Hot (Headed) Yoga

posted by
on October 13, 2014


(The conclusion of a two-part series)

Note to readers: Yesterday, in an article headlined “Fed Up,” I reported that many members of the World Trade Organization have reached the end of their patience with a handful of members — India, and a few African and Latin Americans who love to nurture their grudges against the “rich” countries. Frustrations that such countries have poisoned the WTO’s negotiation atmosphere have been gradually building since the WTO was launched in 1995. The tipping point came in July, when India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, vetoed the only successful multilateral trade negotiation the WTO has ever conducted.

 As the future viability of this vital international trade rule-making institution is now on the line, it’s important to take a closer look at how the present fight started, and why. Today’s report offers more details on: where Modi is coming from, exactly what he wants, and who his sympathizers are. While India claims to speak for the world’s poor, that certainly is not the view of an increasing number of developing countries around the world. India’s trade distorting agriculture subsidies have caused food riots in parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. These days, complaints of the harm that India is inflicting upon other poor countries are surfacing again, particularly in Rwanda and other African countries. Concluding, the report highlights how leading WTO member countries plan to move on, with or without the cooperation of India and the other laggard countries.

So where is Modi coming from?

Modi, proudly, is a hardline Hindu right-winger, an economic nationalist who boasts of a 56-inch chest. He is a tough guy, a man who loves a brawl. His top political aide is dodging a prosecution for various murders. Modi himself has denied (unconvincingly) his role in the killings of some 2,000 Muslims in organized riots in his home state of Gujarat, back in 2002.

And in the past week, Modi has rather exuberantly been raining mortars and machine-gun fire across a populated India-Pakistan border area of Kashmir. The fighting, which has broken a tenuous truce reached in 2003, has so far killed nearly 20 civilians and displaced nearly 20,000 civilians, according to news reports. “The prime minister’s office has instructed us to ensure that Pakistan suffers deep and heavy losses,” a senior Indian Home Ministry official has told Reuters reporters Rupam Jain Nair and Mehreen Zara-Malik. Modi himself has boasted that “it is the enemy that is screaming.” Kashmir, with the possible exception of the Korean DMZ, is perhaps the world’s most dangerous border. A border where Hot Heads on both sides brandish their nuclear weapons.

Some of the other opinions that Modi brandishes are less scary, but well, unusual. Speaking to the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Sept. 27, Modi called for an “International Yoga Day.” He asserted that “yoga,” “spiritualism” and clean living could contribute to a better global environment. “By changing our lifestyle and creating consciousness, it can help us deal with climate change,” he explained to the diplomatic dignitaries. Meanwhile, back in New Delhi, the clean-living prime minister has authorized “hundreds of projects” to clear pristine forests, making way for mega power plants and other industrial projects that previous Indian governments had rejected on environmental grounds, Tommy Wilkes has reported for Reuters.

Modi held the WTO’s trade-facilitation package hostage to India’s demands to be allowed — permanently — to violate existing WTO restrictions on the subsidies it is allowed to dole out to uncompetitive Indian subsistence farmers. Adding to the indignity: previous Indian governments had agreed to those WTO rules in the 1980s. And the Indian government that Modi replaced in May had duly signed onto the Bali Package last December. As U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman said last week, India has now “reneged” on its signed obligations.

Moreover, Modi’s demands have left WTO diplomats scratching their heads, wondering what he might have been smoking.


Food Insecurity

Since obtaining independence from Great Britain in 1947, India’s leaders have never figured out how to feed their people. In the name of “food security,” Indian governments have been buying food from the country’s farmers, paying above-market prices. The grains are then stockpiled. Perhaps half of the mountains of grain rot away, or are eaten by rats. Much of the rest is siphoned off by corrupt (politically connected) operators for sale on the black market.

What doesn’t rot or is not stolen is then doled out to feed India’s infamously malnourished urban population — especially when elections loom, which in India is often.

Perhaps because politics trumps economics, Indian politicians — no matter which party is in power —  have been increasing the subsidies, making bigger stockpiles.  And they have been demanding permission from the WTO to keep jacking up the subsidies as much as they want, even higher than the allowable limits that Indian governments have pledged to honor.

