Unclean Hands: America’s Protectionist Policies Essay

aUnclean Hands: America’s Protectionist Policies by Stuart Anderson The author formerly was director of trade and immigration studies at the Cato Institute. American policymakers often justify trade barriers against other countries on the premise that the United States practices free trade while other countries erect trade barriers and engage in unfair trade practices. Claiming to favor “free but fair trade,” they propose that America keep its markets open only to countries that dismantle their trade barriers.

But in fact American policymakers often erect barriers and indulge in the kind of unfair practices that they are fond of denouncing. Russia’s Ambassador to the United States, Yuri Vorontsov, at least was honest when his government increased its tariffs on American poultry. He delivered a forthright defense of protectionism, noting that “the cost is on the shoulders of the Russian consumer, as usual. “1 He did not claim to be reacting to American protectionism. But if he follows the example of U. S. policymakers, he might well use this excuse in the future.

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American policymakers use a variety of practices, such as antidumping laws, to re-strict imports — often in the name of “fair trade. ” Such restrictions usually are at the behest of American special interests seeking to restrict their competition. The first and foremost result of these practices is to harm American consumers. If the United States simply eliminated all tariffs and quantitative restrictions on imports, the net welfare gain to consumers would be $15. 49 billion a year, according to a 1995 U. S. International Trade Commission report. 2 (See Table 1. That is probably a conservative estimate. Economists Gary Clyde Hufbauer and Kimberly Ann Elliot placed the total costs of protectionism in 1990 at $70 billion. 3 American consumers, families, and particularly businesses that rely on imports as raw materials or components for production would benefit significantly if the United States unilaterally removed all import restrictions. America’s protectionist policies also make it more difficult to maintain and expand freedom to trade worldwide. Policymakers in other countries understand that America’s holier-than-thou trade rhetoric rings hollow.

If America wishes freer trade, it would do well to start by dismantling its own barriers to trade and ceasing its own unfair trade practices. It Starts with Consumers American government officials often complain about trade restrictions imposed by other countries. One reason is that, generally speaking, America is among the world’s least protectionist nations. In some ways that distinction is akin to being among the most righteous men at the local brothel. Despite America’s less protectionist track record, its policies remain far from pure. The U. S. overnment continues to make numerous interventions in international trade that have no economic basis. Protectionist policies in the late 20th century take forms different from the tariffs that traditionally were the restriction of choice. And politicians gain political support by favoring a particular industry while the nation’s consumers lose out. But while other nations may harm the welfare of their own people through protectionist trade policies, that is no argument for inflicting damage on the well-being of Americans by limiting foreign companies’ access to the American market. The list of products with U.

S. import restrictions includes meat, footwear, frozen fruit juices, and many other items, most of which have well-funded lobbies. The literature on textile and apparel import restraints alone is voluminous. Table 1 shows how the economic welfare of U. S. citizens would change if all import restrictions on foreign-made products were removed. The calculations take into account the fact that some workers in particular industries would have to change jobs. But that should not be viewed any differently than a restaurant laying off workers because another, more popular, restaurant moves in around the corner.

Competition raises the quality of goods and services and thereby raises the standard of living for consumers and society at large. The nationality of the producer is not relevant to the equation. Textiles Perhaps America’s most costly form of protectionism is the restrictions placed on imports of textile and apparel products. Unlike most products, until a few years ago textiles and apparel were explicitly exempted from the decades of trade liberalization that took place under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).

Starting with the ironically named Short-Term Arrangement in 1958, textile and apparel imports were subject to quota restrictions. In the 1980s, when the Multifiber Arrangement was up for renewal, President Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers placed the annual cost to consumers of restrictions on textile and apparel imports at that time between $20 billion and $40 billion annually. 4 The U. S. International Trade Commission (ITC) put the cost in 1991 at approximately $10 billion. In any case, under the new GATT agreement, quantitative import restrictions will be phased out over the next decade.

