As President Obama flies from Brazil to Chile today and then on to El Salvador later this week, trade and jobs have been a major theme of his trip. So far the tour has been a public relations success, but it also highlights the contradictions in the president’s trade policy toward our Latin American neighbors.
One contradiction is that the president says nice things about trade agreements in the abstract, but he has so far refused to show leadership when it really matters. In an op-ed in USAToday on Friday, as he was about to depart for Brazil, the president wrote:
Thanks in part to our trade agreements across the region, we now export three times as much to Latin America as we do to China, and our exports to the region — which are growing faster than our exports to the rest of the world — will soon support more than 2 million jobs here in the United States.
Yet nowhere in the 900-word article did the president even mention “Colombia” and “Panama,” two countries that have already signed trade agreements with the United States but are waiting for the president to ask Congress to actually vote on them. The Colombia agreement alone would stimulate an extra $1 billion a year in U.S. exports. (See our recent Cato study.)
Yet because his labor-union allies oppose both agreements, President Obama could not bring himself to even mention them in a major article on Latin American trade, exports, and jobs. More than passing strange.
A second contradiction is that the president talks a lot about reducing barriers to trade in other countries, but hardly ever acknowledges remaining trade barriers in the United States. No other country would like to hear that acknowledgment more than Brazil, whose producers face high U.S. barriers to some of their most important exports.
In a speech yesterday in Rio de Janeiro, the president told his hosts:
In a global economy, the United States and Brazil should expand trade, expand investment, so that we create new jobs and new opportunities in both of our nations. And that's why we're working to break down barriers to doing business. That's why we're building closer relationships between our workers and our entrepreneurs.
Our commercial relations with Brazil could be even closer if the United States did not maintain high trade barriers against such major Brazilian exports as sugar, ethanol, steel, and orange juice. Brazil would also export more cotton and soybeans if the U.S. government did not so heavily subsidize our own production.
If President Obama has been working to break down those U.S.-imposed barriers to U.S.-Brazilian trade, I somehow missed the news.
President Obama will release his budget blueprint for fiscal 2012 next week. If an op-ed penned by his budget director, Jacob Lew, in Sunday’s New York Times is any indication, the administration intends to continue fiddling while the government’s finances burn.
The title of the piece, “The Easy Cuts Are Behind Us,” is a real head-scratcher. Lew’s “easy cuts” are an apparent reference to the $20 billion in savings the president proposed in his previous budgets. Considering that the president proposed total spending of $3.8 trillion last year, $20 billion in gross cuts was an insignificant gesture to say the least. In reality, the Bush administration passed the spending baton to the Obama administration two years ago and it promptly sprinted off like Usain Bolt.
In a little over a week, President Obama will send Congress his budget for the 2012 fiscal year. The budget is not just a collection of numbers, but an expression of our values and aspirations.
Perhaps the current budgetary state of affairs is an expression of the administration’s values and aspirations. But while an unhealthy number of Americans have become accustomed to living at the expense of their neighbor via the government, which the budget does reflect, there is growing popular recognition that saddling future generations with back-breaking debt is morally bankrupt.
As the president said in his State of the Union address, now that the country is back from the brink of a potential economic collapse, our goal is to win the future by out-educating, out-building and out-innovating our rivals so that we can return to robust economic and job growth. But to make room for the investments we need to foster growth, we have to cut what we cannot afford. We have to reduce the burden placed on our economy by years of deficits and debt.
This zero-sum take on the global economy is ignorant. Economic growth in “rival” countries creates opportunities for economic growth in the United States and vice-versa. My trade colleagues can better cover this ground, but the idea that our government needs to export more debt in order to out-anything is preposterous. The U.S. already out-spends its “rivals” on education and what do we have to show for it?
If the administration is concerned with our economic competitiveness, it should be looking to restrain the federal government’s heavy-hand in the economy. The federal government alone now sucks up a quarter of the country’s economic output. More government “investments” for building fancy trains might provide Joe Biden with lots of ribbon-cutting photo-ops, but such gross misallocations of taxpayer resources are not a recipe for “robust economic and job growth.”
