Monday, March 1, 2010

Hocus POTUS: 2010 US Trade Policy Agenda Makes Imports Magically Disappear!

With little fanfare, the United States Trade Representative today published its annual report on US trade policy - the 2010 Trade Policy Agenda and 2009 Annual Report.  As was to be expected, the Obama administration's trade policy plan for 2010 (available here) places an extremely heavy focus on exports, in particular the new National Export Initiative, and the report balks on ensuring passage of any pending US Free Trade Agreements in 2010 (told ya so!).  Also as expected, the 2010 agenda downplays the important role that imports play for American businesses and families, and USTR Ron Kirk's statements announcing his agency's new report relay a similarly unbalanced, exports-only approach to US trade policy.

Now, I've discussed many times the White House's tragic, mercantilist obsession with exports and the US trade deficit, and the deleterious effects on the American trade debate of an "exports-good-imports-bad" approach to trade policy.  And the USTR's 2010 trade agenda obviously continues that disturbing trend, so there's no need to rehash my previous arguments here.  But I must admit that even I am amazed at the dramatic extent to which the Obama administration's report on American trade policy has completely ignored imports and the critical importance of unfettered access to foreign goods, services and investment for the US economy.  It's as if the folks at USTR waved a magic mercantilist wand and made imports virtually disappear.

Just how far did they go?  Well, consider these basic word-count statistics.  In the 17-page agenda--
  • The word "import" or "imports" is mentioned a total of 5 times;
  • The word "export," "exports," "exporter" or "exporters" is mentioned 54 times;
  • The word "consumer" or "consumers" is mentioned once (and only as "consumer protection" in reference to potential foreign market access barriers!)
  • The word "balance" (or some form of it) is mentioned 11 times;
  • The term "playing field" (as in one that is tilted against the United States and must be "leveled") is mentioned twice; and
  • The term "market access" is used 12 times, but only twice with respect to imports (and both of those dealt with providing access to poor nations to help their development - never was it used to explain how such access benefits US businesses and consumers).
I could go on, but I'm pretty sure you get the idea.  (Almost as troubling: the word "labor" is used 17 times, and the word "environment" (or some form of it) is used 23 times - yikes).  Now, one could argue that it's not the quantity of a word's usage, but the quality of that usage.  Indeed, if the word "imports" were used only once in the entire 2010 trade agenda, but it was in some awesome statement about how USTR will ensure that American businesses and families reap even greater benefits from import access/competition in 2010, then the number of times that the word was used would be utterly meaningless.  Sadly, however, this is not the case.  Indeed, of the five whole times that the word "import" or "imports" was used in the 2010 trade agenda, it was not once used in a discussion of import benefits to the American economy.  Nada.  Zilch.  Zero.  (And, by contrast, the report devotes a robust paragraph to "limiting the impact of dislocations" allegedly caused by those nasty ol' imports.  Ugh.)

Indeed, based on my initial reading, the most promising statement in the entire 2010 US Trade Agenda about import benefits has to to with this rivetingly ambiguous statement about trade in environmental goods (p. 11):
The United States will back trade initiatives that will lower the cost and enhance the efficacy of our energy and environmental strategies.  For example, we fully support fast-tracking action with willing partners in the WTO’s work on liberalizing trade in innovative, climate-friendly goods and services through tariff reductions that will stimulate their global markets. These technologies can make our societies more energy efficient and less dependent on imported fossil fuels. This is a good environmental policy with strong jobs potential through greater exports.
Feel the excitement!  (And you gotta give credit to USTR, they couldn't let that extremely vague reference to import benefits slide without concluding on an "increased exports" high note.  Such diligence.)

So there you go, folks.  The 2010 US Trade Agenda - the document establishing the annual trade agenda for one of the world's (alleged) "free trade champions" - has made imports magically disappear.  Fortunately for American families and businesses, however, they're not really going anywhere.

(At least, I don't think so.)

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