Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

Fast Track just passed the House (Updated with money facts)

Just want to let everyone know that the Fast Track bill just passed the house.  The vote was 218 to 208 with 28 Dem’s voting for it.  Imagine that.  no provision for workers harmed by this and it passes.

From the article here is Ryan’s take:

“It gives America credibility,” Ryan said of TPA. “And boy, do we need credibility right now.”

Who is he concerned about looking creditable too?

On to the senate.  Maybe all the talk about it being unconstitutional lately someone with money that gives more than lip service to being a patriot will step up.

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Democratic Arithmetic vs Comparative Advantage: TAA, TPA, TPP

In reading around on reactions to the defeat of the TAA (Trade Adjustment Authority) component of the TAA/TPA (Trade Promotion Authority) Package needed to successfully pass TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership) I get the usual incomprehension as to why Democrats can possible oppose Free Trade given the proven mathematical reality of Ricardian Comparative Advantage. And the reason is simple, perhaps too simple for those educated in the higher maths of your typical Econ curriculum, Democrats are using democratic arithmetic.

Lets start with a schematic example. Suppose we have a Free Trade deal between two countries that we confidently predict will result in growth in national income in both over time. And maybe a lot of growth. For those that believe that GDP = Good this becomes a slam dunk, I mean who can argue against America getting richer? But what if the arithmetic goes somewhat as follows:

50% of the net gain flows to the top 1%, 20% to the 2-10%, 20% to the 11-30%, 10% to the 31-50%, 0 to the 51-70%, and -10% to the 71-100%.

Is this a good deal? Well even before you discuss possible offsets, it clearly is a great deal to the top 1% and a good deal to the top 10% but the benefits get pretty attenuated when spread over the top 50% while they range from zero to a net loss among the lowest 50%. And given this distribution this is true no matter how eye popping the top line GDP growth number gets. Which raises the question: why should small d democratic majorities vote for this?

Well the answer from the other side tends to fall into three types:
One. “A richer America is a stronger America. And a stronger America is a safer America.”
Which is a reasonable answer if you have a roof over your head, and sufficient food, and available health care. Because if not your world doesn’t seem that safe at all.

Two. “Well the distribution you suggest is actually impossible. Because of economic theory that shows indubitably:
a) Free Trade, b) PROFIT! c) Invisible Hand d) does something e) somehow, f) EVERYONE WINS!. Okay maybe not LAST time, or the time before THAT. But trust us, Free Trade cannot Fail. It can only be Failed.”
Which answer is reasonable enough if you still laugh when your weird uncle asks you to “Pull the other finger!”

Three. “Voters simply are not rational, they don’t understand the simplest most truistic arguments about Comparative Advantage and insist on nattering about redistribution (as if anyone cared about that) so lets take away their vote by reapplying a property qualification for voting”.
Which answer is reasonable enough in you are Bryan Caplan of GMU. The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies

It just seems to me that Right economic and political theory seems to hold two contradictory ideas at one time:
One maximizing ones self interest is not only rational, it is virtuous.
Two democratic majorities looking to their own interests are simply selfish.

But you can’t square that circle with pure representative democracy. (Or with Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness) Because why NOT a calculation of interest based on that of the majority?

Which given the general commitment in the West to some form of representative democracy leads to the impasse of the post title. Damn 50 + 1.

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It’s crunch time. Just a little reminder from Ross

Just a little reminder for everyone.  It’s not just his “giant sucking sound” comment.  It’s the time frame he noted, and the advantages to a business going to a foreign nation.  Well, tomorrow is the Fast Track vote and there are some dem’s who are not taking the threat of loosing their job seriously enough.

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Latest World Trade Organization Lunacy

Dan Becker’s post Trans Pacific Partnership: A new Constitution gained a lot of traction because once again the public media is beginning to pay attention to trade policy. Angry Bear has carried a number of posts on the World Trade Organization intent and structure…here are several on the particular issue between Antigua and the US. The issue is not earthshaking in amounts of money, but offers a look at the potential conflicts that can play out between nations. Perhaps coming later further exploration of the World Trade Organization (from past Angry Bear posts) will be warranted.