In Bali last December, the Indian negotiators won a generous four-year “peace clause.” That gave New Delhi four years to go ahead and violate existing WTO limitations by increasing agriculture subsidies, without fear of being held legally accountable. As the purpose of the WTO’s trade negotiations is to reduce trade barriers, not allow additional protectionism, this was arguably overly generous.

Yet the four-year grace period still wasn’t enough for Modi, when he came into office in May. He demanded that India be given the “permanent” right to break the existing rules — and right away, by the end of this year, thank you. Many diplomats, in many ways, have told the new Indian leader that this would never happen. Undeterred, Modi, somewhat joyously, brought down the Bali Package, thus shaking the foundations of trust that the WTO must have to remain viable.

At least, the ploy has generally played well at home. Indian officials have launched a whispering campaign, some of which has made its way into various Indian news accounts, falsely accusing the WTO’s top leadership of favoring the rich countries.

Claiming the Moral High Ground

Modi, like all of his predecessors dating to Jawaharlal Nehru (who ran India from 1947 to 1964, useful information for readers who are crossword puzzle addicts), has claimed that he holds the high moral ground. We are simply demanding the rights to feed our own poor, and we are the champion the world’s poor, so goes the refrain.

Some champion.

India is the world’s largest exporter of (subsidized) rice. The subsidies distort food markets in other countries by driving down prices. That’s bad enough in normal years for farmers in African and other nations who have to compete with the cheap Indian rice. Of course, the Europeans and Americans aren’t exactly innocents in such matters. But at least they have long ago moved away from stockpiling surpluses that cause real damage in world markets, preferring to pay their farmers cash subsidies that are considered less trade-distorting.

But India seems stuck on stockpiling and other protectionist schemes that cause real harm to trading partners. Remember the 2008 food riots in Haiti, Cameroon, Senegal and other countries? Global rice prices had skyrocketed after India put a damper on supplies by slapping on export controls during the previous year’s election season. Not only has no Indian politician ever apologized for the damage those export controls inflicted — after coming to power this May, Modi quickly imposed new price controls on onions and potatoes.

More recently, Rwanda’s trade minister, Francois Kanimba, explained to Shawn Donnan, the world trade editor of the Financial Times, how India’s present agriculture subsidies are hurting his country’s farmers. Rice and sugar from India had been reaching Rwanda “at such low prices [that] you are left wondering if these are really global market prices, simply explained by the competitiveness of the Indian economy,” Kanimba said. Donnan noted that the same concerns are being expressed in Nigeria, Benin, and other African food importers. This is “why the solution India is seeking at the WTO, which celebrates its 20th birthday in January, is unlikely to be palatable to many of its members,” Donnan concluded.

India’s claims to speak for the world’s poor used to be accepted automatically in the Third World. Signs that that’s been changing surfaced at the WTO’s Bali meetings last December. At a press conference, India’s then top trade official, Anand Sharma, asserted that India was only seeking “food security” for poor people everywhere. Sharma was humiliated by a furious journalist from Benin, one of the world’s poorest countries. “You don’t speak for us,” the Benin journalist angrily shouted. Those of us who were in the room will never forget the emotions on display at that press conference. (For further details, see “India’s Bali Debacle,” which I authored for the Wall Street Journal Asia. The piece, along with two other investigative reports into India’s WTO stance in recent years, is posted on the Wall Street Journal section of

India’s Admirers

These days, Modi’s been enjoying his success in having placed himself on the WTO’s center stage, even though he is playing the role of a pariah. Modi knows he enjoys the tacit backing of envious fellow economic nationalists in places like Venezuela, Bolivia, Zimbabwe, Ecuador and Cuba. Such leaders love to nurture their grudges against the rich countries, seeing the WTO as a tool of the rich. President Jacob Zuma of South Africa runs with this crowd. These days, Zuma must be especially envious of Narendra Modi’s nerve.

Zuma is another economic nationalist who is skeptical that the WTO’s multilateral trade liberalizing negotiations will benefit South Africa. But he might be better advised to seek some sound economic advice as to why South Africa’s economy has been losing its dynamism.