Peanuts Children’s TV star Barney the Dinosaur sings a happy tune about peanut butter: “First you get the peanuts and you crunch ’em you crunch ’em up — for your peanut, peanut butter and jelly. ” American parents who listen to that song are likely unaware that the U. S. government makes their children’s peanut butter more expensive than it ought to be. The price of peanuts was approximately 4 cents a pound higher in the United States than on the world market from 1993 to 1994. 5 The import quotas on peanuts are, in part, due to a strange economic goal of the U. S. overnment — keep domestic peanut prices from falling. Since 1934, taxpayers have paid peanut farmers either not to grow their product or to ensure the farmers high prices without great regard to output in a particular year. Through a quota support pricing system, the federal government sets a national quota for total poundage, and peanut farmers become “domestic quota holders. ” It is a federal crime to grow peanuts for sale without a peanut growing license; and a license is almost impossible to get for those who have not grown peanuts in the past. Those with licenses have strict quota limits on what they can produce.

If large amounts of peanut imports entered the American market, then prices of course would drop. That would be great for American consumers but bad for the U. S. Treasury because the government would have to make up the difference in price by paying peanut farmers. According to an ITC report, “The import quota is designed so as to limit the cost of domestic price support programs to the U. S. treasury. “6 From 1953, the import quota on peanuts remained at 1. 7 million pounds a year — covering only one-tenth of 1 percent of all domestic edible peanut consumption in the United States. Presidential proclamations in 1955, 1956, 1980, and 1991 were needed to temporarily increase the quotas. American peanut butter producers in particular have been vocal critics of the import quotas. American consumers would gain $92 million a year if the peanut import quotas were lifted. Trade barriers raise the price per 16 oz. jar of peanut butter an estimated 40 cents. 8 Yet it is difficult to eliminate such quotas because the peanut farmers who currently benefit from them fight hard to keep the quotas. The Uruguay Round of the GATT, completed in 1994, made some headway for American consumers.

The quotas on imports of peanuts and certain peanut products rose from 775. 18 metric tons to 30,393 metric tons and will rise to 53,406 metric tons by the year 2000. This means imports will account for about 7 percent of America’s annual peanut product consumption. A tariff-rate quota replaces the previous quotas that amounted to a virtual prohibition on importing products above the quota. A tariff-rate quota sets different tariff rates for items above and below the quota. For example, on shelled peanuts below the quota the tariff will be 6. cents per kilogram but for those imported above the quota the tariff rate will be a whopping 151 percent ad valorem. It is important to remember that such restrictions increase prices on goods not only above the quota but below it as well by reducing the available quantity that can be imported. Sugar Sugar is another striking example of special interests winning out over the broader interests of consumers. A 1993 General Ac-counting Office report concluded that the U. S. sugar program, including its tariff-rate import quotas, costs consumers $1. 4 billion a year. 9 Sugar imports over quota pay a duty of approximately 16 cents per pound.

Removing the quotas would reduce prices on sugar-related imports by 44 percent. Candy producers have fought an unsuccessful battle to remove key elements of the sugar program. Milk Since the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, the U. S. government has for the most part banned the import of products derived from cow’s milk. Quotas have limited such dairy imports to approximately 2 percent of total U. S. milk production. Similar in operation to the peanut program, the milk program limits imports to prevent consumer prices from falling because that would disrupt the federal government’s program to support high prices for milk.

According to the U. S. International Trade Commission, Americans would gain at least $1 billion in net benefits from removing America’s import quotas on milk. By changing the quota structure, new GATT requirements will help consumers by allowing more imports of butter, cheese, and nonfat dry milk to reach the stomachs of Americans. As in the case of sugar and peanuts, only politics prevents Americans from buying as many foreign-produced dairy products as they would like. No economic rationale exists for these restrictions.

