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Archive for the ‘Protectionism’ Category

I despise protectionism. Mostly because it is bad economic policy, but also because politicians often use protectionism as a way of diverting attention from their own failures.

So when I appeared on Neil Cavuto’s show to comment on President Obama’s criticism of “outsourcing,” I was a tad bit critical.

I think my opening comments were effective. I wanted to help viewers understand that cross-border investment is a big net plus for the American economy. Indeed, this is why I’m so critical of laws such as FATCA that discourage foreigners from making job-creating investments in the United States.

And I hope people understood the moral point I made about how it’s not our business what private citizens do with their own money, but it is our business when politicians squander taxpayer money.

Though perhaps I should have asked the folks at Fox to put this cartoon on the screen.

I also got to take a jab at the failed Keynesian stimulus. And I explained that big government facilitates corruption and that excessive government spending undermines growth, so I’m generally happy with my remarks.

But not completely happy. I should have said that the average corporate tax rate around the world is 15 to 17 percentage points below the American level, not 15 to 17 percent, but hopefully people understood the point I was trying to make.

P.S. Romney’s been engaging in some China bashing, so he also deserves some criticism.

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I’ve written several times about the foolish War on Drugs, which has been about as misguided and ineffective as the government’s War on Poverty.

So when I saw a news report about a couple of Swedes getting busted for smuggling 200-plus kilos of contraband into Norway, and then another story about a Russian getting caught trying to sneak 90 kilos of an illicit substance into the country, I wondered whether these were reports about cocaine or marijuana. Or perhaps heroin or crystal meth.

Hardly. Norway’s law enforcement community was protecting people from the horrible scourge of illegal butter.

Sounds absurd, but there’s been an increase in the demand for butter and high import taxes have created a huge incentive for black market butter sales. Here’s a video on this latest example of government stupidity.

I guess the moral of the story is that if you outlaw butter, only outlaws will have butter. Or perhaps butter is the gateway drug leading to whole milk consumption, red meat, salt, and other dietary sins. Surely Mayor Bloomberg will want to investigate.

By the way, the United States is not immune from foolish policies that line the pockets of criminals. Here’s a video from the Mackinac Center revealing how punitive tobacco taxes facilitate organized crime.

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When asked to pick my most frustrating issue, I could list things from my policy field such as class warfare or income redistribution.

But based on all the speeches and media interviews I do, which  periodically venture into other areas, I suspect protectionism vs. free trade is the biggest challenge.

So I want to ask the protectionists (though anybody is free to provide feedback) how they would answer these simple questions.

1. Do you think politicians and bureaucrats should be able to tell you what you’re allowed to buy?

As Walter Williams has explained, this is a simple matter of freedom and liberty. If you want to give the political elite the authority to tell you whether you can buy foreign-produced goods, you have opened the door to endless mischief.

2. If trade barriers between nations are good, then shouldn’t we have trade barriers between states? Or cities?

This is a very straightforward challenge. If protectionism is good, then it shouldn’t be limited to national borders.

3. Why is it bad that foreigners use the dollars they obtain to invest in the American economy instead of buying products?

Little green pieces of paper have little value to foreign companies. They only accept those dollars in exchange for products because they intend to use them, either to buy American products or to invest in the U.S. economy. Indeed, a “capital surplus” is the flip side of a “trade deficit.” This generally is a positive sign for the American economy (though I freely admit this argument is weakened if foreigners use dollars to “invest” in federal government debt).

4. Do you think protectionism would be necessary if America did pro-growth reforms such as a lower corporate tax rate, less wasteful spending, and reduced red tape?

There are thousands of hard-working Americans that have lost jobs because of foreign competition. At some level, this is natural in a dynamic economy, much as candle makers lost jobs when the light bulb was invented. But oftentimes American producers can’t meet the challenge of foreign competition because of bad policy from Washington. When I think of ordinary Americans that have lost jobs, I direct my anger at the politicians in DC, not a foreign company or foreign workers.

5. Do you think protectionism would help, in the long run, if we don’t implement pro-growth reforms?

If we travel down the path of protectionism, politicians will use that as an excuse not to implement pro-growth reforms. This condemns America to a toxic combination of two bad policies – big government and trade distortions. This will destroy far more jobs and opportunity that foreign competition.

6. Do you recognize that, by creating the ability to offer special favors to selected industries, protectionism creates enormous opportunities for corruption?

