Harold Meyerson, with whom I’ve rarely found occasion to agree, makes one point in today’s column (“Go Slower on Free Trade”) that didn’t cause my eyes to roll: that the Obama administration has been relentlessly secretive about the goings‐on in the Trans‐Pacific Partnership trade negotiations.
I cannot corroborate Meyerson’s claim that the administration has granted access to the negotiators and the negotiating text to “roughly 600 trade ‘advisers’ from big businesses,” but has excluded everyone else, including Congress. It may be true, but then again… Certainly, Congress (by which I mean Congress, and not just a few Senate Democrats) is very much in the dark about the details of these negotiations, and that presents an enormous logistical problem.
Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution vests power in the Congress “To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations,” which covers trade agreements. Traditionally, Congress has temporarily extended that authority to the executive branch, given the impracticability of having 535 trade representatives with 535 different agendas negotiating with foreign governments. That temporary grant of “fast track” or “trade promotion” authority is not a blank check. It comes with a list of congressional demands – items that can, cannot, must, and must not be included in the agreement. It is like doing the legislative process in reverse in the sense that amendments are articulated as conditions BEFORE the agreement is reached. Ideally, those congressional demands would be formalized before the negotiations BEGIN so that there are no false starts.
But with the administration still aiming to conclude negotiations in October, no fast track legislation in sight, and anti‐trade legislation metastasizing in a Congress that has largely been excluded from shaping the deal’s terms, there are long battles ahead. Meyerson’s counsel that we “go slower on free trade” is probably already a done deal.
As to the rest of Meyerson’s claims that trade is a boon for big business, which comes at the expense of workers and consumers, we have harvested countless forests here at Cato explaining why that is just false. The most persistent U.S. trade barriers are imposed on food (tariffs and tariff‐rate quotas), clothing (tariffs), and shelter (trade remedies restrictions on lumber, steel, cement, paint, nails, appliances, flooring, furniture, etc.), making them the most regressive taxes in the U.S. system. Lower‐income Americans (those for whom Meyerson claims to speak) devote larger shares of their budgets to these basic necessities than do white‐collar fat cats.
I’ll leave you with these three charts, which demonstrate positive relationships between import and jobs, price decreases over time for heavily traded items, and price increases over time for less frequently traded services, all exposing the errors of Meyerson’s claims.
The American Soybean Association (ASA) recently asked each of the presidential candidates to respond to a series of questions about agricultural policy issues. The questions covered farm bill and crop insurance, estate tax, biodiesel, biotechnology, trade, research, regulations, and transportation and infrastructure. The candidates’ responses (full text here) were not exactly models of courageous and principled policymaking.
I won’t parse the entire thing, as it is just too depressing and some of the issues (e.g., the estate tax) fall outside my area of research. But I will comment on a couple of the topics.
On subsidies and crop insurance, both candidates pledged to support passage of the farm bill, and the crop insurance and disaster provisions it contains. Mr Romney—no Senator John McCain in this area, at least—went on to make a broader statement about his philosophy on farm supports:
On the broader question of farm programs, we must be cognizant that our agricultural producers are competing with other nations around the world. Other nations subsidize their farmers, so we must be careful not to unilaterally change our policies in a way that would disadvantage agriculture here in our country. In addition, we want to make sure that we don’t ever find ourselves in a circumstance where we depend on foreign nations for our food the way we do with energy. Ultimately, it is in everyone’s interest is achieve [sic] a level playing field on which American farmers can compete.
Ugh. That is a monumentally awful statement. First, not all nations subsidize their farmers. New Zealand and (not to brag) Australia, for example, subsidize their farmers very little, and in very minimally distorting ways, and yet their agricultural exports generally are thriving. They compete with other agricultural exporters because they try to be the best they can be given their natural resource endowments, research, experience, and human capital. Second, the caution against unilaterally changing policies is, of course, ubiquitous in many trade policy statements (see, e.g., Ex‐Im Bank, manufacturing, reducing tariffs generally). It is also economically insane to enact bad policies because other countries do so. Especially when it is becoming clear that other large agricultural subsidizers (e.g., Japan and the EU) are not exactly thriving, many and varied though their problems may be.
Third, as for the importance of farm supports in maintaining food independence, that’s also nonsense. As I’ve argued ad nauseum, (e.g., here), subsidies aren’t keeping us well‐fed: if food abundance depended on government support, we’d see nothing but so‐called program crops (soybeans, wheat, corn, cotton, and rice) on supermarket shelves. Judging by the size of my fellow Australians on my last visit home, no‐one is starving there despite very little government support for agriculture. By the way, if you want to read some comments from a president who actually knows what he is talking about, read Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s comments in this article, where he calls for lower trade barriers around the world, particularly for food security reasons.
