A Sincere Change of Heart?

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The old adage wisely instructs us to “give credit where credit is due.” I am about to give credit to someone to whom I have given extremely scant credit before: our current president. Obama is apparently doing something I want him to do: he is advocating more FTAs — free trade agreements.

This is a surprising — nay, mindboggling — reversal of the course he took during his first four years. In his first term, he started trade wars with Mexico, Canada, and other places. He stalled, until late in that term, any action on the three residual FTAs that President Bush had left him (with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea). And he generally mouthed the labor union line that free trade “steals” “American” jobs.

But shortly before his reelection, he caved. In the face of a clearly stagnant economy he signed the three FTAs. He has now gone farther. In some of his recent speeches, he has advocated two new large FTA deals — one with the EU, and one — initially proposed by Bush — called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). He is in favor of concluding those deals quickly. (The US started participating in the TPP negotiations under Bush in 2008.)

Obama backed the notion of an EU deal in his state of the union address, saying, “Tonight, I’m announcing that we will launch talks on a comprehensive trans-Atlantic trade and investment partnership with the European Union . . . because trade that is fair and free across the Atlantic supports millions of good-paying American jobs.”

Of course, free trade with anywhere supports millions of “good-paying” jobs. This proposition has been urged by mainstream economists ever since the debacle of the Smoot-Hawley tariffs — or for that matter since Adam Smith. It has recently been brilliantly explored by Daniel Griswold in his primer on the subject, Mad about Trade (which I have reviewed for these pages). Obama is, it seems, only just learning this.

The trade deal with the EU would be huge. The economies of the EU and the US together constitute over half of world GDP, and the trade between them already accounts for one-third of all trade flows.Not commonly known in the US, but explored in detail in Griswold’s book, is the fact that as of 2010, US private investment in France and Belgium (combined) exceeded US private investment in China and India (combined). According to some estimates, an EU-USA FTA would likely add as much as 1.5% to GDP growth in both regions.

Of course, free trade with anywhere supports millions of “good-paying” jobs. President Obama is, it seems, only just learning this.

Concluding the TPP would also be huge. It would greatly expand the current, modest FTA called the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership (“P4” or “TPSEP”), which includes Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, and Singapore. The proposed TPP would embrace Australia, Canada, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Vietnam, and us. Japan has just announced that it will join the TPP talks as well. Obama hasn’t commented on the Japanese dimension, but he has indicated that he favors the TPP, viewing it as his “pivot” toward Asia.

There would be great advantage to including Japan in a large free trade zone with the US. The other nations with whom we are negotiating either have FTAs already (Australia, Canada, Chile, and Mexico), or are very small potatoes economically (Brunei, New Zealand, Malaysia, Peru, and so on). Japan, by contrast, is a country with which we have no FTA, and is the third largest economy on earth.

But as happy as I am that Obama seems to be seeing the light, I find myself filled with doubts.

Start with the fact that the president is a notorious liar and dissembler. As a senator, he feigned support for immigration reform but covertly helped kill Bush’s bill, and in the two years in which his party controlled both houses of Congress he refused to introduce a bill of his own. Yet he campaigned for reelection promising — comprehensive immigration reform!

Similarly, as a senator and during his first term (to which he was elected with enormous contributions from union funds) he fought off or stalled all free trade measures. Now he favors free trade? One can be forgiven for wondering whether his conversion is sincere.

Doubt also arises from the question of how persuasive Obama can be on the issue. The opponents of the new FTAs will use his own past arguments against him — the canards about free trade costing jobs, about its resulting in the famous “race to the bottom,” and so on.

Most importantly, the new FTAs are fraught with special difficulties. Let’s begin with the EU. The problem lies with countries such as France, which is highly unlikely to open its domestic manufacturing sector to true competition. The French are notorious for protecting their film and other “cultural” industries by import quotas and direct subsidies. They are famed for their inventiveness in erecting “non-tariff barriers” to trade. And they just elected a Socialist government that loathes free-market economics (which leftist Europeans disparagingly call “neoliberal economic theory”).

The opponents of the new free trade agreements will use Obama's own past arguments against him — the canards about free trade costing jobs, about its resulting in the famous “race to the bottom,” and so on.

Especially contentious is the issue of agricultural imports. America has always been an agricultural hyperpower, thanks to the vast expanse of its arable land and the incredible productivity of its farmers. American farmers have been at the forefront of agronomic invention, from the use of tractors to the use of GPS (global positioning satellite location finding) to the genetic manipulation of grains. France, in particular, and Europe, in general, oppose the sale of genetically modified foods, and are lavish in their subsidization of their farmers.

