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Archive for August, 2018

In a recent interview, I got a chance to pontificate about the recipe for growth and prosperity.

Free market capitalism revolutionized the western world, creating prosperity where there used to be deprivation.

But that observation is the easy part. Later in the interview, I was asked to give my two cents on whether Trump’s policies are helping or hurting.

As you can see, I discussed the benefits of pro-growth reforms, but also warned that monetary policy is the wild card and also admitted that economists are lousy forecasters.

That being said, I speculated that there might be a positive surprise for financial markets if Republicans held Congress and investors believed that might lead to some good policies. Especially spending restraint.

Though I should have mentioned – as I have on many occasions – that Trump is sabotaging himself with his protectionist policies.

Since we’re discussing politics and the economy, let’s look at the debate over Trump’s economic stewardship.

Professors Ed Prescott and Lee Ohanian recently opined in the Wall Street Journal about the positive impact of certain Trump policies.

The growth paths in a market economy depend on the quality of government policies and institutions. These affect the incentives to innovate, start a business, hire workers, and invest in physical and human capital. If policies are reformed to increase incentives for market economic activity—as many have been under President Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress—then investment and labor input expand as the economy rises to a higher growth path. …When policies change to depress these incentives, the economy moves onto a lower long-run growth path. That happened after the 2007-09 recession. …According to our calculations, the U.S. cumulatively lost about $18 trillion in income and output between 2007 and 2016. Everything suggested this shortfall would persist or even grow.

I fully agree that economic performance was anemic during the Obama years. Though I would also give Bush 43 part of the blame.

And I think Prescott and Ohanian are right when they explain that some of Trump’s policies are having a positive effect.

U.S. economic performance is the strongest in years. One policy driving this turnaround is the substantially lower corporate-tax rate, which has made the U.S. more competitive with other countries. Regulatory changes—such as the partial rollback of Dodd-Frank and new leadership within the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—also have proved helpful, particularly for small businesses, which are benefiting from lower record-keeping and compliance costs. Meanwhile, the number of regulatory pages in the Federal Register has been cut by a third since President Obama’s last year in office. …the U.S. can expect above-normal growth in the coming months, possibly even years.

Moreover, they are correct that more trade is the right approach, not Trump’s myopic protectionism.

Growth rates could improve with further policy changes. One example is a reduction in trade barriers. Since the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade was signed 70 years ago, international commerce has expanded dramatically, hugely benefiting U.S. consumers by lowering prices and increasing the variety of available goods. The average household’s benefits from trade are greater than $10,000 a year… A second area for reform… The rise of health-care costs is the most important reason wages have not increased more for U.S. workers. The extra compensation is swallowed up by health-insurance premiums. Expanding medical savings accounts and decoupling health plans from employment would create incentives for both consumers and their health-care providers to economize on health-care spending. This would lower costs without compromising quality.

Good health reform would be very beneficial, though I would have explicitly pointed out that the main goal is to mitigate the problems of third-party payer.

Since the economy appears to be doing well, Richard Epstein of the Hoover Institution explores whether Obama deserves any of the credit.

…we easily praise or blame the sitting president for all the economic successes or failures that take place during his term in office. By that standard, President Trump seems to be riding a boom that eluded his predecessor, and that prospect distresses the legion of Trump critics who regard him as an unmitigated disaster. Accordingly, they hope to credit today’s good times to the work of President Obama. …It is well known that economic policies introduced in one year may well have effects long afterwards. …the key measure is whether a president promotes or frustrates competitive behavior. Under this standard, any protection of monopoly institutions is presumptively bad, while deregulation or tax reduction is presumptively good.

Using that benchmark, Obama gets a bad grade, starting with the faux stimulus but also including Dodd-Frank and other statist policies.