Mr. Romney’s support for the Senate‐passed farm bill also is at odds with his statement to the ASA about the importance of open trade. Even putting aside Mr Romney’s typical mercantilist obsession with exports, I wonder if he realizes that the changes proposed in the Senate farm bill would increase the amount of subsidies deemed trade‐distorting by the World Trade Organization, putting trade liberalization at risk? U.S. government spending on trade‐distorting support, the “worst” kind, is at record lows right now, mainly thanks to higher commodity prices. But even a senior United States Department of Agriculture official admits (paywall) that the proposed changes to farm policy—including a move towards revenue insurance—would likely see that progress eroded:
But Joseph Glauber, chief economist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), said in an interview with Inside U.S. Trade that if either the Senate‐passed farm bill or the version approved by the House Agriculture Committee were enacted, that would likely increase the level of U.S. trade‐distorting payments.
While stressing that his assessment is preliminary in light of the fact that no legislation has been finalized, Glauber said it is fairly apparent that cutting direct payments and replacing them with either a revenue guarantee program or a price‐loss program, as the two legislative proposals envision, would lead to an increase in amber box payments.
In fact, Glauber argued that changing U.S. farm policy along the lines of either of the farm bill proposals could make it more likely that the U.S. exceeds the $7.6 billion cap to which the U.S. informally agreed in the Doha round, especially in those years where commodity prices dip down and subsidy payouts increase.
Pass the farm bill, in other words, and multilateral liberalization efforts get more difficult.
Finally, I note that Mr. Romney also couldn’t resist adding his standard, wrongheaded, and increasingly prominent talking point about “vigorously enforcing” U.S. trade law, and catching cheaters (plenty of blog posts by my colleagues on this topic can be viewed on this blog). I wonder if he realizes that the United States itself has been caught breaking the rules of agricultural trade, and how hypocritical his statements about farm subsidies and trade are in that context? Plenty of damage, and retaliation, has been unleashed because of various ways the U.S. government conducts its affairs in agriculture.
So, in short, there is not much to like in either candidate’s statements, with Mr. Romney deserving special opprobrium because of his professed free‐market, limited government principles. But we knew that.
The difference between the trade policy we have today and the trade policy we should have is like the difference between crony capitalism and free‐market capitalism. The sausage grinder that is U.S. trade policy serves politicians and rewards lobbyists and gate‐keeper bureaucrats, who have the gall to presume entitlement to limiting Americans’ options and picking winners and losers.
In a country that exalts freedom, the default trade policy should be free trade. But it’s not. Why?
The public has been trained to accept that special interests—companies seeking exemptions from competition; unions demanding that citizens “Buy American”; investors and intellectual property holders demanding the U.S. public assume part of its business risks; enviros insisting on measures that punish developing countries for being poor—are rightly entitled to negotiate, abridge, impair, or sacrifice those freedoms in the name of Team USA.
So how are we free if decisions about how, with whom, and how much we transact with foreigners are decided by parties in Washington, who profit from denying us that freedom?
Trade policy should be about maximizing the freedom of Americans to choose, and distinctly not about bestowing certain advantages on particular companies, industries, or special interests. Trade policy should be about maximizing opportunities for Americans as consumers, workers, and investors, and not about impeding those opportunities.
In a globalized world where businesses are mobile and, ultimately, untethered to a homeland, what is the point of policymakers going to bat for U.S. producers? Usually, policies adopted to assist particular companies or industries handicap or subvert companies and industries upstream or downstream in the supply chain, or in other sectors. What even defines a U.S. producer anymore? GM builds more vehicles in China than it does in the United States. Should Washington and Beijing both claim GM as national treasures and craft policy to serve its needs?
No. Policy should be neutral with respect to the goals of particular companies and industries, and designed to attract investment and human capital, and to maximize opportunities for Americans to partake of the global economy. Trade policy should be about ensuring certainty and eliminating policy‐induced frictions in supply chains. As I wrote in this article (21st Century Economy Deserves Better Than 16th Century Trade Policies), which expounds upon the thoughts in this post:
This 21st century economic reality demands better than trade policies rooted in 16th century mercantilist dogma. It demands policies that are welcoming of imports and foreign investment, and that minimise regulations or administrative frictions that are based on misconceptions about some vague or ill‐defined “national interest”.
U.S. policymakers hold the key to vastly improved economic relations with China. They also have the key to the vehicle that will take the bilateral relationship over the cliff, which appears to be the route that has been chosen. Republican House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp will introduce legislation this afternoon that makes explicit the applicability of the U.S. Countervailing Duty (anti-subsidy) law to imports from countries considered to have “Non-Market Economies” (i.e., China and Vietnam).