We cannot win the future, expand the economy and spur job creation if we are saddled with increasingly growing deficits. That is why the president’s budget is a comprehensive and responsible plan that will put us on a path toward fiscal sustainability in the next few years — a down payment toward tackling our challenges in the long term.
According to Lew, the administration plans to do this by freezing non-security discretionary spending for five years. But several paragraphs later he acknowledges that “Discretionary spending not related to security represents just a little more than one-tenth of the entire federal budget, so cutting solely in this area will never be enough to address our long-term fiscal challenges.”
Does Lew give even a hint as to how the administration plans to “address our long-term fiscal challenges”? Nope.
In the intervening paragraphs Lew does give us a taste of the “deeper cuts” that the president will propose next week. One cut would be $300 million, or 7.5 percent, in the Community Development Block Grant program, which funds critical federal concerns like funding facade renovations for a wine bar in Connecticut and expanding a brewery in Michigan.
The Community Service Block Grant program (change one word and, voilà, a new program) would be cut in half to save a whopping $350 million. Lew says this cut was not easy for the president because “These are the kinds of programs that President Obama worked with when he was a community organizer.”
The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative would get chopped by 25 percent, or $125 million, which Lew calls “another difficult cut.” If that’s a “difficult” cut, one can only wonder what Lew would call the cuts needed to actually “address our long-term fiscal challenges.”
After punting on the long-term fiscal challenges and pretending that the relatively insignificant cuts the administration will propose represent “tough choices,” Lew begins his wrap up by warning against cutting spending:
We must take care to avoid indiscriminate cuts in areas critical to long-term growth like education, innovation and infrastructure — cuts that would stifle the economy just as it begins to recover.
The country cannot afford business as usual. And it certainly can’t afford business as has been conducted by this administration. Unfortunately, while the exact details of the president’s latest budget proposal remain to be seen, Lew’s op-ed indicates that this tiger isn’t about to change his stripes.
In his speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce yesterday, President Obama tried to make nice with U.S. business. While the speech contained some positive elements about promoting trade and a lower corporate tax rate, the president also pounded the tired theme that we are locked in a battle with other countries over a fixed number of jobs.
Notice how the president framed the otherwise good news of expanding domestic production:
Right now, businesses across this country are proving that America can compete. Caterpillar is opening a new plant to build excavators in Texas that used to be shipped from Japan. … A company called Geomagic, a software maker, decided to close down its overseas centers in China and Europe and move their R&D here to the United States. These companies are bringing jobs back to our shores. And that's good for everybody.
The strong implication is that U.S. companies add jobs at home by closing production facilities abroad and thus “bringing jobs back to our shores.” This kind of win-lose, zero-sum accounting is out of step with the reality of our global economy. More often, when U.S. multinationals ramp up production and hiring abroad, they do the same at their factories and offices in the United States, and vice versa.
Take Caterpillar, the global equipment company based in Peoria, Ill. According to its recent quarterly earnings report, the company added 19,000 jobs to its global workforce in 2010, 7,500 of those in the United States. This is common practice among U.S. multinationals.
As I noted in my 2009 Cato book Mad about Trade, studies show that the jobs added by U.S. multinationals at home and abroad are strongly and positively correlated. More production and sales abroad typically require the hiring of more managers, accountants, engineers and production workers at the parent company’s facilities in the United States.
Despite the president’s rhetoric, the creation of jobs in today’s global economy is a win-win, positive sum proposition.
Steven Pearlstein’s ready for the nuclear option. With the conviction of a man who knows he won’t be held accountable for the consequences of his prescriptions, Pearlstein says the time has come for action against China. Hopefully, those whose fingers are actually near the button will recognize Pearlstein’s suggestion for what it is: an outburst of frustration over what he considers China’s insubordination.