Unsound Obama policies help explain the abnormally low rate of economic growth during his eight-year tenure. …the 2009 stimulus package…left a long-term legacy of protectionist legislation for key businesses and labor unions. …Today’s economic successes come in the face of ARRA, not because of it. Obama pushed through three other major pieces of legislation during his first term, all net negatives. The 2010 Affordable Care Act (ACA) created an immense tangle because it incorporated into health-care insurance many unsustainable features—a rich package of mandatory minimum benefits, community rating, mandatory coverage of preexisting conditions, and poor integration of federal and state programs. …In 2010, …the Dodd-Frank legislation… On balance the legislation did more harm than good by concentrating too many assets in banks deemed too big to fail. It invited regulators to pursue an extended definition of a Systematically Important Financial Institution (SIFI) and with it the opportunity to expand the regulatory scope of Dodd-Frank. …I cannot think of a single mid-level Obama policy that counts as a pro-growth initiative.

Trump, by contrast, is a mix of good and bad.

Deregulation of labor and capital markets are not just a short-term shot in the arm, and the lower taxation of corporate income has worked to repatriate capital from overseas and to expand overall levels of investment. So long as these remain permanent features of the economy—a big “if” with an election coming up—private firms have the necessary time horizons to make much-needed long-term investments. That activity will in turn–as has begun to happen–rejuvenate labor markets. …serious Trump-created obstacles. President Trump is no fan of small domestic budgets, and he has run a perverse rearguard campaign to reverse the declining fortunes of the coal industry. Most importantly, he has waged a series of foolish trade wars against our long-term trading partners. His astounding ignorance on the principles of comparative advantage led Trump to unwisely pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

So what’s the net effect?

Here is the bottom line: the gains from Trump’s (imperfect) domestic program look enormous, given the large economic drag of his trade policies. From this assessment it’s clear that classical liberalism with strong property rights, freedom of contract, and free trade is the only engine to economic prosperity.

I fully agree with the last sentence of that excerpt and I hope the first sentence is true.

But if Trump goes really crazy with his protectionism (and he has lots of bad policies under consideration – dealing with NAFTA, auto trade, China, steel and aluminum, etc), then the net effect of his policies could go from positive to negative.

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I don’t like it when poor people receive handouts from government, though not because I think they’re being grifters. I mostly view them as victims who are vulnerable to getting trapped in the quicksand of government dependency.

The people I despise are the rich people who manipulate the levers of power to get undeserved goodies. These well-heeled sleazeballs generally have the brains and ability to earn money honestly, but they decide it’s more lucrative to steal money from ordinary people, using government as the middleman.

That’s the moral argument for separation of business and state. But there’s also an economic argument against government cronyism.

There’s a very interesting new study from the World Bank that estimates the impact of government favoritism in Ukraine. Here’s how the authors define the problem.

Rent seeking is the manipulation of public institutions to obtain…income…without the creation of new wealth. …Rent seeking is sometimes legal. …In Ukraine, rent seeking includes the award of public resources to companies through tax exemptions, direct subsidies and procurement contracts to connected companies that cannot be justified in terms of the economic benefits to society as a whole. The rent seeking activities provide a basis for the existence of so-called “crony capitalism” ….Crony capitalism allows politically connected businesses to enjoy benefits that other companies cannot access. It allows politically connected businesses to create barriers to entry in those sectors where they operate. As a result, crony capitalism allocates resources inefficiently, restricts competition, increases economic costs and limits economic opportunity. …This paper estimates the economic cost of crony capitalism in Ukraine.

They start with the challenge of trying to measure cronyism.

If we are to assess the impact of crony capitalism in Ukraine, we must first define political connection and distinguish politically-connected firms from non-connected firms. …We use two approaches to identify politically connected firms. The first approach is based on publicly available information on the ownership and control of businesses by politically exposed persons. …A PEP is a person who has been entrusted with prominent public functions, including senior politicians and party officials, senior government, judicial or military officials, and senior executives of state-owned corporations. …The second approach is…to include companies that are not formally controlled by PEPs, but enjoy a political connection through an oligarch or a business group they belong to. …Between half a percent and 2 percent of the total number of firms in Ukraine are politically connected. However, politically connected firms controlled over 20 percent of the total turnover of all Ukrainian companies.

Here are some of their empirical results.