Two very savvy Pretoria-based authorities on what used to be called “political economy” — Mzukisi Qobo of the University of Pretoria and Peter Draper, of Tutwa Consulting — recently succinctly explained Zuma’s attitude on economics in a May 27 article in South Africa’s Business Day. Under Zama’s economic guidance, South Africa’s economic growth has been on a steady decline, Qobo and Draper noted. Nor does Zuma seem to grasp the “gravity” of the economic challenges that are holding his country back, they added. “He also seems to have given up on leaving a great economic legacy, and instead prefers to manage a balancing act of contending factions within the African National Congress (ANC).”

Zuma’s trade minister, Rob Davies, is a member of the Politburo of South Africa’s Communist Party. That fact speaks well of Davies’ personal courage in having opposed apartheid in the days when to do so was to risk one’s life. But it doesn’t necessarily suggest that Davies’ economic credentials are sterling. Many African observers worry that South Africa, traditionally the most solid African economy that still regards itself as the “gateway” to the rest of Africa, will inevitably be left behind. Watch the East Africans — especially the emerging ties and improved infrastructure linking Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya — many African watchers say. Yes, these countries also have their own economic weaknesses. And in the WTO, the East Africans seem to be split on whether to speak out in favor of India, or against. Still, one has a growing sense that their future could be brighter than South Africa’s, depending upon how well they manage to integrate themselves into the global economy. At some point, the South Africans will likely kick themselves for their lack of economic foresight.

Zuma first worked earlier this year behind the scenes with the Addis Ababa-based African Union (an opaque organization which wasn’t even a participant in the Bali negotiations) to reopen the Bali deal. Conveniently, Zuma’s former wife now heads the AU. But Zuma and the AU came under intense pressure, mainly from Europeans and Americans, but also by dozens of other WTO member countries. They backed down during African Union meetings held in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, in August. Since then the African Group of WTO members has basically been holding their tongues, trying to pretend that what India has done, hasn’t really happened. (For the background, see “Power Plays in the WTO,”, June 3, 2014). South African and African Union officials declined repeated requests for comment, as did a spokesman for the WTO’s Africa Group.

In sum, what the Africans started and India’s Modi finished was the tipping point. Leading circles in the WTO — the “North” definitely, and many in the “South” — believe that this time, the chronic naysayers have simply gone too far.

An Uncertain Plurilateral Future

While the WTO’s future is presently clouded, one thing appears clear: no longer will a handful of malcontents be allowed to poison the chances of dismantling as many of the world’s remaining trade barriers as possible. That means the WTO will turn away from its tradition of conducting trade-liberalizing negotiations on a multilateral basis. Instead, there will be smaller groups of like-minded countries that will work together to facilitate trade flows. This is the so-called plurilateral option.

The future likely model has precedents. The WTO’s Government Procurement Agreement has 43 member countries (counting the European Union’s 28). The GPA’s rules, which are only extended to participating countries, are aimed at improving transparency and competitive bidding when governments agree to award contracts to all bidders (as opposed to just doling out lucrative contracts to well-connected domestic cronies). China, New Zealand, and eight other countries have been negotiating to join in that plurilateral. No African country has shown interest in joining in such an experiment in open government. Nor has India.

India is, however, a member of the WTO’s Information Technology Agreement, a plurilateral WTO success story that dates to 1997. ITA signatories, including India, have slashed tariffs on imports of high-tech gadgets like computers and telecommunications equipment. But India has refused to participate in ongoing negotiations to expand the ITA’s product coverage to include new inventions — iPhones, iPods and so forth — that weren’t invented in the 1990s. In fact, Modi has already moved in the opposite direction: jacking up tariffs on imports of iPhones.

Late last week, the WTO’s director-general, Roberto Azevedo, described the uncertain future for further WTO multilateral trade negotiations, especially if “no solution” is found for the “Bali impasse.” In such a case, the director-general noted to a business audience in Toronto on Oct. 9,  “then members must ask themselves some tough questions — about how they see the future of the Bali package and the post-Bali agenda. And what this means for the WTO’s negotiating function.”