In his Washington Post business column yesterday, Pearlstein criticizes U.S. policymakers for blindly adhering to the view that China will inevitably transition to democratic capitalism, while they’ve excused market-distorting protectionism, mercantilism, and state dominance over the economy in China. Pearlstein writes:
Up to now, a succession of administrations has argued against directly challenging China over its mercantilist policies, figuring it would be more effective in the long run to let the economic relationship grow deeper and give the Chinese the time and respect their culture demands to make the inevitable transition to democratic capitalism.
What we have discovered, however, is that the Chinese don't view the transition as inevitable and that, in any case, they really aren't much interested in relationships. If anything, they've proven to be relentlessly transactional. And their view of business and economics remains so thoroughly mercantilist that they not only can't imagine any other way, but assume that everyone else thinks the way they do. To try to convince them otherwise is folly.
Pearlstein’s suggestion that the Chinese “aren’t much interested in relationships” strikes me as frustration over the fact that China is no longer a U.S. supplicant. Perhaps the truth is that China isn’t much interested in a one-way relationship, where it is expected to meet all U.S. demands, while seeing its own wishes ignored. Calling them “relentlessly transactional” is accusing them of naivety for missing the bigger picture, which, for Pearlstein, is that the U.S. is still top dog and China ignores that at its peril.
Pearlstein is not the first columnist to criticize the Chinese government for putting its interests ahead of America’s (or, more accurately, putting what it believes to be its best interests ahead of what U.S. policymakers believe to be in their own interests). In a recent Cato policy paper titled Manufacturing Discord: Growing Tensions Threaten the U.S.-China Economic Relationship, I was addressing opinion leaders who have staked out positions similar to Pearlstein’s when I wrote:
Lately, the media have spilled lots of ink over the proposition that China has thrived at U.S. expense for too long, and that China’s growing assertiveness signals an urgent need for aggressive U.S. policy changes….
One explanation for the change in tenor is that media pundits, policymakers, and other analysts are viewing the relationship through a prism that has been altered by the fact of a rapidly rising China. That China emerged from the financial meltdown and subsequent global recession wealthier and on a virtually unchanged high-growth trajectory, while the United States faces slow growth, high unemployment, and a large debt (much of it owned by the Chinese), is breeding anxiety and changing perceptions of the relationship in both countries….
Of course, the U. S. is the larger economy and the chief designer of the still-prevailing global economic architecture. But the implication that that distinction immunizes the U. S. from costly repercussions if U.S. sanctions were imposed against China is foolish. But that’s exactly where Pearlstein’s going when he writes:
Getting this economic relationship back into balance is the single biggest challenge to the global economy, not just because of its direct effects on China and the United States, but the indirect effects it has on the rest of the world. The alternative is a return to living beyond our means, a further erosion of our industrial and technological base and a continued loss of ownership of business and financial assets.
By balancing the economic relationship, presumably Pearlstein is speaking about the need to reduce the bilateral trade deficit, which spurs a net outflow of dollars to China, some of which the Chinese lend back to Americans, who in turn can then buy more imports from China, and the cycle continues. But to tip the scales in favor of the blunt force action he recommends later, Pearlstein characterizes Chinese investment in the United States as living beyond our means, losing ownership of “our” assets, and eroding our industrial and technological base. That is a paternalistic and inaccurate characterization of the dynamics of capital inflows from China.
First, let’s remember that the Chinese aren’t holding a gun to the heads of the chairs of our congressional appropriations committees demanding that politicians borrow and spend more on senseless programs. It’s absolutely priceless when spendthrift members of Congress, oblivious to the irony, blame the Chinese for having caused the U.S. financial crisis for providing cheap credit to fuel asset bubbles when it was their own profligacy that brought the Chinese to U.S. debt markets in the first place. Stop deficit spending and the need to borrow from China (or anywhere else) goes away.
Likewise, it is a sad commentary on the state of individual responsibility in the U.S. when a prominent business writer thinks the only way to keep consumers from living beyond their means is to deprive their would-be-creditors of capital. It sounds a bit like the same tactics deployed in the U.S. War on Drugs. Blame the suppliers. The fact that U.S. savings rates have been rising for two years suggests that responsible Americans are interested in rebuilding their assets without need of such measures.