With unemployment running high in many EU countries — especially Greece and Spain, where it approaches 25%, or about what the US suffered during the Great Depression — an FTA with America will be a tough sell. The average European is as much a believer in populist economic fallacies as the average American, and especially in the myth that free trade costs domestic jobs. (It’s always funny how opponents on both sides of an FTA can argue that it will send jobs over to the other side).

You can catch a glimmer of the difficulty in clenching this deal when you hear Karel De Gucht, no less than the EU trade commissioner, who is pitching an FTA with the US to lower the automobile tariffs that make cars so expensive in Europe, hasten to assure France that it would never be required to dismantle its subsidies and quotas on cultural industries.

Even more problematic will be an FTA that involves Japan. The Japanese certainly want the benefits an FTA with America would bring, such as an end to the tariff we impose on their automobiles — a tariff that runs as high as 25%. If these tariffs were eliminated, Japan’s auto imports alone would jump by perhaps 6%. (No doubt this is why the UAW, the AFL-CIO, and the domestic automakers are alarmed at the very idea of ending those tariffs). But Japan is erecting large obstacles to an early deal for true free trade. They are aggressively “pulling a Bernanke,” that is, weakening the value of the yen, so that Japanese manufactured goods will drop in price compared to American goods. This would rather quickly reduce the impact of our tariff barriers.

An even more significant problem is the fact that a real FTA that included Japan would immediately open Japanese farmers to massive competition by America’s vastly more efficient agriculture. To cite one example: Japan imposes a stunning 778% tariff on imported rice. In other words, Japan’s rice farmers are so comparatively inefficient that they need to be protected by a tariff of nearly eight-fold the American price — a whole new meaning for the Eightfold Way!

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who decided to join the TPP talks, already faces opposition to his move, and has promised, “I will protect Japan’s agriculture and its food at all costs.” That doesn’t make it sound as if there were much chance of a major deal to open trade on both sides.

Over the long term, of course, competition would be good, very good, for Japan. Its citizens would get cheaper food, enabling them to buy more of other things or save more capital to create or expand competitive industries. Free trade would free up people from the farms, enabling them to work more creatively and productively in knowledge-based industries. This would be a major advantage, given that Japan’s population is aging rapidly.

But economics is not the same as culture. In a nation as socially cohesive and static as if Japan, it will be very difficult to convince people to allow their farm industry to shrink. Yet you don’t need to be Japanese to succumb to the myths of protectionism. Populist economics is popular all over the world because, well, the populace is basically the same all over the world. As Hayek noted, our evolution from hunter-gatherers has left us with instincts that are often counterproductive.

If Obama really has seen the light — about which, again, I am skeptical — he would do better to emulate Bush. Go for bilateral FTAs with countries with whom we have a better chance of success. I would urge him to focus on just two countries: Brazil and India. I will be brief here, having discussed the possibility of an FTA with Brazil elsewhere.

Start with the fact that bilateral FTAs are inherently easier to negotiate, since the special interest groups, those omnipresent rentseekers, are easier to hold in check, being fewer than those aroused by action on a broader front.

In a nation as socially cohesive and static as if Japan, it will be very difficult to convince people to allow their farm industry to shrink.

Second, note that while countries such as Japan and France are very culturally homogeneous, Brazil and India are, like the US, ethnically and culturally diverse. Such diversity tends to lessen (though not to eliminate) the tribalist-populist impulse to fear trade with the Other.

Third, Brazil and India are big countries. Brazil, with 200 million citizens, is the fifth largest country in population, and India is the second largest. Unlike Japan and most of Europe, Brazil and India are still growing in population, so they will have a young labor force for decades to come. They are likelier than other countries to allow the importation of food, and more eager to gain access to our manufactured goods markets.

Finally, both countries are growing economically at a fast clip. Brazil already has the world’s sixth largest economy. Both are nations whose greatest economic growth lies in their future, not their past.

They seem altogether better bets than those the administration is pursuing. Maybe — my recurring skepticism whispers — that is why the administration isn’t pursuing them.

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Comments

Jon Harrison

There's a big difference between the exact sciences like physics and chemistry, and pseudo-sciences like economics. That's so obvious that even Geezer should be aware of it.

I made a point of saying that the author's appeal to authority could be legitimate. But there's no way to determine definitively whether it is not; at bottom it's a matter of opinion. Economics is mushy science, and no one can state with certainty that Adam Smith's writings from the 18th century are relevant today.

Don't forget as well that portions of Newton's thought were in fact invalidated by Einstein's theory of relativity. Perhaps, in the end, all knowledge is relative. If clinging to supposed verities keeps Geezer warm at night, so be it. I have no desire to burst his peculiar mental bubbles.

Geezer

Quod erat demonstrandum.

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