Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Behold, the Utterly Dismal State of American Trade Politics

One of this blog's most frequent refrains is the argument that free traders in the United States - particularly those in the political sphere - need to drastically change course in order to restore the pro-trade consensus here.  Cato's Dan Ikenson and I have written not one, but two papers on this subject since 2009, each arguing that (i) protectionist positions mostly revolve around a few very-trite-and-easily-debunked myths about imports, the trade deficit, foreign competition and the US manufacturing sector; and (ii) the case for free trade is far deeper and broader than the standard pro-trade mercantilism that you most often hear in Washington DC.

Despite ample evidence and polling data supporting our views, it has become abundantly clear in this election cycle that almost no one on Capitol Hill, in the White House, or out on the campaign trail is listening.  In a great new Bloomberg op-ed, NRO's Ramesh Ponnuru (who, by the way, years ago authored one of the great takedowns of Public Citizen and their protectionist benefactor Roger Milliken) explains that DC remains populated by alleged free traders using the same old mercantilist arguments, and that those arguments appear to be increasingly self-defeating (and delusional):
Economists, or at any rate the vast majority of them, say nations should lower their barriers to imports because it promotes the efficient allocation of resources. That argument doesn’t depend on whether other countries are making trade agreements with one another. It doesn’t even depend on whether those countries have barriers against our imports. The theory suggests that if nations lower their barriers to one another’s imports, they will make more gains than if only one country does so. It also suggests that a country makes itself better off by lowering its barriers unilaterally. 
U.S. politicians who support free trade rarely make any such argument, and haven’t done so for decades. Instead they make mercantilist arguments for free trade, in which we must regrettably open our markets to foreign imports as the price for getting other countries to do the same for our exports. In debates over trade agreements, both sides typically accept the notion that imports are bad and exports are good. The question becomes whether the agreement will do more to boost imports or exports.

It isn’t uncommon for administrations that seek to liberalize trade overall to erect barriers for the benefit of this or that industry. The Bush administration briefly imposed steel tariffs to placate members of Congress from the Rust Belt. The Obama administration has placed tariffs on tires (at a cost of at least $900,000 for each job saved). This tactic fits comfortably within the political consensus for free-trade mercantilism. 
In recent years, the debate has narrowed still further because both sides have converged rhetorically. Protectionists in the U.S. do not advertise themselves as such: They say they favor free trade so long as it is fair. Free traders don’t wish to be portrayed as supporting unfairness, and so everyone calls himself a supporter of “free and fair trade.” 
Whatever its theoretical inadequacy, free-trade mercantilism has worked pretty well since World War II. It has enabled a vast expansion of global trade and thus of global wealth. But it is yielding diminishing returns as a strategy for liberalizing trade. Public support for open trade has fallen in the U.S. Majorities in the 1990s thought “the opportunity for economic growth through increased U.S. exports” outweighed the “threat to the economy from foreign imports.” They no longer do.
Ponnuru then concludes that the current mercantilist approach to trade has proven to be a "political failure," and that "the failure of almost anyone in politics to make the real and unequivocal argument for [free trade] has almost certainly been one" of the reasons why public support for it is in the crapper.

If this solid argument sounds familiar to you, it should: it's almost exactly what Ikenson and I argued last year as we explained just how pro-trade mercantilism "sows the seeds of its own destruction":
Many of trade's most vocal and active proponents in government and the private sector have relied too heavily and for too long on a faulty marketing strategy, which posits that more trade and more trade agreements mean more export opportunities, and more exports mean more economic growth and more jobs. The political appeal of that message is obvious, and there is nothing dishonest about it. Exports do contribute to economic growth, which is essential to job creation.

However, that message invites the following retort: if exports help grow the economy and create jobs, then imports must shrink the economy and cost jobs. In failing to explain why that conclusion about imports is wrong, trade proponents have yielded the floor to trade skeptics, who have been more than happy to manufacture talking points about the "deleterious" impact of imports on the U.S. economy. Most of those talking points are misleading or plain wrong, but there has been inadequate effort to correct the record. As a result, too many Americans accept the mercantilist fallacy that exports are good, imports are bad, and the trade account is a scoreboard.

The pervasive view that exports are good and imports are bad is a central misconception upon which rests the belief that trade negotiations and "reciprocity" are essential to trade liberalization. Under this formulation, an optimal trade agreement, from the perspective of U.S. negotiators, is one that maximizes U.S. access to foreign markets and minimizes foreign access to U.S. markets. An agreement requiring large cuts to U.S. tariffs, which would thus deliver significant benefits to consumers, would not pass political muster unless it could be demonstrated that even larger export benefits were to be had. This misguided premise that imports are the cost of exports and should be minimized lies at the root of public skepticism about trade. Ironically, it is also a prominent feature of the favored pro-trade argument.
We conclude by explaining how a more robust pro-trade message - one which focuses on the economic benefits of exports and imports and, more importantly, the moral case for free trade and against protectionism - can improve highly-malleable public opinion and help free trade advocates win the trade debate once and for all.