There are other destinations for capital inflows from China, which (despite Pearlstein’s disparaging allusions) should be entirely unobjectionable. Chinese investment in U.S. corporate debt, equities markets, real estate markets, and direct investment in U.S. manufacturing and services industries does not erode our industrial and technological base. It enhances it. It does not constitute a loss of ownership of business and financial assets, but rather a mutual exchange of assets at an agreed price. When Chinese investors compete as buyers in U.S. markets, the value of the assets in those markets rises, which benefits the owners of those assets when there is an exchange. Chinese purchases of anything American, with the exception of debt, do not constitute claims on the future. Accordingly, the economic relationship can achieve the much vaunted need for rebalancing without need of attempting to forcefully reduce the trade deficit by restraining imports.
So if the urgent need is to rebalance the global economy by rebalancing the U.S.-China economic relationship, we are probably going to have to begin this process on our own. And that means establishing some sort of tariff regime that will increase the cost of imports not just from China, but other countries that keep their currencies artificially low, restrict the flow of capital or maintain significant barriers to imports of goods and services. The proceeds of those tariffs should be used to encourage exports in some fashion…
This relationship, however, is one that must be actively managed by the two governments. It should be obvious by now that their government is rather effective at managing their end of things. It should be equally obvious that we cannot continue to rely on free markets to manage our end.
So Pearlstein comes full circle. He wants the U. S. to impose tariffs on Chinese imports, subsidize U.S. exports, and institute top-down industrial policy. In other words, he wants the U.S. to be more like China.
Of course, I would argue, we already have something that encourages exports. They’re called imports. Over half of the value of U.S. imports are intermediate goods—capital equipment, components, raw materials—that are used by American-based producers to make goods for their customers in the U. S. and abroad. Furthermore, foreigners need to be able to sell to Americans if they are going to have the dollars to buy products from Americans. And finally, if the U.S. implements trade restrictions on China to compel currency revaluation or anything else, retaliation against U.S. exports is a given.
In short, imports are a determinant of exports. If you impede imports, you impede exports. So Pearlstein’s idea that we can somehow subsidize exports by taxing and reducing imports is not particularly well-considered. And though it may be tempting to look at China’s economic success as an endorsement or vindication of industrial policy, it is difficult to discern how much of China's growth can be attributed to central planning, and how much has happened despite it. But in the U.S., where one of our unique and core strengths has been the relative dynamism that has produced more inventions, more patents, more actionable industrial ideas, more freeedom, and more wealth than at any other time in any other nation-state in the world, it would be imprudent bordering on reckless to suppress those synergies in the name of industrial policy.
In the end, I rather doubt that Pearlstein is truly on board with the course of action he suggests. In response to a question presented to him on the Washington Post live web chat yesterday about how the Chinese would react if his proposal were implemented, Pearlstein wrote:
They'd make a huge stink. They'd cancel some contracts. They'd slap on some tariffs of their own. They'd launch an appeal with the World Trade Organization. It would not be costless to us -- getting into fights never is. But after a year, once they saw we were serious, they would find a way to begin accomodating [sic] us in significant ways, and if we respond with a positive tit for tat, things could finally improve. They've been testing us for years and what they discovered was that we were easy to push around. So guess what -- they pushed us around.
I’m willing to chalk up Pearlstein’s diatribe to pent-up frustration. But let me end with this admonition from that May Cato paper:
[I]ndignation among media and politicians over China’s aversion to saying “How high?” when the U.S. government says “Jump!” is not a persuasive argument for a more provocative posture. China is a sovereign nation. Its government, like the U.S. government, pursues policies that it believes to be in its own interests (although those policies—with respect to both governments—are not always in the best interests of their people). Realists understand that objectives of the U.S. and Chinese governments will not always be the same, thus U.S. and Chinese policies will not always be congruous. Accentuating and cultivating the areas of agreement, while resolving or minimizing the differences, is the essence of diplomacy and statecraft. These tactics must continue to underpin a U.S. policy of engagement with China.