The Jones Act Even though “buy American” measures find their way into various pieces of legislation on Capitol Hill, that does not prevent the Office of the U. S. Trade Representative (USTR) from complaining, for example, that government officials in Brazil maintain their own “Buy National” policy. 10 The elaborate quota system on agricultural imports into the United States also does not prevent the USTR from protesting Honduras’ policies that mix tariffs and quotas. “The U. S. government has strongly opposed this policy, which limits access of U. S. agricultural products,” complains the USTR. 1 Few inconsistencies in the official 1996 Trade Estimate Report on Foreign Trade Barriers, produced by the office of the U. S. Trade Representative, are more brazen than the U. S. government’s protests over Spain’s shipping restrictions. The USTR’s report states: In 1992, the European Union established a calendar for liberalizing cabotage practice. While cabotage within peninsular Spain has been liberalized, the EU has allowed Spain to restrict merchant navigation to and within the Balearic Islands, the Canary Islands, and Ceuta and Mililla to Spanish flag merchant vessels until January 1, 1999. 2 The irony of that complaint is that U. S. law requires all goods shipped within the United States and most exports of products produced or shipped with U. S. government assistance, such as food aid, to be transported on merchant vessels registered in the United States. The Jones Act, passed in 1920, prohibits merchandise traveling by water between American ports to be transported “in any other vessel than a vessel built in and documented under the laws of the United States and owned by persons who are citizens of the United States.

13 In recent years, for example, hog farmers in North Carolina have found that the Jones Act has hindered their ability to secure feed grain. Barring foreign shippers has served to limit competition, kept shipping prices high, and forced American companies to find other means to ship or send their products domestically. It also may encourage companies to import feed grain rather than buying domestically. For those reasons Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N. C. ), never known as a free trader, introduced legislation that would open up domestic shipping to foreign-flag vessels. 4 On the floor of the U. S. Senate, Helms called the Jones Act “a harmful anachronism that enables a few waterborne carriers to cling to a monopoly on shipping. ” He noted that the Jones Act prevents some of his constituents, North Carolina pork and poultry farmers, from buying sufficient feed grain from the Midwest. They could not find the necessary certified vessels for shipping. Rail shipments have proved to be an insufficient alternative because of an insufficient number of cars for carrying grain. Instead, the farmers must import their grain, generally from Canada. 5 Grain producers and their customers are not the only ones hurt by the Jones Act. The steel, petroleum, and chemicals industries, to name a few, also oppose the current restrictions on shipping because the restrictions raise prices on their products. Oil shipments from Alaska to the lower 48 states account for a large amount of the Jones Act shipping and keep gasoline prices higher than they otherwise would be. In some cases, the act reduces exports by raising the cost of conveying products, such as coal and clay, to coastal ports for export. Residents of Alaska and Hawaii suffer disproportionately from the Jones Act.

Overall, by eliminating the Act the United States would reap benefits of $3. 1 billion a year, according to the U. S. International Trade Commission. 16 That is the net benefit, taking account of the adverse impact on privileged shipping interests that now benefit from the Jones Act. The direct savings to consumers would be far higher. The price of shipping services now restricted by the law would decline by an estimated one-quarter. 17 But because the Jones Act requires that American sailors be employed for domestic maritime shipping, the law has significant support from organized labor.

Even American yacht owners are affected by related cabotage laws. Yachts cannot be chartered in the United States unless they are American-made and manned by American crews. And while the Jones Act does not cover cruise ships, its sister law, the Passenger Vessel Act, does. That law prevents nearly all of the world’s major cruise lines from setting sail from an American port. In 1993, Vancouver, British Columbia, had close to 260,000 embarkations, compared with nearby Seattle, which — because of the restrictions — had only 8,700. 18

Antidumping Laws “Antidumping laws as they are written and implemented are protectionist and anticonsumer,” notes Consumers for World Trade, a Washington, D. C. -based public interest group. 19 Antidumping laws are meant to exclude from the American market foreign products priced below the cost of production. That practice is labeled by American policy as “unfair. ” The rationale behind antidumping laws is that they protect domestic producers. Theoretically, in the long run, they protect consumers by preventing a foreign company from driving American firms out of the market and establishing a monopoly.