Translated from the nuanced diplomatic language, Azevedo was pointing to a plurilateral future for the WTO, at least until the benefits of multilateral trade liberalization become apparent to the laggards. It might even turn out that the Bali deal will proceed as a plurilateral arrangement. India and the backward-looking African and Latin countries will be offered the choice to be left behind, if they prefer.  Such, it appears, is their future — at least until the day comes when they will be willing to take off their economic dunce caps.

Don’t Blame (Just) Obama

posted by
on March 27, 2014

Don’t Blame (Just) Obama

 As anyone who has even casually skimmed recent headlines would already be aware, President Barack Obama’s international trade agenda is basically stuck. Blame Washington, D.C.’s familiar political gridlock. As the incumbent president, Obama, who has never made trade a high priority, naturally is getting the lion’s share of the blame. But while the president is hardly beyond criticism, don’t just blame him. Trade became a wedge issue long before Obama became president. And many of the dubious policies that Obama is being criticized for endorsing — protectionist Buy America laws, complex and basically unworkable special rules for textiles, regressive high U.S. tariffs on shoes and clothing, and so forth — were inherited from his predecessors of both political parties.

So anyone who really wants to play the blame game — and in Washington, D.C., who doesn’t? — would be well-advised to look beyond the White House to both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill.

Scratch deeply enough into any policy failures in Washington, and Congress is usually the culprit. On trade, Senate and House Democrats are basically controlled by the party’s union-dominated protectionist wing that fears global competition as a threat to American jobs. The more encouraging news should be that most Republican lawmakers’ instincts are that trade expansion and free markets are good things. Still, Republican leadership on trade has become an oxymoron, as a look at the recent record of the House Ways and Means Committee reveals.

To take a glimpse into how U.S. trade politics are (not) working in Obama’s Washington, the story begins with the unfortunate recent headlines.


In his Jan. 28 State of the Union 2014 message Obama asked Congress to pass legislation giving him so-called Fast Track trade promotion authority (fast track is sometimes called by the acronym TPA, for the latter three words). This would allow the president to negotiate trade-liberalizing pacts with the European Union and important Asia-Pacific trading partners. Fast Track legislation would require Congress to vote either Yea or Nay to any trade deal that Obama would submit for ratification. Such a special rule would bypass the inevitable crippling amendments that lawmakers would offer on behalf of protectionist constituencies — crippling because the amendments would undo the carefully crafted negotiations.

But the next day, Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid (NV) warned Obama “to not push this right now.” The feisty Reid, who controls the senate calendar, bluntly said that Fast Track would not be on it. Within days, other influential leaders of the Democratic Caucus like Sen. Richard Durbin (IL) weighed in. Their clear message: we have zero interest in forcing Democrats to approve Fast Track — and thus offend the party’s protectionist wing — before the November midterm elections.

The White House protested, sort of, with spinmeisters insisting to reporters that the president still hoped to get Fast Track, sometime anyway, in an unspecified future. When Obama met on Feb. 3 with Reid and the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Sen. Michael Bennet (CO), the president never mentioned trade, according to a report by New York Times reporters Peter Baker and Ashley Parker that the White House did not dispute. Instead, Obama, Reid and Bennet talked about the upcoming November congressional elections, and how Obama might help raise money for the party’s coffers. (Reid is perhaps the most implacable opponent of international trade on the Hill. In 1994, he even voted against legislation that ratified the so-called Uruguay Round of multilateral trade liberalization that created the World Trade Organization.)

House Minority Nancy Pelosi and other prominent Democratic trade skeptics also were not shy about saying they also didn’t want to see a Fast-Track vote before the midterm elections. On Feb. 14, Vice President Joe Biden met with House Democrats and said that he “understood” their political concerns, according to other authoritative news accounts. No president has had Fast Track negotiating authority since 2007, when Pelosi, then House Speaker, killed it. Three preferential trade deals (with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama) that had been signed by Bush were not ratified by Congress until 2011, after the Republicans had won control of the House.