Price of free trade or the price of protectionism,
Antigua update Part 1 WTO GATS,
Update about Antigua,
WTO and Antigua follow up

From The Huffington Post by Lori Wallach comes this note:

Internet pirates of the Caribbean

On Monday the World Trade Organization (WTO) officially authorized Caribbean nation Antigua to sell $21 million in “pirated” U.S.-copyrighted music, films and computer programs in retaliation for the United States failing to comply with a 2005 WTO order to allow online gambling here. Say what? (And, no, this news was not sourced from a parody in The Onion.)

The case is an illustrated guide to much of what is wrong with the WTO. And, it should spotlight the lunacy of Obama administration plans to expand this dangerous “trade” agreement model via the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) “free trade” agreement. More on that later. Let’s tour what is now a full coop of WTO chickens that have come home to roost on this WTO case.

First, the backstory: in 2003, Antigua filed a case at the WTO claiming that U.S. laws banning Internet gambling violated WTO rules. The case, which some say was in fact the brainchild of an American attorney, Mark Mandel, who is handling the WTO litigation for Antigua, was joined by the European Union and other countries with major gambling industries. Antigua won a final ruling in 2005 and yesterday’s “sanctions” announcement was retaliation for the United States failing to change its domestic laws to comply with the WTO.

Why does the WTO have anything to say as to whether or not the U.S. Congress can ban Internet gambling, especially when the ban applies to domestic and foreign firms alike? Unlike past trade agreements, which focused on cutting tariffs, the WTO imposes expansive constraints on signatory governments’ non-trade policies and establishes new corporate rights. The WTO’s General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) limits how the U.S. government may regulate foreign service firms operating here and cross-border “trade” in services too. The WTO’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement requires countries to provide expanded monopoly patent and copyright terms. (That’s how U.S. drug patent monopolies got expanded from 17 to 20 years in 1994 when Congress OK’d U.S. WTO accession, overruling decades of congressional opposition to such patent extensions and costing us billions in higher drug prices, pocketed by WTO booster Big PhRMA.)

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Copyrights and free market pricing

The New York Times points us to one anomaly in the idea of “free markets”. Dean Baker (and many others) of course has championed taking a more critical look at this set of issues for years.  But most readers know that “free market” is an election slogan and a metaphorical  apocryphal story line rather than  something real for guiding either private companies or governments policies and rules.  On the other hand, that is the language used and something I hear from people in a non-critical way.

Copyright and patent rights need strong government to enforce the rules, and distort “pricing” mechanisms.   Yet it does not seem to be enough to cajole people into making a list of possible exceptions and then applying the rule of  “free”…if open to exception, where does it stop?  Often the question puts people to sleep, but is part of the bread and butter of real multinational companies.  And then enforcement falls to whom?  Who votes based on such details?  Trade policy hasn’t had traction for years.  

…can sell their copyrighted works abroad at prices different from what they charge in the American market and rely on copyright law to help maintain the separate pricing without having importers profit from the difference. The justices should rule that the Copyright Act and a revision to it that Congress made in 1976 prohibit such resales…..

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… 

A federal trial court ordered Mr. Kirtsaeng to pay $600,000 in damages for infringing on the Wiley copyright by reselling more than 600 copies of eight different books that he bought in Thailand. Mr. Kirtsaeng contends that the law allows him to resell the textbooks because he, family members and friends bought them legally and a principle called the first-sale doctrine, announced by the Supreme Court in a 1908 ruling and codified into law by Congress, says copyright owners cannot control the distribution and pricing of works, like books, after the initial sale.

But the Copyright Act prohibits anyone from importing into the United States copyrighted works without the copyright holder’s approval. That provision would be seriously limited if copies of a work made abroad could be resold by importers in this country without constraint.