The economic performance of politically-connected firms in Ukraine is significantly different from that of their non-connected peers. …Politically-connected firms are larger than their non-connected peers. …Politically-connected firms pay a lower effective tax rate. …Politically-connected firms are less productive. Politically-connected firms have a negative Total Factor Productivity (TFP) gap compared to non-connected firms. …This indicates that there could be a potentially large pay-off from policies that promote competition. …Politically-connected firms grow slower than non-connected firms. …Such firms tend to have better access to rents and less incentives to compete. …The politically-connected firms reap the benefits from preferential treatment when interacting with the state and limiting market competition.

The bottom line, as illustrated by this chart, is that cronyism promotes and protects inefficiency. And when an economy is less productive, that results in lower incomes and diminished living standards.

Sadly, this isn’t just a problem in developing and transition nations.

Cronyism exists wherever governments have a lot of power, and that includes the United States.

The federal government has myriad policies that tilt the playing field in favor of connected companies. The purpose of policies such as ethanol handouts, the Export-Import Bank, protectionism, tax favoritism, bailouts, subsidies, and green energy is to provide unearned wealth to the friends of politicians.

Here’s a recent example of how Obamacare is a vehicle for cronyism, as explained by the Wall Street Journal.

Big business feasts on big government, and ObamaCare has been a bonanza for companies that have figured out how to exploit it. …Ohio contracts with five managed-care organizations (MCOs) to administer Medicaid benefits, four of which outsource their drug benefits management to CVS Caremark… CVS appears to be billing the state for far more than what it is paying pharmacies, driving up taxpayer costs. …CVS is also attempting to drive independent pharmacists out of business and expand its retail market share. …Ohio’s Medicaid enrollment has swelled by more than half to 21.4% of the state population, driven in large part by ObamaCare’s expansion to people earning up to 133% of the poverty line. …In the last three years, Ohio has lost 164 independent pharmacies while CVS has added 68. …States ostensibly have an incentive to curb their Medicaid spending… Yet many may be turning a blind eye because they can pass on the bills to the federal government, which picks up 63% of the costs for Ohio’s pre-ObamaCare population and 94% for the expansion population.

But cronyism isn’t just enabled by bad policies from Washington.

State governments also are guilty of favoritism, even when the feds aren’t involved. Consider the oleaginous handouts for Foxconn in Wisconsin.

…the Foxconn deal is a condemnable example of corporate welfare in its most egregious form. …Wisconsin could end up delivering $3 billion in tax credits to Foxconn. …If the jobs target of 13,000 is met, Wisconsin taxpayers will pay $219,000 per job. If only 3,000 jobs are created, they will pay $587,000 per job in the form of a $1.7 billion tax credit. …Who wins? The politicians. Who loses? Fiscal sanity and those footing the bill for political pet projects.

And the goodies for Foxconn are just the tip of the iceberg.

States and cities dole out billions of dollars every year to attract businesses through cash grants, tax breaks, and new infrastructure. …The search for Amazon’s second headquarters (HQ2), for instance, has left around 230 state and local governments genuflecting before the altar of the Seattle-based tech deity, offering tributes amounting, in several cases, to billions of dollars. …The cost of these kind of incentives is astoundingly high — there is little research that points to their success.

As I’ve previously argued, the pro-growth way for governments to compete is having low tax rates for everyone.

…the most effective solution is the simplest. New Hampshire is a dark horse candidate to receive HQ2, and its pitch is entirely reasonable: Low tax rates for every business, across the board. That approach removes the incentive to attract businesses through what amounts to legal, nonsensical bribery.

Let’s close with this visual from libertarian Reddit. It’s simple, but a very accurate summary of how the real world operates.

P.S. Elizabeth Warren wants to turn all big companies into cronyist entities.

P.P.S. American taxpayers are subsidizing cronyism in Ukraine.

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Whether I’m writing about a rich country or a poor country, my research starts with a visit to Economic Freedom of the World. Published by the Fraser Institute in Canada, EFW uses five major factors (fiscal, regulatory, monetary, trade, and quality of governance) to rank nations based on the overall amount of economic liberty.

The rankings go as far back as 1970, so you can see how a country has changed over time (and the good news is that scores have improved in most nations).