Stalled in Singapore

Predictably, Obama’s trade agenda stalled in Singapore on Feb. 25, after several days of talks between U.S. trade negotiators and their official counterparts in the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership talks. U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman had hoped to seal the deal in Singapore. But when he arrived in Singapore, Froman quickly learned that his counterparts were not willing to reveal their bottom lines. “If I were a minister from one of the TPP countries, I would be extremely reluctant to put my most sensitive items on the table,” explains Deborah Elms, a respected American trade watcher who is based in Singapore.

Elms and other veteran trade watchers point out that it would be foolish for any country to try to negotiate an end game with U.S. trade negotiators, knowing that without Fast Track, the U.S. Congress is poised to move the goal posts that would undo any “binding” trade deal that Obama might cut. Until this is fixed, the Obama trade agenda will remain stuck: no TPP deal, and no trade agreement with the European Union, either.

There will be geopolitical consequences. The longer Washington’s isolationist international trade gridlock lasts, the more other countries will move on without American participation. That has, in fact, been the trend for several years. China, Canada, Japan, the European Union, Singapore, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Australia and others have all been busy enhancing their economic ties with selected trading partners, while Uncle Sam has been sidelined. The latest news on that front came on March 11, when Canada and South Korea announced that they had concluded a preferential trade deal. The United States is the one country that once did the most to foster multilateral trade liberalization. But nowdays, memories of the terrible tit-for-tat protectionism of the 1930s that contributed to the devastation of World War II have faded in official Washington. The emerging 21st century story line is how America is being left behind.

Froman goes to Capitol Hill

In recent weeks, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman has been prowling the corridors of Capitol Hill, doing everything he can to persuade reluctant congressional figures to grant the president the necessary Fast Track negotiating authority. While Froman’s meetings have been held behind closed doors, by all accounts the USTR has changed few if any (closed) minds.

Froman is considered an able man, and his political strength is anchored to his close relationship to Obama that dates to their days at Harvard Law School. That’s always valuable currency in Washington. But neither Froman nor the president has the stature to cajole, pressure, intimidate and otherwise move difficult members of Congress than the late Robert Strauss memorably displayed, when he served as the chief U.S. trade negotiator in the late 1970s.

Consider Froman’s recent efforts to reason with Rep. Rosa DeLauro (CN), a member of the House Democratic leadership. DeLauro’s basic view of international trade blames China for stealing American jobs. She has lined up 151 Democratic lawmakers who say they will not support Fast Track legislation. A few weeks ago, Froman was observed talking with DeLauro in the halls. When he tried to reason with her, the congresswoman subjected the USTR to a shrill earful about how trade deals like the TPP were only going to “kill” more American jobs. The likes of DeLauro would never have dared to speak to Bob Strauss that way.

(DeLauro represents New Haven, an important U.S. port that brings thousands of jobs to her district. The port makes a lot of money from traffic that comes through the Panama Canal, yet DeLauro voted against the U.S.-Panama preferential trade agreement.)

Froman’s efforts to try to reason with Democratic senators have not been much more rewarding. The man he’s got to deal with first-and-foremost is Sen. Ron Wyden (OR). Wyden assumed the chairmanship of the Finance Committee in February, replacing Max Baucus, who is now the U.S. ambassador to China. (Wyden has also chaired Finance’s trade subcommittee, a position he is holding onto.)

Before he left the senate, Baucus had worked successfully with pro-trade Republicans Orrin Hatch (UT), the Finance Committee’s top Republican, and House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (MI), to come up with a bipartisan Fast Track bill. But while Wyden has a history of generally supporting trade deals, he has been lukewarm at best to the carefully-crafted Baucus-Hatch-Camp compromise.

At a March 13 hearing, Wyden highlighted his declared economic priorities, which he said were to come up “innovative approaches to strengthen and expand the middle class.” His priorities involved “education,” “savings,” “tax reform,” “health care,” “strengthening the social safety net” and raising the “minimum wage.” Expanding international trade flows and passing Fast Track legislation were not mentioned.

