The Discerning Texan
-- Edmund Burke
Tuesday, May 20, 2008
UPDATED The High Cost of the Democrat Congress
President Bush and the Democratic Congress are locked in fierce conflict over approval of U.S. free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea. Presumptive presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain hold sharply different views on the merits of free trade and globalization. Whether we're prepared for it or not, a major national debate on these issues is looming for the fall campaign and beyond.
Meanwhile, our venerable House of Representatives, in the context of the Colombia agreement, has recklessly changed the rules for congressional action on trade legislation. By rejecting long-settled procedures that prevented congressional sidetracking of trade deals negotiated by presidents, the House has hamstrung U.S. trade policy and created the gravest threat to the global trading system in decades.
By effectively killing "fast track" procedures that guarantee a yes-or-no vote on trade agreements within 90 days, lawmakers in Washington, led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have destroyed the credibility of the U.S. as a reliable negotiating partner.
Our unique constitutional system – under which Congress is responsible for "foreign commerce" but the president has authority to negotiate with other governments – has required the creation of special procedures to mesh with the parliamentary systems of other countries where executive and legislative branches almost always work together. Without arrangements that assure reasonably prompt congressional action on agreements negotiated by the president, other countries legitimately fear that Congress will simply let deals languish, or insist on further concessions.
The House was in fact doing both with respect to the pending agreements with Colombia and Korea, before the Bush administration forced the issue by submitting implementing legislation on the former. Facing such circumstances, other countries will not take on the domestic battles surrounding their own liberalization, and thus will not engage seriously with the U.S. in either multilateral or bilateral talks.
This is not theory but history. One of President John F. Kennedy's crowning achievements, the Kennedy Round of trade negotiations of the 1960s, was shorn of two of its major components by congressional refusal to even vote on them. That action unbalanced the agreement so severely that a furious European Community, our main trading partner then and now, made clear that it would never again negotiate with the U.S. without firm assurance against the recurrence of such an outcome. The other major trading nations took similar positions.
The result was the "fast track" process, embodied in trade legislation in 1974 and renamed Trade Promotion Authority in 2002. Under those rules, devised largely by Democratic legislators, Congress agreed to vote on trade agreements submitted by the president within a fixed period of time and without amending their terms, provided that Congress authorized the talks in advance and that administration trade officials consulted closely with the Hill throughout the process. This approach has enabled the U.S., under presidents and congressional majorities of both parties, to participate effectively in international trade negotiations.
The House action abruptly and unilaterally terminates this highly successful system. The immediate effect is to scuttle the pending free trade agreements with Panama and Korea, as well as Colombia, and to end any remaining prospect for an early conclusion of the Doha Round in the World Trade Organization.
The much more profound impact, however, is to remove the U.S. from any significant international trade negotiations for the foreseeable future. Current and former chief trade officials of three of the world's largest trading entities have told me that, since the House action, the U.S. has lost all credibility. In other words, the "time out" proposed for trade policy by one of the major presidential candidates – a central goal of the opponents of globalization – has already been called.
The U.S. will suffer severe economic and foreign policy costs if the House action is permitted to stand. Careful studies at our Peterson Institute for International Economics show that the U.S. economy is $1 trillion per year richer as a result of the trade liberalization of the past 60 years, and that we would gain another $500 billion per year if the world could move to totally free trade.
You will definitely want to read the whole thing (but have those blood pressure meds handy...).UPDATE: Probably the best argument for unlimited free trade I have ever read was found in the Late Nobel Economist Milton Friedman's superb "Free to Choose" (a must-read for anyone interested in money or business. The excerpt below is from the Hoover Institution's website (you will want to read it all--better yet, go buy the book or get the audio downloaded to your iPod as I did. It is one of the most enlightening purchases I have ever made.):
It is often said that bad economic policy reflects disagreement among the experts; that if all economists gave the same advice, economic policy would be good. Economists often do disagree, but that has not been true with respect to international trade. Ever since Adam Smith there has been virtual unanimity among economists, whatever their ideological position on other issues, that international free trade is in the best interests of trading countries and of the world. Yet tariffs have been the rule. The only major exceptions are nearly a century of free trade in Great Britain after the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, thirty years of free trade in Japan after the Meiji Restoration, and free trade in Hong Kong under British rule. The United States had tariffs throughout the nineteenth century, and they were raised still higher in the twentieth century, especially by the Smoot-Hawley tariff bill of 1930, which some scholars regard as partly responsible for the severity of the subsequent depression. Tariffs have since been reduced by repeated international agreements, but they remain high, probably higher than in the nineteenth century, though the vast changes in the kinds of items entering international trade make a precise comparison impossible.Here endeth the lesson, courtesy of perhaps the greatest economist in the last 200 years. And here lies the reason why the Democrats' assault on the citizens of the United States is so insidious, so dishonest, and so unbelievably destructive.
Today, as always, there is much support for tariffs--euphemistically labeled "protection," a good label for a bad cause. Producers of steel and steelworkers' unions press for restrictions on steel imports from Japan. Producers of TV sets and their workers lobby for "voluntary agreements" to limit imports of TV sets or components from Japan, Taiwan, or Hong Kong. Producers of textiles, shoes, cattle, sugar--they and myriad others complain about "unfair" competition from abroad and demand that government do something to "protect" them. Of course, no group makes its claims on the basis of naked self-interest. Every group speaks of the "general interest," of the need to preserve jobs or to promote national security. The need to strengthen the dollar vis-à-vis the deutsche mark or the yen has more recently joined the traditional rationalizations for restrictions on imports.
