No “hysteria” about trade — just some facts

I admire Dan Ikenson’s work on trade issues at Cato. Usually I agree with his views. A notable exception is his post yesterday on Cato’s blog – “Too much hysteria about trade.”

No, Dan wasn’t hitting the current climate of China-bashing or the Teamsters’ on-going campaign against Mexican trucking and NAFTA or the “Buy American” provisions in the stimulus bill. Dan instead was taking to task newspapers like the Washington Post that have been warning readers about the rising tide of protectionism in this world economic downturn.

He writes:

The fact of the matter is that there isn’t any discernible trend toward protectionism in the United States or in the world right now. World leaders issue warnings about the consequences of protectionism, but there are not trends. There are incidences, but no trends.

He uses now-US Trade Representative Ron Kirk’s Senate testimony as evidence of the Obama Administration’s support for open trade and for enforcement of trade rules.

I beg to differ. Kirk’s testimony, of course, reiterates President Obama’s Trade Agenda, which, while including some good rhetoric about the importance of open trade, strongly endorses the need to focus on non-trade issues in trade agreements, such as those involving labor and the environment. Here’s what Kirk said:

I respectfully submit that two strong steps toward restoring domestic confidence in open markets are a real and renewed commitment to enforcement of our trade rules, including those addressing labor and the environment,

And –

. . . to ensure that the way we promote trade reflects our country’s values about economic progress and justice, including through the advancement of internationally recognized labor and environmental standards.

Such issues, as Jagdish Bhagwati has often written, really act as non-tariff trade barriers and force poorer countries to adopt our regulatory schemes in these areas (to “level the playing field”) even when they don’t have the resources.

Dan may not realize that U.S. policymakers such as the Energy Department Secretary and others are seriously considering imposing carbon tariffs on countries (read China and India) that aren’t taking appropriate steps to restrict carbon emissions. Again, that would be a good way to level the playing field and improve U.S. competitiveness. Not protectionism?

Food safety is another area where protectionism may rear its ugly head under the guise of protecting consumers but actually setting detailed standards that may rely more on procedures than the safety of the end product. A bill recently introduced in the House could easily be used to block foreign competition.

And let’s not forget the stimulus package and the infamous “Buy American” provisions, which mandate that any company receiving government funding has to use “made in America” goods, such as iron and steel. The stimulus legislation also restricts companies receiving bailout funds from hiring foreign workers and restricts those firms receiving Trouble Assets Relief Program (TARP) funds from hiring foreign nationals holding H-1B visas unless they can prove they could not hire U.S. citizens instead.

The Obama Team’s emphasis on enforcement issues seems benign to Dan. But take a look at what Rep. Sander Levin, head of the trade subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee is cooking up on trade enforcement. Besides promising lots more WTO complaints, the legislative plan is to put back in place provisions on U.S. antidumping and countervailing duties that were changed under President Bush because they weren’t WTO-compliant. But don’t interpret that as protectionism, Levin was quoted as saying, since its purpose is to “enforce the rule of law and the openness of markets.”

“Hysteria” about trade protectionism?  Think it’s not coming from the media, Dan, but from trade protectionists.