Today, let’s look at a history of the freest nations. We’ll start with the table from 1970.

Unsurprisingly, Hong Kong was at the very top. But who would have guessed that Luxembourg would be second? Canada ranked #3 and the United States was in 4th place, followed by Japan and four European nations.

Perhaps the most shocking bit of news is that Venezuela was ranked #10.

All the more reason that Venezuela’s last-place status in the most-recent edition is so depressing. That must be a record for the biggest-ever decline for a country.

If we look at the data for 1975, 1980, and 1985. Luxembourg continues to get very high scores, along with Hong Kong and the United States.

Panama and Guatemala ranked amazingly high in 1975, while the United Kingdom finally appears in 1985 (thanks to Margaret Thatcher’s reforms).

Here’s the data for 1990, 1995, and 2000. You’ll notice that New Zealand and Australia enter the top 10 while Luxembourg begins to drop (at least relatively speaking) and Singapore begins to climb.

Now let’s look at what has happened this century.

Hong Kong and Singapore have a lock on the top-two slots, with New Zealand and Switzerland controlling the third and fourth positions. Luxembourg, meanwhile, has vanished.

In 2010 and 2015, we see some nations appear from the developing world and the post-communist world. Most notably, Chile, Estonia, and Georgia.

For a policy wonk, these are fascinating numbers. I enjoy looking how relative rankings have changed, as well as what’s happening to absolute scores.

It’s such good source of data that I’ve always wished there were pre-1970 numbers as well.

Well, my wish has been granted. Ryan Murphy and Robert Lawson, two of the scholars who put together Economic Freedom or the World, have cranked out estimates for the entire post-World War II era.

Based on their retroactive assessment, they show that the United States had the world’s freest economy back in 1950.

Switzerland was in second place, followed by a bunch of European and Anglosphere nations.

If you want to understand why Luxembourg, Belgium, Norway, and Sweden are rich today, notice that they have a history of being among the world’s most pro-market nations.

Incidentally, due to inadequate data, Singapore wasn’t included in the retroactive data until 1960 and Hong Kong is complete absent from this historical dataset.

We don’t have top-10 lists for the other years, but the authors shared a table with all their numbers, so I created my own versions for 1955, 1960, and 1965.

As you can see, congratulations to Switzerland and Luxembourg (twice). The United States and Canada get very high marks. And Belgium and the Netherlands get good scores as well.

There are so many implications to this data, but I’ll close with three simple observations.

  • First, these numbers help to explain why Europe is a relatively rich continent. European nations traditionally have dominated the top-10 rankings. It’s not a good continent for fiscal policy, but those countries dominate the scores in other policy areas.
  • Second, you can fall behind by standing still. If you take a close look at data for Luxembourg, Belgium, and the Netherlands, you’ll notice their absolute scores haven’t really changed. But all of those nations have dropped out of the top 10 because other countries improved.
  • Third, global economic liberty is increasing. The top scores in the 1950s and 1960s wouldn’t get a country into the top 10 this century.

P.S. A Spanish academic also has produced some very interesting historical estimates for economic freedom, but his numbers are only averages for western nations.

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Remember the big debate about whether Trump was a closet free trader or a crude protectionist?

Some people claimed he was imposing tariffs and threatening other nations in order to get them to reduce trade barriers.

From the beginning, I was skeptical of this argument, but also acknowledged that we wouldn’t know for sure until we saw a Trump-negotiated deal.

Well, I point out in this interview that my skepticism was warranted. Trump unveiled a quasi-deal on NAFTA yesterday, and it unquestionably will reduce economic liberty.

There’s a lot we still don’t know. Especially about whether this new agreement will actually get approved.

But Claude Barfield of the American Enterprise Institute has a very succinct explanation of the good and bad. He agree with me that it’s good to remove uncertainty.

(1) The best thing about the agreement — if it holds — is that it will remove the extreme uncertainty for businesses in all three NAFTA economies.

And I’m guessing he also agrees that a weakened NAFTA is better than no NAFTA.

