s a good thing.  If the government is going to take money from some people and give it to others, at the very least we should hope that they do it in the least destructive way possible.

On the other hand, if the mill owners get the money with no strings attached, that increases the incentive for them to take the subsidy in the first place.  My guess, though, is that paying people to buy things they actually want is less distortive than paying them to buy things the government wants them to buy.

So, a toast to government incompetence (this time).  If someone’s going to do bad things, I’m glad it’s these idiots.

Russia, Sanctions, and Food

The Russian government announced on August 6 that it will ban imports of most food and agricultural products from Australia, Canada, the European Union, Norway and the United States for one year.  The full extent of the ban, as well as its effects on exporters and Russian consumers, are not yet clear.  It is interesting, though, to contrast this action with an earlier effort to use food sanctions as a diplomatic weapon:  the 1980 embargo of U.S. grain sales to the Soviet Union. 

The Soviets had invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 with 80,000 troops and 1800 tanks.  President Carter responded by cancelling private contracts to supply 17 million metric tons (MMT) of U.S. wheat and corn to the Soviet Union.  However, he chose to allow shipment of 8 MMT that had been agreed as part of the 1975 U.S.-Soviet Grains Agreement.  Sales in excess of the level assured in the Grains Agreement were embargoed.

Because grains are relatively fungible, and because numerous countries had surpluses available for export, the Soviets were able to replace most of the embargoed grain from willing suppliers.  Argentine agriculture did particularly well during that timeframe.  U.S. agriculture did not do so well.  Market prices had been relatively high, in large part due to strong export demand.  When a considerable portion of that demand evaporated with the stroke of a pen, commodity prices fell precipitously. 

The grain embargo became a potent political issue in the 1980 presidential campaign.  Ronald Reagan’s opposition to the embargo helped to boost his campaign in rural areas.  He took office in January 1981 and revoked the embargo three months later.

In retrospect, the grain embargo generally is seen as supporting the proposition that economic sanctions often inflict greater costs on the country imposing them than on the country at which they are aimed.

The new sanctions are expected to cut off some $15 billion in Russian imports from the EU.  Russia has been Europe’s second largest (behind the United States) export market for foodstuffs, accounting for 10 percent of the EU’s total foreign sales.  The United States has a smaller stake, with only $1.3 billion of food/ag exports to Russia.  That country has been the third largest market for U.S. poultry exports.  About 7 percent of U.S. poultry exports – valued at over $300 million – were shipped to Russia last year, down from 20 percent as recently as 2008.  Russia’s WTO commitments should prevent import restrictions based on political pressures.  Nonetheless, trade in poultry appears to have fluctuated over time in response to the influence of Russia’s domestic poultry producers.  (It’s worth noting that Russia’s import ban does not include either baby food or wine.  It’s not clear how those omissions should be interpreted.)

How the Sharing Economy Can Help Developing Nations

While many sellers and buyers in the so-called sharing economy might like it for its convenience, there is a case to be made that in the developing world decentralized and peer-to-peer economies could help solve a crippling informational problem in environments with weak property rights and bad regulatory regimes.

Writing in Forbes earlier this week, Adam Ozimek, Director of Research and Senior Economist at Econsult Solutions, Inc., pointed out that the rating systems used by companies such as Uber and Airbnb allow for customers to “do what we previously thought tight regulations and even natural monopolies were needed to do.” Before the rise of the technologies that allowed for Uber and Lyft to exist, the taxi industry could argue that customers might face rip-offs or safety concerns in the absence of regulation. Thanks to the rating system used by companies in the sharing economy, this informational problem can be overcome.

Would We Start the Ex-Im Bank Today?

One point that I think gets overlooked in the Ex-Im Bank debate is whether we would create the bank today, if it did not already exist. If there were no export credit agencies out there already, what would the discussion over whether to start one look like? I have a difficult time believing that, based on current understandings of finance markets, a proposal to start using government-run export credit banks would gain any traction today.

So what we really have is a program that was created many years ago, vested interests have emerged to fight its repeal, and the practice has spread around the world. It’s basically just status quo bias that is keeping Ex-Im around, as I argue in this HuffPo piece:

It is difficult to imagine that we would create an Ex-Im Bank today if none existed. Yet we cannot seem to get rid of it.

The Ex-Im Bank was created in 1934, at a time when finance markets were undeveloped and international trade was filled with uncertainty. This was also a time of growing economic intervention in the economy, centered around the New Deal. As the Ex-Im Bank itself explains, “The Export-Import Bank was established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in 1934, as a New Deal program and to support his foreign policy.”

In the ensuing decades, economic thinking has changed radically, as our understanding of markets has grown. While it is possible that financing was simply not available for certain transactions at the time of Ex-Im’s creation, it is difficult to believe this is the case today. Finance is a sophisticated field with numerous options. If financing is not available for a particular transaction, it is almost certainly because the sale is not commercially viable. As The Economist recently put it, “The scarcity of private financing for certain exports reflects genuine risks that taxpayers are forced to assume.”

Of course, this problem of overcoming the status quo occurs in other policy areas as well. No doubt this blog’s readers can think of many examples where programs exist and linger on, even though they could never generate the support to start them today.

Most U.S. Manufacturers Victimized by Ex-Im’s Hidden Costs

In an earlier post today, I described a reasonable methodology for estimating the hidden costs imposed on companies whose suppliers receive export subsidies from the Export-Import Bank. Ex-Im officials like to talk about how they “grow the economy” and create jobs by enticing foreign customers with low-rate financing to buy U.S. exports. As I described in that earlier post, when the cost to business of exporting is mitigated by subsidies, companies will likely export more. That may be good for them, but it’s not so good for their U.S. customers, whose foreign competition is now enjoying lower costs (courtesy of U.S. taxpayers). Delta Airlines’ complaint about subsidized Boeing sales to Air India having an adverse impact on Delta, who competes for passengers with Air India, is a fairly clear example of the problem.

As an approximation of the cost imposed on Downstream Industy A, (let’s call it the Delta Effect), I used the subsidies received by every industry whose output is used in Downstream Industy A’s production process, adjusted those subsidies by the importance of the input relative to the total of all intermediate goods inputs, and summed up the values.  I did this for every 6-digit NAICS manfuacturing code and presented tables of results in descending order from biggest victim to biggest beneficiary.  There were 236 industries – perhaps too much information, particularly for a blog post.

So for greater clarity, this table compiles the data at the broader, 3-digit NAIC industry level.  

As you can see, most aggregated 3-digit industries are victims of Ex-Im subsidies.  And most of the 6-digit industries within each broader 3-digit industry are victims, too. U.S. manufacturers of electrical equipment, appliances, furniture, food products, non-metallic metals, chemicals, computers, plastics, rubber, paper, primary metals, and many other goods should give Delta a call and get really busy during Congress’s August recess.