Counting the Wrong Winners and Losers

Debates about trade liberalization often focus on identifying the winners and losers of increased openness to foreign competition.  Protectionists regale us with sad stories of closed factories, and free traders point to lower prices for consumers and the broad benefits of economic growth.  But this whole exercise is completely backwards.  We should instead be talking about the winners and losers of protectionism.

Free trade is not a trade policy.  Trade policies—such as tariffs, quotas, restrictions on foreign service providers, and protectionist regulations—exist to divert the benefits of free exchange toward politically powerful special interests.  Free trade is merely the absence of those policies. 

By demanding an explanation for increased openness, the trade debate implicitly legitimizes the protectionist status quo.  As a consequence, the news media often accept the argument that opening the U.S. market to foreign competition should be accompanied by programs that alleviate the suffering of the losers of increased trade.  But why is anyone entitled to the current arrangement?  Perhaps the winners of protectionism owe reparations to those of us who had to suffer the consequences of their rent-seeking. 

Who wins and who loses from policies that increase the price of food?  Who wins and who loses from regressive taxes on shoes and clothes?  Who wins and who loses from shipping restrictions?  Who wins and who loses from protectionist overregulation?  I could go on.

Last Sunday’s New York Times included an editorial calling on the Obama administration to “Get Global Trade Right” by adding a handful of protectionists’ pet issues to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Threatening our trade partners with sanctions if they don’t adopt specific labor, environment, or monetary policies is not going help the United States get trade right, but it will make us a bully and reduce our ability to make real progress tearing down genuine barriers. 

After (wrongly) blaming increased economic openness for the loss of millions of manufacturing jobs and growing income inequality, the Times—without a hint of irony—says that President Obama needs “to make a strong case for why these new agreements will be good for the American economy and workers.”  Well, that is certainly true.

Let me offer some humble advice to the president then on how he might take on that task: Stop selling trade agreements as a way to grow export markets for goods produced in the United States, and start extolling the virtues of agreements as a way to fight cronyism and to tear down bad policies. Thinking about trade agreements this way will not only help you sell the agreement, it could actually make the agreements better.

Liberalizing Investment in Cuba

I’m no Cuba expert, but I have followed the events of recent years with interest. It seems that there have been tentative steps towards liberalizing the Cuban economy, as well as slightly better economic relations between the United States and Cuba. I’m hopeful the long-term trend is towards Cuba becoming a free market democracy, with normal relations with the United States.

In the short-term, though, I’m frustrated by how the “liberalization” of foreign investment is being carried out there. Here’s the Economist:

But on March 29th Cuba’s parliament approved a new foreign-investment law that for the first time allows Cubans living abroad to invest in some enterprises (provided, according to Rodrigo Malmierca, the foreign-trade minister, they are not part of the “Miami terrorist mafia”). The aim is to raise foreign investment in Cuba to about $2.5 billion a year; currently Cuban economists say the stock is $5 billion at most.

The law, which updates a faulty 1995 one, is still patchy, says Pavel Vidal, a Cuban economist living in Colombia. It offers generous tax breaks of eight years for new investments. However, it requires employers to hire workers via state employment agencies that charge (and keep) hard currency, vastly inflating the cost of labour.

Welcoming new foreign investment is great. Here’s the problem, though: In order to liberalize investment, a government really doesn’t need to do anything fancy. It can just say, “foreign investment is permitted, and will be treated like domestic investment.” Very simple. Furthermore, lower tax rates and reduced regulatory burdens can help encourage such investment. Again, very simple.

In practice, though, governments make this process difficult and less liberalizing. Here, what Cuba seems to have done is offered special tax breaks for new foreign investments, and then subjected receipt of these tax advantages to certain hiring conditions. In effect, it introduces two distortions as part of the liberalization process: favoring new foreign investors over other investors through the tax code and then subjecting the favored investors to additional regulation.

To be clear, Cuba is not the only country who does this; this is what many countries do. But there’s just no reason to approach it this way. The simpler way, with low tax rates for all investors, is the more economically beneficial way. Unfortunately, it seems as though “liberalization” is often just a catchword, and governments insist on using their power to intervene in private economic transactions, even when ostensibly moving away from interventionist policies.

