Tag: trade agreement

Questions for Wilbur Ross

Inside U.S. Trade reports that there may be a confirmation hearing for President-elect Trump’s pick for Commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, “as early as next week.” Here are some questions I would ask him. Some of these are designed to poke him a bit on inconsistent statements he has made, but for others, I’m just curious to see what exactly the Trump administration has in mind for its trade policy.

Regional vs. Bilateral Trade Agreements

You have been critical of regional trade agreements, and supportive of bilateral ones, and in this regard you once said, “The problem with regional trade agreements is you get picked apart by the first country. Then you negotiate with the second you get picked apart. And you go with the third one. You get picked apart again.”

But you also praised the CAFTA-DR, a regional agreement, and criticized the bilateral US-Korea trade agreement. Doesn’t your praise for CAFTA-DR and criticism of the US-Korea agreement contradict your view that regional trade agreements are bad deals?

Also related to this point, other countries seem eager to negotiate regional deals. If they can engage in regional trade negotiations without getting picked apart, why can’t the U.S.?

And finally, with regard to your praise for CAFTA-DR and criticism of the US-Korea FTA, these two agreements are based on the same model, and have very similar provisions. In your view, what were the substantive differences between the two agreements that led to different results?

Renegotiating NAFTA

You have talked about a NAFTA renegotiation on Day 1 of a Trump Presidency. Can you tell us some of the specific provisions in NAFTA you don’t like and would want to see changed, and some of those you like and think should be maintained?

The TPP

In May of 2016, you said that you did not agree with Donald Trump on the TPP,  saying that you “like[d] the TPP.” But now you are opposed to it. What changed your mind?

A US-UK Trade Agreement 

There has been a lot of recent talk about a US-UK trade agreement. Do you support such an agreement? If so, would you hope to start these trade negotiations right away, or would they have to wait until after the UK completes its exit from the EU? 

Foreign Investment Treaties

Trade gets most of the attention, but foreign investment is important too. The U.S. and China have been negotiating an investment treaty for many years. Would you continue this effort? If so, what topics would you want to see included? What is your view of the investor-state dispute mechanism that is a key feature of U.S. investment treaties?

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Enduring Myths that Obscure the Case for Free Trade

Most economists agree that free trade works better than restricted trade to increase the size of the economic pie. By enlarging markets to span national borders, free trade increases the pool of potential producers, consumers, partners, and investors, which permits greater specialization and economies of scale – both essential ingredients of per capita economic growth.

But, in practice, free trade remains elusive. It is the exception, not the rule. Sure, many tariffs and other border barriers have been reduced in the United States (and elsewhere) over the years, but protectionism persists in various guises. There are “Buy American” rules limiting government procurement spending to local firms and US-made products; heavily protected services industries; seemingly endless incarnations of agriculture subsidies; import quotas on sugar; green-energy and other industrial subsidies; shipbuilding and shipping restrictions; the Export-Import bank; antidumping duties; and, regulatory protectionism masquerading as public health and safety regulations, to list some. Ironically, protectionism is baked into our so-called free trade agreements. It takes the form of rules of origin requirements, local content mandates, intellectual property and investor protections, enforceable labor and environmental standards, and special carve-outs that shield entire products and industries from international competition.

Trade agreements may be the primary vehicle through which U.S. trade barriers are reduced, but they are predicated on the fallacy that protectionism is an asset to be dispensed with only if reciprocated, in roughly equal measure, by negotiators on the other side of the table. If the free trade consensus were meaningful outside of economics circles, trade negotiations would be unnecessary. They would have no purpose. If free trade were the rule, trade policy would have a purely domestic orientation and U.S. barriers would be removed without any need for negotiation because they would be recognized for what they are: taxes on domestic consumers and businesses.

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Obama’s Trade Policy Should Be Judged on Its Accomplishments, Not Its Promise

There has been more buzz about the prospects for trade liberalization this year than at any time since the first term of the second president Bush. It appears that some may be mistaking the chatter for actual accomplishment.

For example, trade policy made the front page of Saturday’s Washington Post in a story that is much less about the substantive issues, or the obstacle-strewn path to meaningful liberalization, or the political leadership that will be required to surmount those obstacles than it is a paean to President Obama’s alleged metamorphosis into a champion of free trade.

But before anyone awards the president the Nobel Trade Prize for a job yet done, consider this: in four-plus years, this administration has concluded zero trade agreements, while launching 13 WTO cases against various trade partners. For 50 months, enforcement and domestic protectionism—not liberalization—have dominated the trade agenda.

Yet, the absence of evidence that this administration can deliver meaningful new trade agreements doesn’t seem to curb the enthusiasm of Bruce Stokes, a long-time trade policy observer, whose comment serves as the emphatic final sentence of the Washington Post tribute: “They appear to have moved from a risk-averse first term to creating a legacy in international economic and trade policy.” A legacy? Really? Shouldn’t the bar be raised just a smidge before we coronate President Obama this generation’s Cordell Hull?

For starters, wouldn’t the president have delegated someone capable and experienced to take ownership of the trade agenda if he were really committed to leaving a trade policy legacy? U.S. trade representative Ron Kirk announced more than one year ago that he would be leaving his post early in a second Obama administration. Yet there is nobody vetted and ready to take the reins of trade policy. Kirk’s official resignation came at the end of last month—though he has been hanging around to help out on account of … “sequestration.”

The most prominent name floated for U.S. Trade Representative has been the OMB’s Jeff Zients, the person most closely associated with President Obama’s proposal to subsume the USTR under the enforcement-centric Commerce Department—again, not exactly the substance of trade legacy-building. Members from both parties in Congress have demanded a better candidate if the president expects his trade agenda to be taken seriously.

Accomplishments, not rhetorical intentions, should serve as the basis for our judgments. Anyone can announce initiatives. President Obama is quite proficient at reciting litanies of initiatives. But it remains to be seen how he handles the situation when the deals require his confronting allied interests and dismantling their protectionist perches. In fairness, the administration’s trade negotiators have been working hard toward a Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement with 10 Pacific-rim nations. But let’s see where this goes before we start writing history. There’s still a lot of ham left on that bone.

The administration has verbally committed to completing the TPP negotiations by the end of this year and the just-announced Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations with Europe by the end of next year—both virtual impossibilities given where things stand in those negotiations and between the White House and Congress. So we already have a credibility problem.

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