This has not been a good week for the national Democratic Party. Along with losing the Massachusetts Senate seat, the party took another step toward making hostility to trade liberalization a plank of party orthodoxy.
As my Cato colleague Sallie James flagged earlier today, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee issued a press release yesterday criticizing a Republican candidate in upstate New York for contributing to the Cato Institute. And, of course, everyone knows that Cato is “a right wing extremist group that has long been a vocal advocate for extremist, unfair trade policies that would allow companies to ship American jobs overseas.”
Among our sins, in the eyes of the DCCC, is that Cato research has supported tariff-reducing trade agreements, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Our work has also advocated unilateral trade liberalization—getting rid of self-damaging U.S. trade barriers regardless of what other countries do—which violates the conventional Washington wisdom that we can’t lower our own barriers without demanding “reciprocity” and “a level playing field” from other nations
There is nothing extreme about our work on trade. It fits comfortably within mainstream economics expounded not only by Adam Smith and Milton Freidman but by such liberals as Paul Samuelson and Larry Summers.
In fact, for decades, the Democratic Party embraced lower barriers to trade:
- In the 1930s and '40s, President Franklin Roosevelt and his Nobel-Peace-Prize-winning Secretary of State Cordell Hull lead the United States away from the disastrous protectionism of President Hoover and a Republican Congress.
- Democratic Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Carter all supported successful agreements in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade to reduce trade barriers at home and abroad.
- Bill Clinton, the only Democrat to be re-elected president since FDR, persuaded a Democratic Congress to enact NAFTA in 1993 and the Uruguay Round Agreements Act in 1994, which created the World Trade Organization. Clinton also championed permanent normal trade relations with China in 2000, which ushered that nation into the WTO.
- In the previous Congress, scores of House Democrats co-sponsored “The Affordable Footwear Act,” which would have unilaterally lowered tariffs on imported shoes popular with low-income Americans. Liberal Democrat Earl Blumenauer of Oregon visited the Cato Institute in July 2008 to speak in favor of the bill. (Will he be the next target of a DCCC press release for cavorting with "extremists"?) In the current Congress, a similar bill in the Senate is currently co-sponsored by such prominent Democrats as Dick Durban (Ill.), Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), and Mary Landrieu (La.).
To learn more about why Democrats (and Republicans) should support free trade, I highly recommend two books: Mad about Trade: Why Main Street America Should Embrace Globalization, by yours truly; and Freedom From Want: Liberalism and the Global Economy, by Edward Gresser, a trade expert with the Democratic Leadership Council.
Three items in the news this week remind us why we should be glad we live in a more global economy. While American consumers remain cautious, American companies and workers are finding increasing opportunities in markets abroad:
- Sales of General Motors vehicles continue to slump in the United States, but they are surging in China. The company announced this week that sales in China of GM-branded cars and trucks were up 67 percent in 2009, to 1.8 million vehicles. If current trends continue, within a year or two GM will be selling more vehicles in China than in the United States.
- James Cameron’s 3-D movie spectacular “Avatar” just surpassed $1 billion in global box-office sales. Two-thirds of its revenue has come from abroad, with France, Germany, and Russia the leading markets. This has been a growing pattern for U.S. films. Hollywood—which loves to skewer business and capitalism—is thriving in a global market.
- Since 2003, the middle class in Brazil has grown by 32 million. As the Washington Post reports, “Once hobbled with high inflation and perennially susceptible to worldwide crises, Brazil now has a vibrant consumer market …” Brazil's overall economy is bigger than either India or Russia, and its per-capita GDP is nearly double that of China.
As I note in my Cato book Mad about Trade, American companies and workers will find their best opportunities in the future by selling to the emerging global middle class in Brazil, China, India and elsewhere. Without access to more robust markets abroad, the Great Recession of 2008-09 would have been more like the Great Depression.
That is one of the conclusions in my new paper, "Made on Earth: How Global Economic Integration Renders Trade Policy Obsolete."