It’s Constitutional for Voters to Stop Their Government from Discriminating Based on Race

Today the Supreme Court finally ruled on Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, in which Cato filed a brief last summer. This is the case involving a challenge to a voter-approved Michigan state constitutional amendment that bans racial discrimination (including racial preferences) in higher education. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit had somehow manage to conclude that such a law violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, which … requires that state governments treat everyone equally, regardless of race. The ruling was fractured – six justices voted to reverse the lower court, but for three separate reasons, plus a separate concurrence from Chief Justice John Roberts to respond to the two-justice dissent – but ultimately achieved the correct result: Michigan’s Proposal 2 stands.

But really Schuette is a much easier case than the above description might indicate. Indeed, it’s no surprise that six justices found that a state constitutional provision prohibiting racial discrimination complies with the federal constitutional provision that prohibits state racial discrimination. To hold otherwise would be to torture the English language to the point where constitutional text is absolutely meaningless. The only surprise – or, rather, the lamentable pity – is that Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg somehow agreed with the lower court’s confused determination that the Constitution requires what it barely tolerates (racial preferences in university admissions).

To quote the conclusion of Justice Antonin Scalia’s concurring opinion, for himself and Justice Clarence Thomas:

As Justice Harlan observed nearly a century ago, “[o]ur Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.” Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U. S. 537, 559 (1896) (dissenting opinion). The people of Michigan wish the same for their governing charter. It would be shameful for us to stand in their way.

This case was so easy precisely because it didn’t involve the fraught question of whether states can pursue race-conscious measures in order to achieve (some mythical) diversity. Instead, it was about the democratic process and whether voters can rein in the powers of their state government. The answer to that question, like the answer to the question of whether the Equal Protection Clause mandates racial preferences, is self-evident. 

Here’s the full decision, which begins with a plurality opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy, for himself, the chief justice, and Justice Samuel Alito.

Justice Scalia on Anonymous 911 Tipsters

Today, the Supreme Court decided Prado Navarette v. California, a Fourth Amendment search case.  The Fourth Amendment limits the government’s power to stop and search people and the question in this case was whether the police overstepped their authority.

Highway patrol pulled over a pick-up truck and the police smelled, and then found, marijuana.  The men arrested later challenged the legality of the stop in court.  If the stop was illegal, the marijuana would not be admitted into evidence, and the men would probably go free.

The police said the stop was proper.  They received an anonymous 911 call from a woman who said a pickup had almost run her off the road.  The dispatcher took her information and the description of the truck.  The police found a pickup that matched the description, and then followed it for five minutes, and finally pulled it over.  Marijuana discovered, men arrested, case starts moving its way thru the courts. 

By a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court upheld the legality of the stop.  Interestingly, the case scrambled the usual right-left split among the justices.  Justice Breyer joined Thomas, Kennedy, Roberts and Alito for the majority.  Justice Scalia joined Ginsburg, Kagan, and Sotomayor in dissent.

Here is an excerpt from Scalia’s dissenting opinion:

The Court’s opinion serves up a freedom-destroying cocktail consisting of two parts patent falsity: (1) that anonymous 911 reports of traffic violations are reliable so long as they correctly identify a car and its location, and

(2) that a single instance of careless or reckless driving necessarily supports a reasonable suspicion of drunkenness. All the malevolent 911 caller need do is assert a traffic violation, and the targeted car will be stopped, forcibly if necessary, by the police. If the driver turns out not to be drunk (which will almost always be the case), the caller need fear no consequences, even if 911 knows his identity. After all, he never alleged drunkenness, but merely called in a traffic violation—and on that point his word is as good as his victim’s.

Drunken driving is a serious matter, but so is the loss of our freedom to come and go as we please without police interference. To prevent and detect murder we do not allow searches without probable cause or targeted Terry stops without reasonable suspicion. We should not do so for drunken driving either. After today’s opinion all of us on the road, and not just drug dealers, are at risk of having our freedom of movement curtailed on suspicion of drunkenness, based upon a phone tip, true or false, of a single instance of careless driving.

