Monday, April 29, 2013

Unilateral Import Liberalization Is Helpful, Egalitarian and - Yes - Politically Possible

The Heritage Foundation's Bryan Riley has a great new study out today arguing in favor of the unilateral elimination of all - yes, all - US barriers to imports.  Here's the summary:
Congress routinely makes targeted, short-term tariff cuts through “miscellaneous tariff bills.” While conventional wisdom is that unilateral tariff cuts are politically impossible, these bills show that it is possible to reduce tariffs. Proponents of such tariff cuts argue that the cuts support U.S. jobs; critics argue that the economic value of miscellaneous cuts is modest, and that the process is open to abuse. While it is healthy to discuss ways to maximize the benefits provided by miscellaneous tariff bills, the United States would see the most economic benefit from across-the-board tariff reform. The best possible reform would be for the U.S. Congress to eliminate all remaining import tariffs and quotas.
After noting that the United States rates a dismal 38th place in Heritage's ranking of trade freedom (and would jump to first if if eliminated all barriers), Riley explains that import liberalization is one of the few things on which economists - left, right and center - can actually agree, with over 85% of them repeatedly favoring the policy in recent surveys.  The reasons for this are obvious:
Tariffs make Americans poorer by transferring dollars from the country’s most competitive industries to the industries that have the best political connections. 
Countries with low tariffs, such as New Zealand and Singapore, are more prosperous than countries with high, protective tariffs, such as India and Venezuela. The latest rankings of trade freedom around the world, developed by The Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal in the 2013 Index of Economic Freedom, demonstrate how citizens of countries that embrace free trade have higher average incomes than citizens of countries that do not.
Riley then looks at several examples of countries - including Australia, Chile, China, New Zealand, Canada, and Mexico - unilaterally liberalizing import barriers to great economic success.  And while all of this historical and economic data are great, I think the following passage is my favorite because it really hits home just how obscenely immoral our current tariff/quota system really is, as it disproportionately punishes both poor countries and poor Americans:

Former WTO Director-General Mike Moore observed: “You know, the least-developed countries account for less than 0.5 percent of world trade, yet where they have areas of excellence, they’re not allowed to export to the United States or to Europe.” 
In the United States, the average tariff on products from developing countries is much higher than on products from developed countries. For example, imports from Bangladesh faced an average U.S. tariff of 15 percent in 2012, but imports from Belgium faced an average tariff of just 0.7 percent. The overall U.S. average tariff on products from the U.N.’s Least Developed Countries list in 2012 was 3.9 times higher than the average tariff on products from other countries. 
Imposing tariffs on imports from developing countries makes it more difficult for people in those countries to escape poverty, and keeps them dependent on U.S. aid dollars. In 2011, the U.S. government sent Bangladesh $218 million in economic aid, and collected $746 million in tariffs. If the U.S. government cut the 15 percent effective tariff on imports from Bangladesh, it could keep some aid dollars at home. 
In 2011, U.S. the government collected $28.6 billion in tariff revenue, and spent $31.7 billion on foreign economic aid.... 
Although some people argue that it is politically impossible to cut tariffs unilaterally in the United States, in fact most U.S. tariffs are already close to zero. The United States’ tariff problem stems from the country’s two-tier regime consisting of shoes, clothing, and related items on one tier, and everything else on the other. 
Tier One items including shoes and clothing account for less than 6 percent of total imports, but tariffs on these items account for 47 percent of U.S. tariff revenue.[28] As the liberal blog ThinkProgress observed, tariffs are highly regressive: “The kinds of goods where freer trade would mostly benefit the poor are exactly the kinds of goods where trade is least-free.” A study in the Journal of Diversity Management found that tariffs are higher for clothing purchased by low-income consumers, and also higher for women’s clothing than for men’s clothing....
So not only does our tariff/quota system hurt the US economy, but it also benefits rich, politically-connected US industries (like these guys) at the expense of developing countries and the most vulnerable American citizens.  Now if that isn't a good enough reason to reform the system, then I don't know what is.

Riley concludes by making several great recommendations for reform and by noting that import liberalization isn't nearly as radioactive as some politicians and political hacks claim because the United States government routinely passes import liberalization bills in the form of temporary, small scale programs like the Generalized System of Preferences and the Miscellaneous Tariff Bill.   The same economic and moral principles supporting these bills - eliminating cronyism and helping the economy, US consumers and less-developed countries - obviously would apply to broader liberalization measures (and, of course, to much greater effect).   Indeed, when Congress failed to reauthorize GSP in 2011, one champion of import liberalization got on his high horse and explained what's at stake:
The exclusion of the Generalized System of Preferences from the package means that this important program will lapse on December 31, hurting American consumers and businesses as well as workers and farmers in many of the world's poorer countries....

U.S. businesses and consumers benefit from the GSP program through cost savings on imports. Also, according to a 2005 U.S. Chamber of Commerce study, the program supports over 80,000 American jobs associated with moving GSP imports from the docks to farmers, manufacturers and ultimately to retail shelves. U.S. imports under GSP exceeded $20 billion in 2009 and are on pace to exceed $27 billion in 2010. GSP saved U.S. importers nearly $577 million in duties in 2009. The program was instituted on January 1, 1976, by the Trade Act of 1974. In addition to its benefits to American families, GSP is designed to promote economic growth in the developing world by providing preferential duty-free entry for about 4,800 products from 131 designated beneficiary countries and territories.
This is exactly right, and it echoes many of the findings in Riley's study.  So who, you might ask, is this great, economically-literate champion of free trade?

The typically mercantilist and import-skeptical Obama administration's USTR, that's who.

So with all of the economic benefits and moral arguments for import liberalization so clear, it kinda makes you wonder what's keeping President Obama from supporting a bigger, better, more permanent version of GSP, eh?

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