Monday, August 27, 2012

2012 GOP Platform on Trade: the Good, the Bad, and the Really Ugly

The Republican Party has released its 2012 Platform, and it's pretty much what you'd expect given the past few months of campaign and congressional rhetoric: it mostly supports free trade, yet does so in a mercantilist way and contains some pretty harsh - and indeed protectionist - words for today's trade bogeyman, China.  In fact, the platform seems like it was almost entirely lifted from Gov. Mitt Romney's 2011 economic plan, for the better and the worse.  Although there are various trade-related elements throughout the platform, the main "international trade" section can be found on pages 6-7 and I'll focus on it tonight:
International Trade:
More American Jobs, Higher Wages, and A Better Standard of Living

International trade is crucial for our economy. It means more American jobs, higher wages, and a better standard of living. Every $1 billion in additional U.S. exports means another 5,000 jobs here at home. The Free Trade Agreements negotiated with friendly democracies since President Reagan’s trailblazing pact with Israel in 1985 facilitated the creation of nearly ten million jobs supported by our exports. That record makes all the more deplorable the current Administration’s slowness in completing agreements begun by its predecessor and its failure to pursue any new trade agreements with friendly nations.

This worldwide explosion of trade has had a downside, however, as some governments have used a variety of unfair means to limit American access to their markets while stealing our designs, patents, brands, know-how, and technology—the “intellectual property” that drives innovation. The chief offender is China, which has built up its economy in part by piggybacking onto Western technological advances, manipulates its currency to the disadvantage of American exporters, excludes American products from government purchases, subsidizes Chinese companies to give them a commercial advantage, and invents regulations and standards designed to keep out foreign competition. The current Administration’s way of dealing with all these violations of world trade standards has been a virtual surrender.

Republicans understand that you can succeed in a negotiation only if you are willing to walk away from it. Thus, a Republican President will insist on full parity in trade with China and stand ready to impose countervailing duties if China fails to amend its currency policies. Commercial discrimination will be met in kind. Counterfeit goods will be aggressively kept out of the country. Victimized private firms will be encouraged to raise claims in both U.S. courts and at the World Trade Organization. Punitive measures will be imposed on foreign firms that misappropriate American technology and intellectual property. Until China abides by the WTO’s Government Procurement Agreement, the United States government will end procurement of Chinese goods and services.

Because American workers have shown that, on a truly level playing field, they can surpass the competition in international trade, we call for the restoration of presidential Trade Promotion Authority. It will ensure up or down votes in Congress on any new trade agreements, without meddling by special interests. A Republican President will complete negotiations for a Trans-Pacific Partnership to open rapidly developing Asian markets to U.S. products. Beyond that, we envision a worldwide multilateral agreement among nations committed to the principles of open markets, what has been called a “Reagan Economic Zone,” in which free trade will truly be fair trade for all concerned.
I've been over most of these ideas before, so there's no need to get long-winded tonight.  Instead, here's a quick summary of the good, the bad and the ugly in the GOP platform's international trade section:

The Good. The platform expresses unequivocal support for international trade and free trade agreements.  Especially noteworthy is (i) formal party support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership - something we've suspected but not really heard from the GOP's top dogs; and (ii) a loud call for restoration of Trade Promotion Authority - an absolutely critical legal tool for the President's ability to effectively negotiate new trade deals.  Although I'll start complaining in just a second, the GOP's embrace of international trade is definitely a good thing, especially given the economic anxiety out there right now and the strong anti-outsourcing and anti-trade stuff we've been hearing from most Democrats.  Maybe the Dem Platform will surprise us and not contain similar protectionist positions this time around, but until then, the GOP remains the better party when it comes to public support for good trade policy.

The Bad.  The platform continues the failed approach of selling free trade through a single-minded focus on exports and reciprocal trade (i.e., only opening our market if others open theirs).  As I've repeatedly discussed, this strategy is not only economically ignorant, but it also undermines public support for free trade by reinforcing the erroneous notion that imports - and by extension the US trade deficit - are somehow bad for the US economy.  The platform also errs in its support for Romney's "Reagan Economic Zone" - a silly idea from a practical perspective (I've yet to read serious, apolitical trade policy expert express even lukewarm support) and one that implicitly abandons the existing multilateral negotiating framework at the WTO.  That, in my opinion, is a serious mistake - the WTO is and will remain the only real mechanism for broadbased, multilateral trade liberalization, and any alternatives are dangerous non-starters.  The GOP certainly isn't abandoning the WTO altogether - the text above promotes the use of WTO dispute settlement, and the platform on page 49 supports Permanent Normal Trade Relations with Russia in order to reap the benefits of Russia's WTO accession - but the Reagan Zone strongly implies that the GOP no longer sees multilateral negotiations through the WTO as viable.  And that, in my opinion, is a mistake, regardless of the big mess that is the Doha Round.

The Ugly.  I guess it shouldn't be a surprise, but it's really a shame that America's "free market" party has warmly embraced Romney's zealous contempt for all things China trade-related.  This includes support for (i) countervailing duties on Chinese imports due to currency manipulation; (ii) mysterious "punitive measures" on foreign firms found engaging in IPR theft; and (iii) support for a "Buy AmericanAnything-But-Chinese" procurement policy.  Leaving aside for the moment the fact that each of these proposals raises serious legal and practical concerns (see, e.g., here on currency; there's not really a vehicle under US law for the second; and the third could violate WTO rules if it singled out China), there are much bigger problems with such talk: 
  • First, the scary chest-thumping overshadows far more legitimate gripes about bad Chinese trade policies (like subsidies and IPR enforcement).  When you're screaming about attacking imports and investment, people tend not to notice your more subtle gripes about real problems in the Chinese market. 
  • Second, and more importantly, these proposals expressly condone self-destructive retaliatory protectionism that defies economic sense and free market principles.  As I've repeatedly warned, there is absolutely no reason why such "logic" couldn't be applied to other "offending" countries, and the protectionist slope is very, very slippery.  Saying "we only meant it for China" is likely not going to serve as an adequate defense when the well-funded protectionists come knocking on the White House door.  And, by empowering these anti-trade forces, such proposals also won't help improve tepid American support for free trade.  In short, Pandora's Box has been opened, and it remains to be seen whether Republicans can control the nastiness inside.  The Democrats - who once supported things like NAFTA, China trade and the WTO (see, e.g., Bill Clinton) - sure couldn't.
Granted, each of the GOP's China trade proposals allows for ample wiggle-room, and it's very likely that a President Romney would pursue a much less aggressive approach (indeed, the platform later on page 49 states that the GOP "welcome[s] the increase in trade and education alliances with the U.S. and the opening of Chinese markets to American companies").  Regardless, "Commercial discrimination will be met in kind" is a recipe for heightened protectionism and possibly a trade war, not a responsible, economically and legally sound policy from the supposed "adult in the room" on US international trade policy and politics.  And the sign that such rhetoric - in GOP's defining policy document, no less - sends to the rest of the world is nothing short of embarrassing.  The only bright side for Republicans, I guess, is that the Democrats' platform promises to be even worse.

Hooray, lesser of two evils!

More to come, I'm sure.

1 comment:

Simon Lester said...

"we envision a worldwide multilateral agreement among nations committed to the principles of open markets".

Will there be any members?