In fact, those laws protect domestic producers from competition, and consumers face higher prices and fewer choices of products. It is difficult to construct a scenario whereby a producer could drive out all competition through low pricing, especially in today’s integrated global economy. Meanwhile, consumers would benefit from the lower prices of “dumped” goods. In any case, antidumping laws are not based on sound economic assumptions. First, pricing below the cost of production often is necessary for an enterprise to limit losses when the price of a product falls.

For example, in the 1980s American trade officials accused Japan of dumping computer memory chips on American and other markets. But falling prices and competition from Korean and other producers meant that Japanese manufacturers in many cases could only sell their chips below their costs of production. Second, the formulae by which prices are calculated to make international comparisons intentionally distort prices to make it easier for American companies to gain protection against imports. One recent antidumping case seems intended to make Italian dinners more expensive for Americans.

American companies control approximately 80 percent of the domestic pasta market. Yet their concern that Italian pasta was cutting into their sales brought not better marketing or upgraded quality but, rather, an antidumping complaint. At up to $2. 35 a pound, De Cecco pasta, imported from Italy, already costs twice as much as most American pasta. Nonetheless, the ITC ruled that Italian pasta was being dumped on the American market and assessed on it a 47 percent additional tariff, significantly increasing its price and allowing American producers to raise their prices as well. 0 America’s antidumping code proceedings have garnered a Star Chamber reputation. The U. S. Department of Commerce makes an initial judgment and helps set the penalties should dumping be found by the ITC. Filippo Antonia De Cecco, president of De Cecco Pasta, described the process his company endured: They gave us 12,000 questions. We answered all of them. We produced 60 kilograms of documents. They gave more importance to the form, to the fact that maybe one or two questions were not answered right. But the substance of what we submitted was right. 21

Between 1992 and 1994, the time period for which the ITC ruled the American pasta industry was “materially harmed,” sales for American pasta makers were virtually unchanged. Even though the American companies’ share of the domestic market dropped from 86. 2 percent to 80. 7 percent, overall pasta consumption rose. 22 That meant no actual sales losses for domestic firms. Even if American pasta makers did lose sales, the federal government’s response contradicts its free trade rhetoric — a clear case of “Do what I say, not what I do. ” In the end, American consumers lose.

The ITC, however, gave this helpful advice to shoppers who prefer eating imported pasta: “[M]ost dry pasta sold in the United States is of acceptable quality to most consumers. . . . Most people probably cannot distinguish between different cooked dry pastas. “23 The case of Mexican tomatoes is another good example of politics over principle. Given the amount of time some high-level Clinton administration officials have devoted to the issue, one would think Mexican tomatoes are the greatest threat to American security in Latin America since the Cuban missile crisis.

In order to please Florida tomato growers, who have for years sought to limit competition from their Mexican counterparts, the U. S. Commerce Department tried first to assist in an antidumping case against Mexico and to help enact legislation against the Mexican tomatoes. The ITC rejected the Florida growers antidumping case, but the Commerce Department tried again. The second time, in a novel approach to demonstrating unfair pricing by Mexican tomato growers, the Commerce Department included only January and February of 1996 and March and April of 1995 in its price calculations.

Greg Rushford wrote in the Wall Street Journal that “the sneakiest attack is a legislative ploy designed to require that Mexican tomatoes be packed the same way that American tomatoes are packed. ” Since Mexican tomatoes come off the vine plump and juicy they must be packed cautiously in cartons, as opposed to Florida tomatoes, which come off the vine hard. Rushford continued: When most Americans think of official meetings in the White House, they imagine serious discussions of vital national issues in a dignified setting. How dignified is it for the National Economic Council to chedule a special meeting to hear Mickey Kantor argue that Section 8e of the Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act of 1937 should be amended to squish Mexican tomatoes and please Sen. Robert Graham, a Florida Democrat and the amendment’s chief advocate? 24 Fear of losing the highly politicized antidumping case spurred Mexican tomato growers to reach a compromise whereby a minimum price is set for their exports to the United States. The compromise was a better resolution from the American consumer’s standpoint than a loss for the Mexican growers would have been.