Central Africa’s Spreading Religious War

Although the Middle East is most known for religious conflict, sectarian violence is spreading ominously across Africa.  The only good news is that so far the conflicts appear to be national rather than regional. 

Sudan long has suffered from a complicated religious-ethnic conflict.  In Mali France was drawn into a religious-infused civil war.  Nigeria is a divided nation where long-standing sectarian antagonisms increasingly have been amplified by the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram. 

Thankfully, fighting in the first two has ebbed.  Nigeria’s battle remains intense, but contained within its national boundaries.

As I warn in the New York Times:  “However, rising violence within the Central African Republic (CAR) threatens to swamp the other conflicts in regional impact.  Attacks on Christians following a takeover by the rebel Islamic Seleka coalition triggered retaliation by Christian militias.  Not only is the violence creating a host of angry victims, but the outward flow of refugees is planting seeds of conflict in surrounding nations.”

Of course, addressing even largely distinct national conflicts is not easy, as we have seen in Sudan and Nigeria.  Unfortunately, religion is one force capable of transcending normal political and ethnic differences.  The exodus from CAR creates an increased possibility of cooperation among various militants acting as friends if not quite allies. 

All of CAR’s neighbors share an interest in ending the sectarian killing.  Not just for humanitarian reasons, but also as a matter of basic self-interest.

Gas Prices Are Pinching Again, and You Can Thank U.S. Trade Policy For Some of the Pain

The summer driving season is still weeks away, but rising U.S. gas prices are already back in the news.  Last week, the average price for regular gasoline at U.S. gas stations hit $3.6918 a gallon – the highest since March 22, 2013 and up 43 cents this year.  Much of this price depends on global supply and demand, but certainly not all of it.  In fact, two archaic, little-known U.S. policies – vigorously defended by the well-connected interest groups who benefit from them – restrict free trade in petroleum products and, as a result, force American consumers to pay considerably more at the pump.

First, the Jones Act - a 94-year-old law that requires all domestic seaborne trade to be shipped on U.S.-crewed, -owned, flagged and manufactured vessels – prevents cost-effective intrastate shipping of crude oil or refined products.  According to Bloomberg, there are only 13 ships that can legally move oil between U.S. ports, and these ships are “booked solid.”  As a result, abundant oil supplies in the Gulf Coast region cannot be shipped to other U.S. states with spare refinery capacity.  And, even when such vessels are available, the Jones Act makes intrastate crude shipping artificially expensive.  According to a 2012 report by the Financial Times, shipping U.S. crude from Texas to Philadelphia cost more than three times as much as shipping the same product on a foreign-flagged vessel to a Canadian refinery, even though the latter route is longer.

It doesn’t take an energy economist to see how the Jones Act’s byzantine protectionism leads to higher prices at the pump for American drivers.  According to one recent estimate, revoking the Jones Act would reduce U.S. gasoline prices by as much as 15 cents per gallon “by increasing the supply of ships able to shuttle the fuel between U.S. ports.”

Chinese Company 3-D Prints a House for $4,800

To paraphrase Lord Peter Bauer, the first recipient of the Milton Friedman prize, each child comes to this world not only with an empty belly, but also with a brain. Put differently, people are not parasites living off finite resources (though exception needs to be made in the case of most politicians and bureaucrats). They are discoverers and innovators, who look for ways to achieve more with less. They are the creators of wealth and drivers of human progress.

As a reminder of human ingenuity, consider that a Chinese company was able use a massive 3-D printer to print 10 houses in 24 hours at the cost of $4,800 per house.

Let’s put that in perspective. There are 30 million people in Afghanistan, or 7.5 million families of four. At a cost of $4,800 per house (expect the cost to drop significantly over the next few years), it would cost $36 billion to build all Afghani families a new house. The current foreign aid to Afghanistan is $6.7 billion, which means that – using foreign aid money alone – it would take 5.4 years to have each Afghani family housed in a brand new Chinese-made home.

Will it happen? Probably not, since most of the foreign aid money to Afghanistan is devoured by parasitic government officials.  

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