Railing against Secrets

Wyden has developed a certain style since he was first elected to the House 33 years ago (he became a senator in 1996). Whatever the issue, he’s always looking out for ways to rail against government secrecy, while at the same time never making much effort to dig deeply.

As a member of the Intelligence Committee, Wyden frequently rails against alleged CIA secrecy abuses — as least when the cameras are around. In 2007, Wyden played a leading role in killing the nomination of John Rizzo to become the general counsel of the Central Intelligence Agency. Anyone who wants a glimpse into what it is like to deal with the senator from Oregon might want to read Rizzo’s riveting account of his thirty-plus years in the CIA, Company Man. Rizzo relates that he learned only by reading an account in the New Yorker that Wyden had put a hold on his nomination in August, 2007.  Rizzo wrote that he had never spoken with Wyden. He further related that the senator had declined a routine personal “courtesy” pre-hearing meeting.

But when the CIA lawyer’s public confirmation hearing was held in September, Wyden asked Rizzo a series of questions about classified CIA operations. Rizzo understandably demurred, saying that he could not respond fully in a public setting.  “With everyone watching, he wagged his finger at me and vowed to get deeply into these issues at the closed session,” Rizzo relates of Wyden. Yet when the cameras were turned off, and that closed session was held, Wyden— along with Sens. Diane Feinstein (CA) and Carl Levin, who had also helped trash Rizzo’s nomination — failed to show up. In the face of such shabby treatment to a civil servant who had served his country for three decades, the White House ultimately was forced to withdraw Rizzo’s nomination.

Wyden has also been a vocal critic of the TPP trade talks, on grounds the White House has been negotiating the details in secret. So it raised some eyebrows on March 10, when this champion of openness in government called a “Senators’ Meeting” to talk about the TPP with USTR Mike Froman — behind closed doors. When he came out of the secret meeting, the senator wasn’t particularly forthcoming to reporters about what had transpired. “This was the first of what is going to be a series of discussions on the committee on a bipartisan basis,” he told Politico’s Doug Palmer.

While Wyden criticizes the White House’s secrecy on the TPP talks, there is nothing to prevent the senator from holding a number of informative hearings that would illuminate in great detail what’s at stake in each of more than 20 TPP chapters — without ever getting into classified U.S. negotiating positions. But that would take a certain amount of intellectual effort — and a close attention to the sort of details that all successful trade agreements turn on.

A Stacked Subcommittee

Beyond the lackluster Wyden, the Finance Committee’s trade subcommittee is stacked with anti-trade Democratic stalwarts. There’s Sherrod Brown (OH), a union ally and economic nationalist who basically speaks for the interests of the insular-looking western parts of his state. Debbie Stabenow (MI) watches out for the Detroit auto lobby. Chuck Schumer (NY) is mainly interested in punishing China. Jay Rockefeller (WVA) has long been the senator from the steel lobby. And there is Michael Bennet, the Colorado elections strategist who does not want to force Democrats to vote on Fast Track before this November’s congressional elections. Imagine being a U.S. trade negotiator who has to try explaining the benefits of trade liberalization to such a crowd.

Which brings us to the Republicans, who are generally pro-trade, pro-Fast Track, Pro-TPP and pro-T-TIP (the acronym for the Trans-Atlantic U.S.-EU trade talks that Obama has launched.) Here’s where the news should become more positive — but it doesn’t.

Reluctant Republicans

The Republicans control the House of Representatives, with a 33-seat advantage over the Democrats. Speaker of the House John Boehner (OH) has the votes to pass Fast Track. But when the president asked for that two months ago in his State of the Union address, Boehner’s reaction was tepid — while the Democrats started immediately building up a political head of steam to kill the idea.

On Jan. 29, the day after Obama’s declaration he was committed to Fast Track, Boehner said that while Republicans would support the idea, it was really up to the president to lead. “We cannot pass this bill without his help,” the Speaker said of Obama. “If this is one of his own priorities, you would think that he would have the Senate Majority Leader working with him to pass Trade Promotion Authority in order to expand opportunities for our fellow citizens.”