For hundreds of years, trade policy has been premised on the assumptions that exports are good, imports are bad, and the interests of domestic producers are tantamount to the "national interest." Though that mercantilist worldview has never been accurate, its persistence as a pillar of trade policy into the 21st century is especially confounding given the emergence and proliferation of disaggregated production processes, transnational supply chains, and cross-border investment. Those trends have blurred any meaningful distinctions between "our" producers and "their" producers and speak to a long chain of interdependent economic interests between product conception and consumption.
Still, trade policy places the interests of domestic producers above all else even though the definition of a domestic producer is elusive and even though actions on behalf of producers often harm interests along the product continuum, which include engineers, designers, financiers, processors, assemblers, marketers, shippers, retailers, consumers, and others.
In 2008, foreign nameplate automobile producers, employing American workers, paying American taxes, and supporting American businesses, communities, and charities, accounted for almost half of all U.S. light vehicle production. The largest "U.S." steel producer, Arcelor-Mittal, is a majority-Indian-owned company with headquarters in Luxembourg and Hong Kong. The largest "German" producer, Thyssen-Krupp, is completing a $3.7 billion green-field investment in steel production facilities in Alabama, which will create an estimated 2,700 jobs in that state.
So, who are "we"? And who are "they"?
Are these foreign-named or –headquartered companies not "our" producers because some of the profits they earn are repatriated or invested in operations outside the United States? If so, then shouldn’t we consider U.S. Steel Corporation, which earned 25 percent of its revenue last year on steel produced in Slovakia and Serbia, and General Motors, which has had success producing and selling cars in China, to be "their" producers? Why should U.S. Steel, General Motors, and the unions that organize workers at those companies dictate the parameters of U.S. trade policy, while Toyota, Thyssen and their non-union workers have no input? Why should trade policy reflect a bias in favor of producers—or worse, particular producers—at all? That bias hurts other interests—both foreign-based and domestic—in the supply chain.
Global commerce isn’t a competition between "us" and "them." It is instead a competition between entities that defy national identification because of cross-border investment or because the final good or service comprises value added from many different countries. This reality demands openness in both directions, which flies in the face of conventional trade policy wisdom, which seeks to maximize access for domestic producers abroad while minimizing access for foreign producers at home.
It is only for simplicity’s sake that a container full of iPods shipped from China and unloaded in Seattle registers as imports from China. But the fact is that only a few dollars of the $150 cost to produce an iPod is Chinese value-added. The rest is mostly value attributable to Japanese, Korean, Singaporean, Taiwanese, and American components and labor. Then iPods retail for about $300 and most of the mark-up accrues to Apple, which uses the profits to support innovation and higher paying jobs in the United States.
From a trade policy perspective, each iPod imported from China adds $150 to our bilateral deficit in "high tech" goods. It is regarded as a problem to solve. The temptation is to restrict.
But from a commercial perspective, each imported iPod supports U.S. economic activity up the value chain. Without access to lower-cost labor abroad—if rudimentary component manufacturing and assembly operations were required to take place in the United States—ideas hatched in American labs would be far less likely to make it beyond the white board. Much higher costs would make it far more difficult to create these ubiquitous devices that have, in turn, spawned new ideas and industries.
Essentially, the factory floor has broken through its walls and today spans borders and oceans, making Chinese and American labor complementary in this and many other industries. Yet, despite all of this integration, despite the reliance of producers in the United States and abroad on imported raw materials, components, and capital equipment, trade policy still pretends that access to the domestic market is a favor to grant or a privilege to revoke. Trade policy is officially ignorant of commercial reality.
Openness to trade in both directions is an imperative in the 21st century. Policies that do not try to channel incentives for the benefit of specific groups but rather provide the greatest opportunities for citizens to participate most effectively in our increasingly integrated global economy are the ones that will maximize economic growth and national welfare. People in other countries should be thought of more as customers, suppliers, and potential collaborators instead of competitive threats.
In the 21st century, instead of serving the exclusive interests of domestic producers, trade policy should be about welcoming investment and attracting and cultivating the human capital necessary to make the United States the location of choice for the world’s highest value economic activities.