Maybe that’s not as obvious an example of escalation as Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War, but it is very likely to accelerate the deterioration of U.S.-China economic relations. Costs will rise and life will become more difficult for U.S. companies trying to do business in China, as well as for U.S. producers and consumers who rely on imports from China.
Those pushing the legislation don’t want the public to understand the issues, which are highly technical and legalistic (and, quite frankly, too much trouble for our legislators to think through, particularly when there’s only political upside in China-bashing). But the consequences will be felt broadly – and there’s danger in that – so let me attempt to boil the matter down to a few salient points.
Not to get him in trouble with his boss, but U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk has been sounding like a free trader lately. I’m beginning to think Ambassador Kirk consumes the analyses we produce over here at the Cato Institute’s Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies. Well, let me rephrase: that he consumes the meat of our analyses, but still hides the vegetables under the picked‐over potatoes.
Still, that’s pretty commendable for a Washington policymaker.
Just the other day, Ambassador Kirk lamented how policymakers do a poor job selling trade agreements to a skeptical public. Inside U.S. Trade [$] paraphrased Kirk as saying:
[P]oliticians must ‘talk about trade differently’ and demonstrate how trade policy is directly responsible for sustaining economic growth and creating jobs. If the focus is only on how trade deals will improve supply chains for businesses, for instance, that is not enough to build the base for support for trade deals.
That is a sound criticism. The typical, mercantilist arguments that tout the benefits of exports and rationalize imports as necessary evils are foolish and self-defeating—particularly in a country that will run trade deficits into the distant future as its economy continues to grow and attract greater amounts of foreign investment. The freedom to engage in commerce with whom and how one chooses, and the impact of import competition are the real benefits of freer trade.
Like some others in town, we at Cato advocate free trade. But unlike most, we advocate free trade here in the United States—not just over there in foreign countries. Free trade requires more than getting other governments to eliminate their barriers to U.S. exports; it requires getting the U.S. government to eliminate its barriers to U.S. imports from abroad. The latter is the real objective of free trade advocacy and the well‐spring of most of its benefits.
But the economic benefits of imports rarely make the Washington “free trade advocate’s” Top‐10 list of talking points, nor do they officially register in the minds of trade negotiators, whose chief aims are to secure for their exporters the greatest possible access to foreign markets, while simultaneously conceding to foreigners as little access as possible to the domestic market. “Import” is a four‐letter word in the Washington trade policy community.
That’s why Ambassador Kirk’s recent comments have me thinking: epiphany?
In a statement responding to the WTO Appellate Body ruling last week that China’s export restrictions on nine raw materials were not in conformity with that country’s WTO commitments, Ambassador Kirk made the point that U.S. firms that use those raw materials will be better able to compete once those restrictions are lifted.
Today’s decision ensures that core manufacturing industries in this country can get the materials they need to produce and compete on a level playing field.
The USTR had previously made the following point:
These raw material inputs are used to make many processed products in a number of primary manufacturing industries, including steel, aluminum and various chemical industries. These products, in turn become essential components in even more numerous downstream products.
Technically, Ambassador Kirk is not engaging in profanity—he doesn’t use the word import. But his argument against Chinese export restrictions is just as applicable to U.S. import restrictions. Removing restrictions—whether the export variety imposed by foreign governments or the import variety imposed by our own—reduces input prices, lowers domestic production costs, enables more competitive final‐goods pricing and, thus, greater profits for U.S.-based producers.
So let’s take Ambassador Kirk’s sound logic and see if it might apply elsewhere in the realm of U.S. trade policy. If the U.S. government thought it worthwhile to take China to the WTO over the restrictions it imposes on raw material exports because those restrictions hurt U.S. producers, then why does the same U.S. government impose its own restrictions on imports of some of the very same raw materials? That’s right. The United States maintains antidumping duties on magnesium, silicon metal, and coke (all raw materials subject to Chinese export restrictions).
If Ambassador Kirk ate the vegetables as well as the meat of Cato’s trade policy analyses, he would recognize that his logic provides a compelling case for antidumping reforms, such as one requiring the administering authorities to consider the economic impact of antidumping measures on producers in downstream industries, such as magnesium‐cast automobile parts producers, manufacturers of silicones used in solar panels, and even steel producers, who require coke for their blast furnaces.
We will know that the ambassador has eaten his free‐trade vegetables when he starts sounding like former USTR Robert Zoellick who once hoped for the Doha Round of trade negotiations that it would “[T]urn every corner store in America into a duty‐free shop.”