This case requires a difficult interpretation of the Copyright Act, but that is made easier by understanding the intent of Congress when it revised the law in 1976. It did so to broaden protection against unauthorized imports of copyrighted works by so-called gray-market sellers, and to make easier the kind of market segmentation by geography and price that Mr. Kirtsaeng’s resales subverted. With segmentation, book publishers can offer cheaper editions of their works in less-developed countries, without concern that those copies will be resold in the United States and unfairly undercut sales here.

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Did Romney speak blasphemously?

Of all the things being deconstructed regarding the debate last night, this is the one that stood out for me:
QUESTION: The outsourcing of American jobs overseas has taken a toll on our economy. What plans do you have to put back and keep jobs here in the United States?
Romney:…which will allow me as president to be able to put in place, if necessary, tariffs where I believe that they are taking unfair advantage of our manufacturers.
So, who is it on Romney’s team that has decided this is a viable tool regarding the position labor is in? Is this what would be expected of a Republican presidential candidate? It just floored me to hear Romney speak the word “tariff” when presenting his solution to the question.  What would Uncle Milton think of his school’s chosen one?

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U.S. Trade Deficit Largely Due to "Intra-Firm" Trade

by Kenneth Thomas

U.S. Trade Deficit Largely Due to “Intra-Firm” Trade

The vast majority of the U.S. $727 billion trade deficit in goods for 2011 is due to “intra-firm” or “related party” trade, that is, trade between two units of the same corporation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. This is significant because such trade is the most open to companies manipulating the prices between subsidiaries to minimize tax liabilities, usually known as abusive transfer pricing. Moreover, as Stuart Holland argued in 1987, intra-firm trade is also less responsive to changes in exchange rates than is trade between independent businesses, since within an individual multinational corporation each subsidiary will have a specific role to play in its supply chain, which won’t be quickly changed.

U.S. goods trade and related party trade (billions of dollars), world and selected countries, 2011:
Country        Exports from US Imports to US Balance
World            $1480.4     $2707.8          - $727.4
World (RP)     $ 365.0      $1056.2          - $691.2
Canada          $ 280.9      $ 315.3            -$  34.5
Canada (RP)   $ 98.1        $ 162.0           – $ 64.1
Ireland           $ 7.6          $ 39.4             – $ 31.7
Ireland (RP)    $ 1.5          $ 34.6             – $ 33.1
Mexico           $ 196.4      $ 262.9            - $ 64.5
Mexico (RP)    $ 60.5        $ 155.7            - $ 95.2

Sources: Total trade, U.S. Census, Trade in Good with World, Not Seasonally Adjusted; Related party (RP) trade, U.S. Census, NAICS Related-Party, select all NAICS2, 2011, all countries, variables “imports related trade” and “exports related trade” and layout by country. Canada, Ireland, and Mexico as linked.

As we can see, related party trade (which can mean trade within either a U.S. or foreign multinational corporation) is 27.6% of goods trade, but it represents a whopping 95.0% of the trade deficit. Moreover, in

countries where the U.S. has heavy foreign direct investment, such as Canada, Ireland, and Mexico, the trade deficit for intra-firm trade actually exceeds the country’s overall trade deficit.
In fact, virtually all U.S. imports from Ireland take the form of intra-firm trade. This is no doubt due to Ireland’s status as a tax haven and low corporate income tax rate of 12.5%.

These data suggest that much of the U.S. trade deficit is due to U.S. corporations offshoring production and exporting the products back home. As the related-party data does not distinguish between U.S. and foreign multinationals, there is no way to know exactly how big the share of U.S. multinationals is in intra-firm, but is surely much more than half. Moreover, not counted in the data are imports that come from subcontractors (Wal-Mart’s many suppliers, Foxconn producing Apple products, etc.).

The bottom line is that we need to reverse the incentives in the tax code that encourage the offshoring of jobs. (Why does Apple have $64 billion in cash abroad?) However, to emphasize the point I made last time about what Americans want out of tax reform and the “reform” that has actually happened, it’s worth pointing out that Robert Gilpin of Princeton University, author of the seminal U.S. Power and the Multinational Corporation (1975), made the same policy recommendation almost 40 years ago, and it hasn’t happened yet. We’ve got our work cut out for us.

