Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Placating Anti-Traders Is A Fool's Errand

After the President's decision to impose tariffs on Chinese tires under "Section 421" of US Trade Law, a steady refrain from apologists outside and within the Obama Administration has been that the tire protectionism was totally necessary to bolster flagging domestic support for trade and thereby advance a strong free trade agenda.  For example, the New Republic's Noam Scheiber defended the tire tariffs by stating, "Absent a small gesture on behalf of American workers, it's safe to say the trade agenda would be doomed for the foreseeable future." And USTR Ron Kirk alluded to the same argument when he stated that "[e]nforcing trade laws is key to maintaining an open and free trading system."  For each, the argument apparently goes like this: banning Chinese tires from the US market in the long run will help advance the cause of open markets because the "gesture" would magically regain union confidence in America's free trade policies, thereby permitting the White House to enter into trade agreements, finish the Doha Round, etc. etc.  Voila!

Well, in only took 10 days for the unions and their anti-trade buddies to provide a definitive response to this brilliant "protectionism breeds free trade" defense.  And unfortunately for the apologists, that response can be summarized in two words: one starts with the letter "F," and the other is "THAT."  Here's BNA (subscription required) with the shocking development:

The Bush administration's failed trade policy should not serve as a starting point for a new U.S. trade policy, labor and public interest groups wrote in a Sept. 22 letter to President Obama.

The Teamsters, Friends of the Earth U.S., Americans for Democratic Action, United Steelworkers, TransAfrica Forum, and about 10 other groups said in the letter that some administration trade officials had described the "Obama trade agenda" as implementation of the pending Panama, Colombia, and Korea free trade agreements and completion of the Doha Round negotiations of the World Trade Organization.

The groups said that the leftover FTAs, which were negotiated and signed by the Bush administration but never implemented, reflected the unsuccessful end to the past administration's trade policy and should not serve as the starting point for a new U.S. trade policy. ...

The groups advocated for other changes including eliminating extraordinary foreign investor privileges, allowing Buy American policies in government procurement rules, removing provisions that require the United States to accept imported food that does not meet U.S. domestic safety standards, fixing agricultural provisions, and facilitating access to medicine....
Ouch!  Now, I'm no expert at reading union "vibes," but something tells me that Obama's Section 421 decision didn't achieve the massive groundswell of union tradelove that Kirk and Scheiber were hoping for.  Indeed, after Buy American, Mexican Trucks, Tires and every other of the thousand protectionist cuts this Administration has allowed in the last nine months, it's still business as usual for the anti-trade crowd.  And adding insult to injury, the union that filed the 421 petition - the United Steelworkers - was one of the letter's signatories!  That's cold, man.  Cold.

The lesson here is simple: the anti-trade crowd is called the "ANTI-TRADE crowd" for a reason.  And no amount of small-but-harmful protectionist "gestures" is going to change that.  Ever.

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