As noted above, however, no one seems to be listening.  Indeed, things appear to be deteriorating, as the presumptive leader of the pro-trade Republican Party, Mitt Romney, not only has taken the mercantilist route when advocating FTAs, but also has vocally embraced protectionism - at least when it comes to China.  I've already lamented Romney's troubling turn on China, but recent reports indicate that he has really been ramping up the rhetoric over the last few weeks.  First, his top spokespeople are being anything but shrinking violets on the issue:
Mitt Romney’s calls for confronting China as a currency manipulator, intellectual property thief and trade cheat are what distinguishes his economic vision from Republican orthodoxy, his top policy adviser said.

Lanhee Chen, policy director for the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, said while Romney’s plan for “robust” action to confront China on trade issues may be at odds with some in his party and Democrats, it is at the core of his strategy for improving the economy.

“Here’s a place where Governor Romney is really calling for a different approach, for example, confronting China on their currency manipulation, on their intellectual property stealing, on the barriers they put up really to competition from foreign firms,” Chen said in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital With Al Hunt” airing this weekend.

“This is really a path forward that will be quite different from” policies under Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Chen said.

Romney, 65, “has been in touch” with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, a China specialist who disagrees with Romney’s aggressive stance, Chen said, adding: “But look, the bottom line is, Governor Romney is going to do what it takes to get our economy going, including confronting China, and there will be some in both parties that will disagree with him.”
Video of Chen's aggressive comments are here.  And, speaking of video, the Romney campaign has cranked out several anti-China TV ads too:
Two of Mitt Romney’s first three television ads of the general-election campaign boast of how he’d stand up to China as soon as he becomes president...

On the campaign trail, Romney labels China’s leaders as “cheaters” and “currency manipulators.” His ads say the Republican nominee would be a president who “stands up to China on trade and demands they play by the rules.” He has vowed to issue,on his first day in office, an executive order labeling China a currency manipulator.
So, it's abundantly clear that Team Mitt will be yelling about China all the way through November (regardless of what the facts say).  At the same time, however, the article above makes clear that most observers - myself included - don't think that Romney will actually keep his anti-China promises if he becomes the next POTUS.  Indeed, BusinessWeek notes that, according to an unnamed source within the campaign, "all of Romney’s top advisers disagreed with the candidate’s vow to take a harder line on China with new tariffs and an official designation as a 'currency manipulator.'”  Thus, it's pretty clear that Governor Romney's position on China is intended to be a cynical political maneuver rather than a hard promise to impose new taxes on US consumers and to start a trade war with one of America's largest trading partners.  In that way, Romney's China pledges are pretty similar to President Obama's ultimately-empty 2008 promises to re-negotiate NAFTA.

But while Romney's position probably won't lead to the implementation of new protectionist policies if he becomes President (undeniably good news), Obama's similar protectionist proclamations in 2008 show us that such rhetoric is far from harmless.  Indeed, as Ikenson and I noted last year, historical data from Pew's annual survey of US views on trade show that American attitudes toward trade are shaped largely by what Americans hear from the media and their elected (or campaigning) officials:
The dramatic decline in pro-trade sentiment between 2007 and 2008 coincided with a U.S. presidential primary election campaign season in which the Democratic candidates routinely criticized U.S. trade policy and certain trade partners. Perhaps most memorable was the late-February 2008 debate at Cleveland State University on the eve of the Ohio primary, when the late Tim Russert extracted renunciations of NAFTA and pledges from candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to reopen and renegotiate terms of the agreement...

The results of the 2009 Pew poll... suggest that political leaders can indeed influence public opinion about trade. The greatest fluctuation in public support for trade between 2007 and 2009 came from self-identified Democrats — those paying most attention to the Democratic primary elections and President Obama's early speeches — with opposition swinging wildly from 37 percent in 2007 up to 50 percent in 2008 and down to 30 percent in 2009. Meanwhile, support among Republicans remained steady during this period, as the issue was almost nonexistent during the GOP primaries and rarely discussed by Republican nominee John McCain during the general election campaign.
Assuming that Romney's China-bashing speeches and commercials have a similar effect on the electorate in 2012, it's quite likely that public support for free trade will wane this year and into next.  Indeed, the harmful effects of Romney's message on US trade sentiment could be even bigger than in 2007-08, given that the Democratic party (including President Obama) routinely engages in protectionist pandering during election season, and Romney's position as the leader of the Republican party will certainly diminish the GOP's traditional pro-trade counterweight.

Thus, while Romney's political advisers may view his China-bashing as a harmless way to help pave the road the White House in 2012, President Romney and his team may arrive there in 2013 facing an trade-hostile US electorate that makes any major free trade policies too politically unpalatable to be undertaken.

And they'd have only themselves to blame.

So, if/when this all happens, does anyone actually expect the Romney administration to advocate its new trade proposals using anything except the same old, self-defeating mercantilist arguments?  I try to be optimistic - really, I do! - but it sure ain't easy.

So we'll probably do this all over again in 2014 and 2016 and, well, until we find a politician brave - and smart! - enough to ditch the mercantilism and adopt a new approach to trade based on the realities of today's global economy and the abject falsity and immorality of the anti-trade position.  Trust me, these politicians do exist (I've worked with them), but it's increasingly - and depressingly - clear that they won't be in the White House anytime soon.

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