By the way, Administration officials have told me that there are a few good provisions, involving matters such as digital goods and property rights.

But Barfield’s list of bad provisions easily trumps (no pun intended) any positive changes.

(2) The tentative “rules of origin” provisions for autos are an abomination — so complex and anti-competitive that they invite endless litigation and corruption (rules of origin govern what percentage of a final product must come from the three NAFTA nations).

(3) The old NAFTA dispute settlement system for investors has been gutted, leaving US industry and Congress with a huge dilemma as to whether to support the new pact.

(4) The auto/labor provisions (forcing Mexico to pay workers $16/hour for a number of jobs in Mexican auto plants, or four times the average hourly pay in Mexico) is a terrible precedent for mandating changes in domestic policy through a trade agreement.

Point #4 is especially terrible. It basically seeks to set wage levels above productivity levels in Mexico, which is a recipe for more unemployment in that already shaky economy (by the way, someone should tell Trump this will lead to more illegal migration from Mexico to the U.S.).

This is the same theory that the French and Germans use when trying to undermine tax competition. It’s supposedly unfair, they argue, when other countries have lower tax rates.

The bottom line is that Trump is hurting America. NAFTA has been good news for the United States, producing more jobs, more exports, and higher living standards.

When grading Trump’s overall economic policy, we just got a big chunk of bad policy to offset some of the good policy.

Sad!

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During America’s early history, trade taxes were the major source of government revenue, but they were “revenue tariffs” rather than “protectionist tariffs.”

Lawmakers didn’t necessarily want to block imports. This was before America was plagued by an income tax and some source of revenue was needed to finance the government.

And since the central government back then was very small, as the Founders envisioned, the first tariff was only 5 percent and it applied equally to all imports.

Compared to what we have today, that was a pretty good system. But it seems inevitable that politicians – sooner or later – will manipulate and abuse any power they have.

It didn’t take long for that original tariff of just 5 percent to climb higher. And it also was just a matter of time before politicians begin imposing special tariffs on selected imports in response to pleading (and goodies) from various interest groups.

Today, government’s power over trade enables some utterly disgusting and oleaginous examples of insider dealing and rank corruption.

For instance, the Wall Street Journal is reporting about an odious example of unjust enrichment thanks to protectionism.

…tariffs on imports of newsprint…have been cause for celebration at private-equity firm One Rock Capital Partners LLC. Government records show that a team from the New York-based firm approached the Commerce Department, including one meeting with Secretary Wilbur Ross, saying Canadian newsprint imports were hurting One Rock’s investment in North Pacific Paper Co., a paper mill also known as Norpac. Commerce responded to One Rock’s appeal by setting tariffs on Canadian imports, causing newsprint prices to jump by as much as 30%, significantly lifting Norpac’s business prospects.

Yes, your read correctly.

Some bigwigs bought a paper mill and then used their connections to undermine competition from Canadian paper mills.

They get rich, but only by manipulating the levers of power, not because they provide value to consumers.

…the price surge threatens the viability of small-town papers across the country, forcing reduced publication days, layoffs and other cut backs. Canadian mills have historically supplied a large portion of U.S. newsprint. “This whole play by Norpac basically disrupted an entire industry,” said Paul Boyle, senior vice president at the News Media Alliance… The tariffs represent a remarkable success by a relatively little-known private-equity firm at pulling the levers of power in Washington for advantage. …Canadian Ambassador David MacNaughton called Norpac a “rogue actor seeks to game American trade laws for its own short-term advantage, while putting thousands of U.S. and Canadian jobs at risk.”

The obvious takeaway from this story is that protectionism is bad for the U.S. economy. Yes, a few rich insiders pocket some undeserved profits and there will be a few more workers at one plant, but those results will be easily offset by the loss of jobs and income elsewhere in the economy because of the adverse impact on newspapers, advertising, and related sectors.

But I want to highlight another negative effect. I wrote back in 2011 that there are many well-meaning folks on the left that support class-warfare policies because they assume that rich people got their money illegitimately.

Well, this story is sad confirmation that this is often true.