The antidumping duties that might have been imposed could have been quite steep. Still, the settlement leaves consumers worse off than had there been no antidumping statutes in the first place. Recognition that antidumping laws benefit a few industries at the expense of consumers can be found in the appendix to a recent ITC report. ITC Vice Chair Janet Nuzum and Commissioner David Rohr, who support antidumping laws, expressed their displeasure with the report’s explicit statement of the cost to Americans of such laws.

They wrote: Finally, when viewing the conclusions of this report, it must be remembered that the purpose of the antidumping and countervailing duty laws is not to protect consumers, but rather to protect producers. Inevitably, some cost is associated with this purpose. However, unlike the antitrust laws, which are designed to protect consumer interests, the function of the AD/CVD laws is, indeed, to protect firms and workers engaged in the production activities in the United States. So it should not come as a surprise that the economic benefits of the remedies accrue to producers, and the economic costs accrue to consumers. 5 The ITC’s study of antidumping laws conservatively estimated that the outstanding antidumping and countervailing duty orders in 1991 exacted costs on consumers, downstream industries, and the overall American economy amounting to at least $1. 59 billion. That figure represents a net value, after subtracting the benefits gained by the petitioning industries and their employees. The study does not attempt to evaluate the additional costs of the various antidumping and countervailing duty orders that were not in effect in 1991, because they were either suspended, withdrawn, or terminated.

Since those orders also had an impact on prices, the “net costs likely would have been far greater. “26 Antidumping laws are badly misused against foreign-made products, in part, because the formulae employed to calculate predatory pricing are often biased in favor of the American company filing the grievance. Ronald A. Cass and Richard D. Boltuck write in Fair Trade and Harmonization: Prerequisites for Free Trade: “We have examined the fairness claims on behalf of the antidumping and countervailing-duty laws, finding little in those claims that can sustain the legal regimes now in place. 27 One major reform would be to make any case for antidumping duties pass a simple test: Will assessing the duties benefit American consumers? The answer is likely to be no. Moreover, when evaluating claims of predatory pricing, the federal government should not treat foreign companies differently from domestic companies. Conclusion Although many American policymakers denounce protectionism in other countries while working to maintain it in the United States, a slow evolution of politics and policy is creating pressure for more unilateral American liberalization.

In recent years industry groups have emerged to oppose specific protectionist acts. While American steel makers favor the use of antidumping orders and other means to limit foreign competition, American companies that use steel have banded together to lobby against such restrictions. Some-thing similar has occurred in the high technology arena with the competing interests of semi-conductor manufacturers and companies that produce products that need semiconductors. A bill introduced by Rep. Phil Crane (R-Ill. would have temporarily suspended antidumping duties in situations where the American domestic user could not obtain the product from an American source. Among the major backers of that bill were companies that import steel and semiconductors. Companies with competing interests in trade laws should continue to “level” the lobbying playing field, to use the fair trader lexicon. On the international front, the creation of the World Trade Organization (WTO), a kind of super-GATT, and its dispute resolution panels should also provide more protection for American consumers.

When the United States or another nation alleges an unfair trading practice, the case is heard at the WTO by a three-judge panel, drawn from international trade experts from different nations. The WTO dispute resolution mechanism is intended to work as a type of binding arbitration although the WTO does not possess a coercive power to enforce its rulings. The United States could decide not to abide by a WTO ruling, in which case the other party’s only recourse would be to place a trade sanction on American products. But the WTO will raise the costs to America of its protectionist policies.

The latest GATT agreement has set the stage for future reductions in tariff and nontariff barriers both in the United States and elsewhere. The GATT changed U. S. policy on items such as sugar and peanut butter from one of strict quotas, with bans on items above the quotas, to one of tariffs placed on imports over quota. In the future, it should be far easier to drive down prices by eliminating or reducing those tariffs on items over quota. Such action will take political will and international cooperation but at least is a clear pathway for the future.