Most protectionism in America is the result of organized interest groups and powerful unions trying to prop up inefficient practices. And they only achieve their goals by getting in bed with the Washington crowd in a process that is good for the corrupt nexus of interest groups-lobbyists-politicians-bureaucrats.

7. If you don’t like taxes, why would you like taxes on imports?

A tariff is nothing but a tax that politicians impose on selected products. This presumably makes protectionism inconsistent with the principles of low taxes and limited government.

8. Can you point to nations that have prospered with protectionism, particularly when compared to similar nations with free trade?

Some people will be tempted to say that the United States was a successful economy in the 1800s when tariffs financed a significant share of the federal government. That’s largely true, but the nation’s rising prosperity surely was due to the fact that we had no income tax, a tiny federal government, and very little regulation. And I can’t resist pointing out that the 1930 Smoot-Hawley tariff didn’t exactly lead to good results.

We also had internal free trade, as explained in this excellent short video on the benefits of free trade, narrated by Don Boudreaux of George Mason University and produced by the Institute for Humane Studies.

My closing argument is that people who generally favor economic freedom should ask themselves whether it’s legitimate or logical to make an exception in the case of foreign trade.

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Walter Williams explains why politicians and bureaucrats shouldn’t have the power to tell us what we’re allowed to buy.

At first blush, the mercantilists’ call for “free trade but fair trade” sounds reasonable. After all, who can be against fairness? Giving the idea just a bit of thought suggests that fairness as a guide for public policy lays the groundwork for tyranny. …Last summer, I purchased a 2010 LS 460 Lexus, through a U.S. intermediary, from a Japanese producer for $70,000. Here’s my question to you: Was that a fair or unfair trade? I was free to keep my $70,000 or purchase the car. The Japanese producer was free to keep his Lexus or sell me the car. …The exchange occurred because I saw myself as being better off and so did the Japanese producer. I think it was both free and fair trade, and I’d like an American mercantilist to explain to me how it wasn’t. Mercantilists have absolutely no argument when we recognize that trade is mostly between individuals. Mercantilists pretend that trade occurs between nations such as U.S. trading with England or Japan to appeal to our jingoism. …That’s nonsense. Trade occurs between individuals in one country, through intermediaries, with individuals in another country. Who might protest that my trade with the Lexus manufacturer was unfair? If you said an American car manufacturer and their union workers, go to the head of the class. …it’s never American consumers who complain about cheaper prices. It’s always American producers and their unions who do the complaining. That ought to tell us something.

The only thing I would add is that protectionists and free traders should unite in a campaign to get rid of misguided government policies that make it more difficult for American companies to create jobs and produce goods in America. America’s punitive corporate tax rate, for instance, should be dramatically lowered.

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Tax-news.com reports that the French and Italian governments want Europe to impose a tax on imports from nations that don’t adopt misguided climate-change/global-warming rules. This is awful policy, but the good news is that such a policy presumably won’t happen unless all 27 European Union nations agree:

France and Italy have demanded that the European Union (EU) consider the introduction of a carbon tax on imports from outside the EU, where countries do not comply with EU standards on environmental issues. In a joint letter to Jose Manuel Barroso, the head of the European Commission, President Sarkozy of France and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy stressed that: “It would be unacceptable if the ambitious efforts already agreed by the EU to reduce greenhouse gas emissions… were compromised by carbon leaking due to… insufficient action by certain third countries.” The letter went on to say that the tax could be used to pressurize third world countries to adopt measures to reduce their carbon emissions. …The irony is that the French government recently abandoned a plan to introduce a carbon tax in the country following a ruling that it was unconstitutional. The French government’s view is that any new carbon tax would only be viable if it was adopted by all 27 EU member states.

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Since I said something semi-nice about the French a couple of days ago, let me now revert to form and bash French politicians for their reflexive desire to tax and tax and tax again. The first example is from Tax-news.com, which reports that the French government wants to tax Google and other online companies in order to subsidize politically-approved news outlets: 

A report presented recently to the French Culture Ministry has proposed a series of measures designed to improve the legitimate supply of cultural services provided over the Internet and their financing, including most notably the introduction of a new tax to be levied on the online advertising revenue derived by Internet giants such as Google. …In order to finance the proposals, estimated at around EUR50m in 2010, and between EUR35m and EUR40m a year in 2011 and 2012, the report advocates the introduction of a levy imposed on online advertising revenue. Dubbed the “Google tax” by one of the main authors of the report, Jacques Toubon, himself a former French Culture Minister, the levy is designed to support creative industries and online press sites. A threshold level for the tax would ensure that the levy only affects large companies such as Google, Microsoft, AOL, Yahoo, and Facebook.