One voice that is hardly ever raised is the consumer's. That voice is drowned out in the cacophony of the "interested sophistry of merchants and manufacturers" and their employees. The result is a serious distortion of the issue. For example, the supporters of tariffs treat it as self evident that the creation of jobs is a desirable end, in and of itself, regardless of what the persons employed do. That is clearly wrong. If all we want are jobs, we can create any number--for example, have people dig holes and then fill them up again or perform other useless tasks. Work is sometimes its own reward. Mostly, however, it is the price we pay to get the things we want. Our real objective is not just jobs but productive jobs--jobs that will mean more goods and services to consume.
Another fallacy seldom contradicted is that exports are good, imports bad. The truth is very different. We cannot eat, wear, or enjoy the goods we send abroad. We eat bananas from Central America, wear Italian shoes, drive German automobiles, and enjoy programs we see on our Japanese TV sets. Our gain from foreign trade is what we import. Exports are the price we pay to get imports. As Adam Smith saw so clearly, the citizens of a nation benefit from getting as large a volume of imports as possible in return for its exports or, equivalently, from exporting as little as possible to pay for its imports.
The misleading terminology we use reflects these erroneous ideas. "Protection" really means exploiting the consumer. A "favorable balance of trade" really means exporting more than we import, sending abroad goods of greater total value than the goods we get from abroad. In your private household, you would surely prefer to pay less for more rather than the other way around, yet that would be termed an "unfavorable balance of payments" in foreign trade.
The argument in favor of tariffs that has the greatest emotional appeal to the public at large is the alleged need to protect the high standard of living of American workers from the "unfair" competition of workers in Japan or Korea or Hong Kong who are willing to work for a much lower wage. What is wrong with this argument? Don't we want to protect the high standard of living of our people?
The fallacy in this argument is the loose use of the terms "high" wage and "low" wage. What do high and low wages mean? American workers are paid in dollars; Japanese workers are paid in yen. How do we compare wages in dollars with wages in yen? How many yen equal a dollar? What determines the exchange rate?
Consider an extreme case. Suppose that, to begin with, 360 yen equal a dollar. At this exchange rate, the actual rate of exchange for many years, suppose that the Japanese can produce and sell everything for fewer dollars than we can in the United States--TV sets, automobiles, steel, and even soybeans, wheat, milk, and ice cream. If we had free international trade, we would try to buy all our goods from Japan. This would seem to be the extreme horror story of the kind depicted by the defenders of tariffs--we would be flooded with Japanese goods and could sell them nothing.
Before throwing up your hands in horror, carry the analysis one step further. How would we pay the Japanese? We would offer them dollar bills. What would they do with the dollar bills? We have assumed that at 360 yen to the dollar everything is cheaper in Japan, so there is nothing in the U.S. market that they would want to buy. If the Japanese exporters were willing to burn or bury the dollar bills, that would be wonderful for us. We would get all kinds of goods for green pieces of paper that we can produce in great abundance and very cheaply. We would have the most marvelous export industry conceivable.
Of course, the Japanese would not in fact sell us useful goods in order to get useless pieces of paper to bury or burn. Like us, they want to get something real in return for their work. If all goods were cheaper in Japan than in the United States at 360 yen to the dollar, the exporters would try to get rid of their dollars, would try to sell them for 360 yen to the dollar in order to buy the cheaper Japanese goods. But who would be willing to buy the dollars? What is true for the Japanese exporter is true for everyone in Japan. No one will be willing to give 360 yen in exchange for one dollar if 360 yen will buy more of everything in Japan than one dollar will buy in the United States. The exporters, on discovering that no one will buy their dollars at 360 yen, will offer to take fewer yen for a dollar. The price of the dollar in terms of the yen will go down--to 300 yen for a dollar or 250 yen or 200 yen. Put the other way around, it will take more and more dollars to buy a given number of Japanese yen. Japanese goods are priced in yen, so their price in dollars will go up. Conversely, U.S. goods are priced in dollars, so the more dollars the Japanese get for a given number of yen, the cheaper U.S. goods become to the Japanese in terms of yen.
The price of the dollar in terms of yen would fall, until, on the average, the dollar value of goods that the Japanese buy from the United States roughly equaled the dollar value of goods that the United States buys from Japan. At that price everybody who wanted to buy yen for dollars would find someone who was willing to sell him yen for dollars.
The actual situation is, of course, more complicated than this hypothetical example. Many nations, and not merely the United States and Japan, are engaged in trade, and the trade often takes roundabout directions. The Japanese may spend some of the dollars they earn in Brazil, the Brazilians in turn may spend those dollars in Germany, the Germans in the United States, and so on in endless complexity. However, the principle is the same. People, in whatever country, want dollars primarily to buy useful items, not to hoard, and there can be no balance of payments problem so long as the price of the dollar in terms of the yen or the deutsche mark or the franc is determined in a free market by voluntary transactions.
Why then all the furor about the "weakness" of the dollar? Why the repeated foreign exchange crises? The proximate reason is because foreign exchange rates have not been determined in a free market. Government central banks have intervened on a grand scale in order to influence the price of their currencies. In the process they have lost vast sums of their citizens' money (for the United States, close to two billion dollars from 1973 to early 1979). Even more important, they have prevented this important set of prices from performing its proper function. They have not been able to prevent the basic underlying economic forces from ultimately having their effect on exchange rates but have been able to maintain artificial exchange rates for substantial intervals. The effect has been to prevent gradual adjustment to the underlying forces. Small disturbances have accumulated into large ones, and ultimately there has been a major foreign exchange "crisis."