I tell all my statist friends that punitive and destructive taxation is not the right response to this kind of sleaze. Instead, we need to get rid of protectionism (and subsidies, cronyism, and other forms of special favoritism). Make sure we have a system where people instead get rich by satisfying the needs and wants of consumers.

And I tell my Republican friends that if they don’t want crazies like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to wind up in charge of Washington, they need to stop playing footsie with special interests and instead fight for genuine free markets.

Sadly, neither group is taking my advice.

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When I write about the economics of fiscal policy and need to give people an easy-to-understand explanation on how government spending affects growth, I share my four-part video series.

But. other than a much-too-short primer on growth and taxation from 2016, I don’t have something similar for tax policy. So I have to direct people to various columns about marginal tax rates, double taxation, tax favoritism, tax reform, corporate taxation, and tax competition.

Today’s column isn’t going to be a comprehensive analysis of taxes and growth, but it is going to augment the 2016 primer by taking a close look at how some taxes are more destructive than others.

And what makes today’s column noteworthy is that I’ll be citing the work of left-leaning international bureaucracies.

Let’s look at a study from the OECD.

…taxes…affect the decisions of households to save, supply labour and invest in human capital, the decisions of firms to produce, create jobs, invest and innovate, as well as the choice of savings channels and assets by investors. What matters for these decisions is not only the level of taxes but also the way in which different tax instruments are designed and combined to generate revenues…investigating how tax structures could best be designed to promote economic growth is a key issue for tax policy making. … this study looks at consequences of taxes for both GDP per capita levels and their transitional growth rates.

For all intents and purposes, the economists at the OECD wanted to learn more about how taxes distort the quantity and quality of labor and capital, as illustrated by this flowchart from the report.

Here are the main findings (some of which I cited, in an incidental fashion, back in 2014).

The reviewed evidence and the empirical work suggests a “tax and growth ranking” with recurrent taxes on immovable property being the least distortive tax instrument in terms of reducing long-run GDP per capita, followed by consumption taxes (and other property taxes), personal income taxes and corporate income taxes. …relying less on corporate income relative to personal income taxes could increase efficiency. …Focusing on personal income taxation, there is also evidence that flattening the tax schedule could be beneficial for GDP per capita, notably by favouring entrepreneurship. …Estimates in this study point to adverse effects of highly progressive income tax schedules on GDP per capita through both lower labour utilisation and lower productivity… a reduction in the top marginal tax rate is found to raise productivity in industries with potentially high rates of enterprise creation. …Corporate income taxes appear to have a particularly negative impact on GDP per capita.”

Here’s how the study presented the findings. I might quibble with some of the conclusions, but it’s worth noting all the minuses in the columns for marginal tax, progressivity, top rates, dividends, capital gains, and corporate tax.

This is all based on data from relatively prosperous countries.

A new study from the International Monetary Fund, which looks at low-income nations rather than high-income nations, reaches the same conclusion.

The average tax to GDP ratio in low-income countries is 15% compared to that of 30% in advanced economies. Meanwhile, these countries are also those that are in most need of fiscal space for sustainable and inclusive growth. In the past two decades, low-income countries have made substantial efforts in strengthening revenue mobilization. …what is the most desirable tax instrument for fiscal consolidation that balances the efficiency and equity concerns. In this paper, we study quantitatively the macroeconomic and distributional impacts of different tax instruments for low-income countries.

It’s galling that the IMF report implies that there’s a “need for fiscal space” and refers to higher tax burdens as “strengthening revenue mobilization.”

But I assume some of that rhetoric was added at the direction of the political types.

The economists who crunched the numbers produced results that confirm some of the essential principles of supply-side economics.

…we conduct steady state comparison across revenue mobilization schemes where an additional tax revenues equal to 2% GDP in the benchmark economy are raised by VAT, PIT, and CIT respectively. Our quantitative results show that across the three taxes, VAT leads to the least output and consumption losses of respectively 1.8% and 4% due to its non-distorting feature… Overall, we find that among the three taxes, VAT incurs the lowest efficiency costs in terms of aggregate output and consumption, but it could be very regressive… CIT, on the other hand, though causes larger efficiency costs, but has considerable better inequality implications. PIT, however, deteriorates both the economic efficiency and equity, thus is the most detrimental instrument.