If the French politicians limited to themselves to raping French citizens, that would be reprehensible, but not exactly a reason for the rest of the world to be upset. Unfortunately, the French government has a misery-loves-company attitude and is always trying to export bad policy to other nations. France, for instance, is a leading supporter of the OECD’s anti-tax competition crusade (not surprisingly, the OECD is based in Paris even though the US pays one-fourth of the bureaucracy’s bloated budget). Another example is France’s campaign to impose an EU-wide carbon tax, which combines the worst aspects of big government, protectionism, and enviro-radicalism. The EU Observer reports:

France intends to push for a tax on carbon emissions across the European Union, President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Wednesday (6 December), a week after his country’s top court struck down an attempt to introduce just such a tax domestically. Mr Sarkozy also wants to see carbon “tariffs” slapped on products entering the EU from countries with weaker environmental legislation. …Any carbon tariff move is likely to meet with stiff resistance from other EU member states, particularly the more free-trade oriented nations, who would view such a levy as a form of protectionism. When an EU carbon tax imposed at the borders of the bloc was first mooted at a meeting of European environment ministers last July, the idea was given a frosty reception, particularly by Germany. …In response, the French government is to present a re-edited version of the bill on 20 January, taking into consideration the court’s objections. On Tuesday, French finance minister Christine Lagarde said that the new law would would involve a progressive tax, with different brackets similar to income taxation.

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Art Laffer has a compelling column in the today’s Wall Street Journal discussing how higher tax rates under Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt played an important role in driving the economy into a ditch during the 1930s. The interesting question, of course, is the degree to which President Obama is going to repeat these mistakes. We already see that some of the mistakes that happened during the Great Depression are being replicated, including higher government spending (with a big help from Bush), more government regulation, and protectionism. The good news, so to speak, is that Obama is moving policy in the wrong direction in small steps, whereas Hoover and Roosevelt took giant leaps. So while it is likely that our long-term growth rate will be dampened, hopefully there will not be a lengthy period of economic stagnation:

While Fed policy was undoubtedly important, it was not the primary cause of the Great Depression or the economy’s relapse in 1937. The Smoot-Hawley tariff of June 1930 was the catalyst that got the whole process going. It was the largest single increase in taxes on trade during peacetime and precipitated massive retaliation by foreign governments on U.S. products. Huge federal and state tax increases in 1932 followed the initial decline in the economy thus doubling down on the impact of Smoot-Hawley. There were additional large tax increases in 1936 and 1937 that were the proximate cause of the economy’s relapse in 1937. In 1930-31, during the Hoover administration and in the midst of an economic collapse, there was a very slight increase in tax rates on personal income at both the lowest and highest brackets. The corporate tax rate was also slightly increased to 12% from 11%. But beginning in 1932 the lowest personal income tax rate was raised to 4% from less than one-half of 1% while the highest rate was raised to 63% from 25%. (That’s not a misprint!) The corporate rate was raised to 13.75% from 12%. All sorts of Federal excise taxes too numerous to list were raised as well. The highest inheritance tax rate was also raised in 1932 to 45% from 20% and the gift tax was reinstituted with the highest rate set at 33.5%. But the tax hikes didn’t stop there. In 1934, during the Roosevelt administration, the highest estate tax rate was raised to 60% from 45% and raised again to 70% in 1935. The highest gift tax rate was raised to 45% in 1934 from 33.5% in 1933 and raised again to 52.5% in 1935. The highest corporate tax rate was raised to 15% in 1936 with a surtax on undistributed profits up to 27%. In 1936 the highest personal income tax rate was raised yet again to 79% from 63%—a stifling 216% increase in four years. Finally, in 1937 a 1% employer and a 1% employee tax was placed on all wages up to $3,000. …The damage caused by high taxation during the Great Depression is the real lesson we should learn. A government simply cannot tax a country into prosperity. If there were one warning I’d give to all who will listen, it is that U.S. federal and state tax policies are on an economic crash trajectory today just as they were in the 1930s. Net legislated state-tax increases as a percentage of previous year tax receipts are at 3.1%, their highest level since 1991; the Bush tax cuts are set to expire in 2011; and additional taxes to pay for health-care and the proposed cap-and-trade scheme are on the horizon.

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