Earlier this year, the Cato Institute published a study of mine titled “Economic Self‐Flagellation: How U.S. Antidumping Policy Subverts the National Export Initiative.” The thrust of the paper is that most U.S. antidumping measures restrict and tax the importation of crucial raw materials and intermediate goods used by U.S. producers to make their own final goods. Accordingly, these antidumping measures—imposed for the benefit of one or two or a few firms in less competitive upstream industries—raise the costs of production for downstream U.S. producers and undermine their ability to compete at home and abroad.
The paper contains many statistics and details, and makes a very practical case for antidumping reform. But if you want just the highlights and would prefer to absorb them through a more passive medium, my Cato colleagues Caleb Brown and Austin Bragg have produced an excellent, 3‑and‐a‐half‐minute video, which gets straight to the point:
On the other hand, if you can’t get enough original research on U.S. antidumping policy, please visit our growing online library of antidumping resources (most, but not all, of the content there pertains to antidumping policy).
Public angst over China’s rise and the threat of populist currency legislation have prompted speculation about a U.S.-China “Trade War.” With the 2012 elections still a whole year away, there is ample opportunity for campaigning politicians to ignite that fuse.
But pyrotechnics aren’t necessary. Rather than a 1930s‐style free‐for‐all, a trade war—if one were to begin—is more likely to be of the lowercase, “rules‐based” variety, where trade restrictions are imposed in compliance (or under the pretense of compliance) with global trade rules. Many of the battles would be waged behind the façade of so‐called trade remedy laws.
Antidumping and countervailing duty measures are the most commonly invoked forms of “contingent protectionism” permitted under World Trade Organization rules. Those rules allow member governments to maintain and administer national antidumping and countervailing duty laws to remedy—through the imposition of customs duties—the effects of imports determined to be sold at unfairly low prices (antidumping) or determined to be unfairly subsidized by a government (countervailing). But imposing “remedies” under these laws is contingent upon certain conditions being met. Two core conditions are that the administering authorities need to demonstrate that the imports in question are being dumped or subsidized, and that those dumped or subsidized imports are causing or threatening material injury to the domestic industry.
A determination expected tomorrow from the U.S. International Trade Commission offers a case in point. The Commission will vote on the question of whether dumped and subsidized imports of multilayered wood flooring (MLWF) from China are causing or threatening material injury to the U.S. MLWF industry. An affirmative determination could invite Chinese retaliation because the evidence of a causal connection between imports from China and injury to the U.S. industry is weak to non‐existent. If the U.S. government is going to stretch or skirt the evidentiary standards established by domestic law and international treaty, the Chinese government may be inclined to do the same. (In fact, the Chinese government is already alleged to have broken those rules – and the United States is seeking recourse in the WTO – when it imposed antidumping and countervailing duties on U.S. chicken exports in 2010.)
Multilayered wood flooring is a floor covering product—used for the same practical purposes as hardwood flooring, tile, and carpeting. Sales of MLWF are highly dependent upon new housing starts and remodeling expenditures, both of which tanked when the housing bubble burst in 2008. As a result of U.S. housing starts declining from a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.1 million units in February 2008 to just 505,000 units in March 2009, as well as the large decline in remodeling activity over the same period, MLWF industry prices, shipments, revenues, and profits declined substantially, as did imports from China and other countries. But since the second quarter of 2009, housing starts have been stable at about 600,000 units per year and remodeling activity has been steady at about $112 billion per year.
Importantly for the injury analysis, this period of stability in housing starts and renovation activity enables an analysis that isolates the effects of imports on the domestic industry. And what is evident is that, as domestic consumption of MLWF picked up, so did U.S. imports, producer shipments, revenues, and profits (from ‑9.9 percent in 2009 to ‑1.0 percent in the first half of 2011). Increasing volumes of subject imports correlate with an improving condition of the domestic industry. Throughout the period of stabilization, prices in the U.S. market have been steady, as well. If imports from China were to have an injurious effect on the domestic industry, one would expect the increasing volume of such imports to drive down prices in the United States. But imports from China, on average, do not underprice domestic MLWF. According to the public version of the USITC Staff Report in this matter:
…prices for MLWF from China were below those for U.S.-produced MLWF in 60 of 110 instances; margins of underselling ranged from 1.5 to 36.4 percent. In the remaining 50 instances, prices for MLWF imported from China were above those for U.S.-produced MLWF; margins of overselling ranged from 0.1 to 30.4 percent.
An affirmative finding of injurious dumping and/or subsidization from the USITC tomorrow would require disregard of these and other crucial facts and would warrant closer scrutiny of the antidumping regime. It would also invite similar actions from Chinese trade remedies authorities and then who know where it will lead.