Here’s the most important chart from the study. It shows that all taxes undermine prosperity, but that personal income taxes (grey bar) and corporate income tax (white bar) do the most damage.

I’ll close with two observations.

First, these two studies are further confirmation of my observation that many – perhaps most – economists at international bureaucracies generate sensible analysis. They must be very frustrated that their advice is so frequently ignored by the political appointees who push for statist policies.

Second, some well-meaning people look at this type of research and conclude that it would be okay if politicians in America imposed a value-added tax. They overlook that a VAT is bad for growth and are naive if they think a VAT somehow will lead to lower income tax burdens.

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There’s a debate in Washington about what President Trump really thinks about trade. Is he a crude protectionist or closet free trader?

If we focus on actions rather than rhetoric, I fear Trump is in the anti-trade camp. That is certainly the case if we look at how the Administration wants to alter the North American Free Trade Agreement. I was interviewed yesterday and here’s what I said about Trump and NAFTA.

By the way, even though I’ve previously defended NAFTA, I would like to see changes to the deal. The pact, which drags on for 1700 pages, isn’t genuine free trade.

An ideal agreement would contain just one sentence: “Mexicans and Canadians are free to buy goods and services from Americans, and Americans are free to buy goods and services from Mexicans and Canadians.”

Unfortunately, the Trump Administration wants to modify NAFTA in the other direction.

Clark Packard of the R Street Institute discusses this problem in a column for National Review.

…the administration should resolve NAFTA quickly. But a toxic mix of political miscalculations and bad policy is threatening to push that goal out of reach. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer wants to remove the investor–state dispute-settlement process (ISDS) from NAFTA 2.0. ISDS provides neutral arbitration to settle disputes between private investors and governmental parties to NAFTA. For example, if the Mexican government expropriated an oil field owned by an American firm, ISDS would permit the American firm to seek compensation from the Mexican government in an arbitration process rather than seek redress in a Mexican court. …removing the process from NAFTA 2.0 would be a political miscalculation. …Another troublesome demand the United States is making in NAFTA negotiations is the inclusion of a so-called sunset clause that would terminate the agreement after five years unless all three countries affirmatively renew it. This is an unpopular idea on Capitol Hill and is a non-starter for Mexico and Canada, with good reason. Investment thrives in predictable environments. …the United States suggested lowering the regional-content threshold to 70 percent and requiring that 40 to 45 percent of an automobile must be produced by autoworkers making at least $16 per hour. …If manufacturers complied with this proposed requirement, their costs would skyrocket and consumers would face higher prices at the dealership. …manufacturers would forgo duty-free trading under NAFTA by sourcing parts from non-NAFTA countries and paying wages below $16 an hour, and then simply paying the small U.S. tariff on automobiles.

And here’s a good explanation, from Gary Clyde Hufbauer, of why NAFTA is a big plus for the American economy.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has benefited American consumers, workers and businesses since 1994. …Some 14 million US jobs depend on the agreement with our nation’s two largest export markets, Canada and Mexico. Together, these countries spend nearly $500 billion purchasing US exports annually. …The Peterson Institute’s research shows that overseas investment is an engine for American job creation. For example, case studies in Mexico show a win-win relationship from establishing research and development facilities outside the United States: Every 131 jobs added in Mexico lead to 333 jobs created here at home. …NAFTA has fostered robust growth in agricultural exports over the past 24 years.

The bottom line, as I’ve explained many times, is that Trump will be undermining the benefits of the good things he’s accomplished – such as last year’s tax plan – if he insists on imposing higher taxes on trade. Protectionism isn’t just bad for taxpayers, exporters, consumers, and manufacturers. It’s also a net job destroyer.

The process of NAFTA began under Reagan, negotiations finished under the first President Bush (one of the few good things he did), and the pact was approved under Clinton (one of the many good things that happened during his tenure).

Let’s hope it’s not wrecked under Trump.

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