Friday, January 7, 2011

Selling Trade in the 21st Century

Frequent readers of this blog (all six of them!) know that one of my many pet peeves is the attempt by supporters of free trade to try to sell it to the general public using a mercantilist, exports-only approach.  As I've explained ad nauseam, not only is this approach unnecessary in a 21st century global economy, but it's also self-defeating:
This approach - championed by Republican and Democrat administrations alike - is one that focuses almost entirely on expanding US exports, while completely ignoring the proven benefits of imports and foreign investment for US businesses and consumers. And it is manifest in America's insistence on "reciprocal" trade negotiations with other countries - a decades-old system in which the United States only agrees to open its markets if our trading partners open theirs too. Of course, this outdated system (and the United States' blind commitment to it) reinforces the idea that exports are good, and imports are the bad things that we must reluctantly accept in order to gain new export markets.

The reality, of course, is that both exports AND imports are good, and there are mountains of empirical and anecdotal evidence supporting this central truth - especially in this modern era of global supply chains and multinational investment. But when our leaders' attempts to sell trade focus only on exports, and when "reciprocity" becomes the central tenet of national trade policy, the obvious, yet completely wrong, implication is that the trade balance (exports minus imports) is a "scorecard," and that a trade deficit (more imports than exports) means that we are "losing" at trade. And, sadly, this false implication is readily manipulated by protectionists seeking to restrict global trade (and, by extension, individuals' right to voluntarily engage in, and benefit from, it).
More discussion of this fact is here, here, here and here - did I mention this was a pet peeve?  Thus, you can imagine my consternation when the well-intentioned folks at the US Chamber of Commerce released their Top 10 Reasons Trade is Good for America, and it focused almost entirely on exports.

Here we go again.

Fortunately, Cato's Dan Ikenson saved me a lot of time and effort and provided a fantastic amended version of the Chamber's top 10 list.  Dan's edits are in bold:
1. The United States is the number one manufacturing nation in the world, and that success depends on exports. And since over half of the total value of U.S. imports consists of “intermediate goods” (products that are used as inputs for further value-added activity), manufacturing success also depends on imports.

2. The United States is the world’s number one services exporter and has been since services trade data have been tracked. And one of the reasons that foreigners are able to purchase American services is because they have been able to earn dollars by selling goods to American businesses and consumers.

3. U.S. agricultural exports support nearly a million jobs in the United States. And, agricultural and manufactured imports have made life’s necessities and conveniences more affordable to hundreds of millions of Americans.

4. 95 percent of the world’s consumers lives outside the United States... as do 95 percent of the world’s workers, who produce many of the goods Americans consume as imports less expensively than Americans can, freeing up U.S. resources for investment, innovation, and consumption of the higher value products and services that Americans produce.

5. FTA countries purchased more than 40 percent of U.S. exports in 2009. And imports from those countries have helped extend families’ budgets and reduced the costs of production for U.S. business relying on inputs from those countries.

6. Since the creation of the WTO in 1994, U.S. exports of goods and services have doubled to more than $1.5 trillion. And real U.S. GDP has increased by 50 percent.

7. Imports support millions of U.S. jobs in retail, research, design, sourcing, transportation, warehousing, marketing and sales... and in manufacturing.

8. U.S. exports to China have quadrupled over the past 15 years, and China is now the 3rd largest market for U.S. exports. And U.S. imports from China, too often wrongly portrayed as evidence of U.S. profligacy or decline, have enabled U.S. industries that require access to lower-cost labor for economic viability to be born, to blossom, and to spark the advent of new products and industries.

9. U.S. companies with overseas investments account for 45 percent of all U.S. exports. And foreign companies operating in the United States employ 5.6 million Americans, support a payroll of $408.5 billion, provide compensation that is 33% higher than the U.S. average, account for 18% of U.S. exports, pay U.S. taxes, support local charities, and act as investment magnets in communities across the country.

10. Trade supports 38 million jobs in the United States–more than one in five American jobs. And most Americans enjoy the fruits of international trade and globalization every day: driving to work in vehicles containing at least some foreign content; talking on foreign-made mobile telephones; having extra disposable income because retailers like Wal-Mart, Best Buy, and Home Depot are able to pass on cost savings made possible by their own access to thousands of foreign producers; eating healthier because they now can enjoy fresh imported produce that was once unavailable out-of-season, etc.
Great stuff, and certainly worth repeating at every possible opportunity.  But if you ask me, what's as great or greater is Dan's rock-solid reasoning for trumpeting his amended top-10 list (beyond the basic economics, of course):
Informing new members and reminding old of the benefits of exports to U.S. businesses and workers is clearly a worthwhile objective of the Chamber, the business community, and really anybody interested in economic growth. But in some respect there’s a preaching-to-the-choir element in that approach. You’re not going to find too many policymakers opposed to exports, and the administration has constructed a whole new bureaucracy devoted to the proposition that exports should double in five years.

Where the trade agenda has stalled (and where it always has problems) is on the rough terrain that—for lack of a better catchphrase—might be called “rationalizing” imports. That’s been the hard part of trade adovcacy over the years: “We had to cede some access to our markets, but look what we got in exchange!”

In pitching the very same bilateral trade agreements two and three years ago that the business community is pitching today, then-USTR Susan Schwab liked to remind Congress that the United States had an aggregate trade surplus with the countries with whom the Bush administration had concluded free trade agreements, as though that were the appropriate success metric. “We export more to them than we import from them; let’s call this a triumph!” But anyone inclined to accept that statistic as conclusive could simply visit the Commerce Department’s website and see that, at the time, our overall trade account was in deficit by about $800 billion. Thus, if “exports minus imports” is the measure by which we judge the benefits of trade, then America should shun trade entirely. That sales approach doesn’t seem to be in short- or long-run equilibrium. Mercantilist arguments only ensure that every step forward on trade requires a full-fledged battle. We need better—that is, more comprehensive—salesmanship of trade for the new Congress.
Yes, yes, yes and yes.  As Dan notes, and as I've said repeatedly here, a winning trade sales pitch includes the economic benefits of both exports and imports, as well the basic and obvious morality of free trade (and, by extension, the immorality of protectionism).  Indeed, in a modern political climate increasingly skeptical of Big Government and crony capitalism, the latter moral arguments are probably the most compelling of all.  Otherwise, we're just repeating the same old losing arguments which cede almost the entire playing field to the other side.

Until the well-intentioned folks in Congress, the US business community and elsewhere understand these very simple facts and begin to embrace a smarter trade marketing strategy, a majority of Americans will never buy what free traders are selling.  And after decades of trying - and failing - to market free trade through mercantilism, it's not like we could do any worse.

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