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."