The case for unilateral free trade remains strong. By eliminating tariffs and quotas on all imports, abolishing the Jones Act, and repealing the antidumping statutes, Congress and the President can improve consumer welfare far more than will any new initiative that emerges from a federal agency International trade is not a war or even a contest between nations, which is why the “level playing field” argument for maintaining U. S. trade restrictions is inappropriate. Trade is a series of mutually beneficial exchanges between companies and individuals.

Every distortion introduced into these voluntary exchanges will likely lower the standard of living of Americans. While American companies compete with their foreign competitors in the same industry, there is no case for government action to ensure that a particular company prevail or increase its U. S. sales — particularly at the expense of American consumers. The goal of trade policy should be to re-move governments — the American government as well as foreign ones — from transactions between citizens of different countries.

In other words, the goal is to take power away from politicians, thus benefiting American consumers and de-politicizing trade. The U. S. government would do well to stop criticizing other countries until it removes its own trade restrictions. As the saying goes, people who live in glass houses should not throw stones. Notes 1 Lorraine Woellert, “Russia Raises Tariff on U. S. Poultry, Says Boost is Small,” The Washington Times, April 2, 1996. 2 The Economic Effects of Significant U. S. Import Restraints: First Biannual Update, Publication 2935 (Washington, D. C. : U. S.

International Trade Commission, December 1995), p. xi. 3 Gary Clyde Hufbauer and Kimberly Ann Elliot, Measuring the Costs of Protection in the United States (Washington: Institute for International Economics, January, 1994). 4 Economic Report of the President (Washington: U. S. Government Printing Office, February, 1988), pp. 149-150. 5 Economic Effects, p. 4-15. The price for shelled pea-nuts in the United States was 3. 6 cents per pound higher and the price for in-shell was 4. 4 cents per pound higher. 6 Ibid. , p. 4-14. 7 Ibid. 8 Calculations by James Mach for the Peanuts and Tree Processors Association. Economic Effects, p. 4-3. 10 1996 Trade Estimate Report on Foreign Trade Barriers, Office of the U. S. Trade Representative, Washington, D. C. , 1996, p. 25. 11 Ibid. , p. 135. 12 Ibid. , p. 109. 13 The Economic Effects of Significant U. S. Import Restraints, Publication 2699, U. S. International Trade Commission, November 1993, p. 41. 14 Stephanie Nall and Tim Sansbury, “Helms Bill Shifts Jones Act Debate,” Journal of Commerce, May 28, 1996, p. A1. 15 Ben Wildavsky, “Jones Act Overdue for an Overhaul,” National Journal, June 8, 1996, p. 262. 16 The Economic Effects of Significant U. S. Import Restraints: First Biannual Update, December 1995, p. 5-3. 17 Ibid. , p. 5-4. 18 Journal of Commerce, April 26, 1995. 19 “Pasta Case Brought Home to Consumers,” Window on Washington, Consumers for World Trade, August 1996, p. 1. 20 Paul Blustein, “Italy Loses the Pasta Wars,” The Washington Post, July 31, 1996, p. E1. 21 Ibid. 22 Investigations Nos. 701-TA-365-366 (Preliminary) and 731-TA-734-735 (Preliminary), Publication 2905, Certain Pasta from Italy and Turkey, U. S.

International Trade Commission, July, 1995, p. I-29. 23 Ibid. 24 Greg Rushford, “You Say ‘Tomato,’ Mickey Kantor Says ‘Political Opportunity,'” Wall Street Journal, September 6, 1996, p. A15. 25 Views of Vice Chair Janet Nuzum and Commissioner David Rohr in Publication 2900, Economic Effects of Antidumping and Countervailing Duty Orders and Suspension Agreements, U. S. International Trade Commission, June, 1995, p. 14. 26 Publication 2900, U. S. International Trade Commission, p. 10. 27 Quoted in ibid. , p. 40. Freedom to Trade:


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