UPDATE: Following the Mitt George Romney rule (“one year might be a fluke”), I went back and collected the data for all years back to 2002 (the earliest for which the related party trade info was available). While 2009-11 were all 95%, previous years were generally between 70% and 80%. I’m not sure yet what to make of that.

cross posted with Middle class Political Economist

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"Free trade" and the Tea Party Congress

An op-ed in the Washington Post points to an idea worth exploring:

For all the talk of populist foment – the Tea Party on the right and the new Occupy Wall Street movement on the left – business interests remain firmly in control. Forced to choose between their voters and their donors, lawmakers don’t hesitate before choosing the latter.

There is little doubt about where the Tea Party faithful stands on free trade. A year ago, a Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll found that 61 percent of Tea Party supporters thought free-trade agreements had hurt the country, compared to 53 percent of Americans overall who held that view. Shortly after that, a Pew Research Center poll found that only 24 percent of Tea Party supporters thought free-trade agreements were good for America.

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Corporations pushing for job-creation tax breaks shield U.S.-vs.-abroad hiring data

The Washington Post points us to a thought that needs to be included in public debate. (h/t Stormy)

Corporations pushing for job-creation tax breaks shield U.S.-vs.-abroad hiring data

Some of the country’s best-known multi­national corporations closely guard a number they don’t want anyone to know: the breakdown between their jobs here and abroad.

So secretive are these companies that they hand the figure over to government statisticians on the condition that officials will release only an aggregate number. The latest data show that multinationals cut 2.9 million jobs in the United States and added 2.4 million overseas between 2000 and 2009.

Some of the same companies that do not report their jobs breakdown, including Apple and Pfizer, are pushing lawmakers to cut their tax bills in the name of job creation in the United States.



Apple, by the way, is at the top or close to the top, in recent profits. GE has deceased its per centage of US workers from 54% to 46% in the last decade. Few contenders in the presidentail elections or Congressional elections make this notion a part of their campaigns. The debate in regular media usually stops at words like ‘protectionism’. The next time you read about tax cut money flowing to create jobs, hold in mind global trade demands that companies actually respond to, and do not think US jobs are a priority. The rhetoric merely implies a vague ideal…not company policies.

Perhaps multi-national companies need to be lean and mean to thrive, and raising the overall living standards of the world has trememdous benefits for people in general, and of course some problems that go with it. Just don’t think that election political rhetoric has US public benefit in mind overall as a priority high on the list.

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Compensating the Losers from Trade

Uwe Reinhardt’s post the other day, “How Convincing is the Case for Free Trade?“, helped to kick-start a fair bit of discussion recently about the impact of international trade on the US economy. Mark Thoma and William Polley have shared their thoughts about the importance of compensating the losers from trade, while others (e.g. Tim Worstall) have questioned that need.

I’d like to add 3 points to this discusssion.

1. International trade is not substantially different from trade between two people within the same country. Both types of trade are voluntary agreements between the two parties to the transaction. And both types of trade may negatively impact other people in the economy who had nothing to do with the transaction. The main difference is simply that with international trade, the transaction happens to cross an international boundary.

2. Just because trade leads to an efficient outcome, that doesn’t mean it’s a good outcome. I think that a parable about a punch in the nose helps make that point. But even very bright economists often confuse “efficient” with “good”.

3. I see the problem of adequately compensating the losers from international trade as just a part of the larger question of how we treat people in our society who, through no fault of their own, have fallen on hard times. International trade is just one of the many enormous, inexorable forces that constantly reshape our economy. Technological change, demographic change, or the fluctuations of the macroeconomic business cycle may devastate millions of families each year just as surely as international trade. An important measure (to me) of the type of society we live in is how we treat those individuals who are on the losing end of those impersonal economic forces that, in the long run, often help to make the world a more prosperous place.

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