By passing the buck, Boehner has — so far at least — been passing up a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate real bipartisan leadership. If House Republicans were to move aggressively to pass Fast Track, Republicans would demonstrate that they will support the president on a matter of great economic importance to the country. The political beauty is that forcing the Democrats to vote for Fast Track would split the opposition party in an election year. Such opportunities for Republicans to do the right thing for the country, while embarrassing the Democrats, don’t come along every day in Washington.

Boehner, a decent but sad-looking man — perhaps because of his well-known inability to control the intransigent tea party Republicans — has had other “fast track” legislative priorities. On March 12, the Speaker pushed through by a 233-181 vote a bill that would expedite congressional lawsuits to sue Obama for failing to enforce certain federal laws. One of those, predictably, was Obama’s health-care law. The others, noted AP reporter Donna Cassata, involved steps the president has “taken to allow young immigrants to remain in the United States and the administration’s resistance to defend the federal law banning gay marriage.”

Ways and Means: No Way

Meanwhile, the Republican-led Ways and Means Committee (the House Committee that has jurisdiction over trade) hasn’t been able to pass legislation that even the Democrats also support. It’s difficult to be worse at one’s job than that.

Consider the Miscellaneous Tariff Bill. For three decades, Congress has approved bills allowing American manufacturers to import raw materials and components they need to make products without paying tariffs. The MTBs have traditionally been so devoid of controversy that they used to be passed unanimously. And why not, as the duty-free imported components are reserved for products not manufactured in the United States. There are no domestic protectionist lobbies to appease, as MTB is only aimed at helping American manufacturers become more efficient.

The previous MTB authority that allowed duty suspensions on more than 600 products expired at the end of 2012. There had been very influential warnings all year that Congress should not let such a thing happen.

Throughout 2012, the National Association of Manufacturers, saying that the absence of tariffs supported some 90,000 American jobs, repeatedly urged passage of a new MTB bill. NAM pointed out that paying duties on items that are not available in the United States constitutes an unnecessary tax on American manufacturers. On April 20, 2012, Auggie Tantillo, the top executive of the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition, announced that 65 Republican freshmen members of the House supported prompt passage of an MTB renewal bill. “Plain and simple, the MTB is a trade bill that is a job creator for U.S. manufacturing,” Tantillo noted. The American Apparel & Footwear Association also registered its strong support. “By reducing or suspending duties on certain imports that are not found in the United States, the MTB lowers costs for U.S. companies that depend on those imports for their competitiveness,” the AAFA reasoned in a press release on May 10, 2012. “It’s that simple.”

Despite such broad support, the MTB authority expired on Dec. 31, 2012. On July 17, 2013, Dave Camp, the Republican from Michigan who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, and also the committee’s top Democrat, Sandy Levin (also of Michigan), introduced a bill to extend the MTB on July 17, 2013.  They were joined by other key lawmakers from both parties. The Camp-Levin extension proposal to extend MTB has gone nowhere.

There’s more bad news. The Generalized System of Preferences legislation that provides duty-free access to U.S. markets for 123 U.S. trading partners, some of them among the world’s poorest countries, expired in July, 2013. In 2012 American companies imported some $19 billion worth of products covered by GSP — many of them necessary components that U.S. workers needed to manufacture products. Although both the Republican and Democratic leadership of Ways and Means have strongly supported GSP’s renewal, it hasn’t happened. Estimates are that the costs to U.S. manufacturers, who now have to pay the (unnecessary) tariffs, has been more than $750 million. Congress has been willing to let this happen.

The Ways and Means trade subcommittee held only three hearings last year: covering U.S. trade relations with Brazil, India, and the European Union. The full committee called USTR Michael Froman, who had just assumed the office, to a hearing in July. The questioning was light.

This year Chairman Dave Camp has issued 49 press releases on various topics ranging from healthcare to taxes. Two of them were about international trade. On Jan. 9, Camp noted that he had introduced Fast Track legislation, along with Sens. Max Baucus and Orrin Hatch. And on March 4, Camp issued a release commenting on Obama’s trade agenda. “TPA is my top trade priority,” he insisted. Rep. Devin Nunes, a California Republican who chairs the trade subcommittee, added: “TPA must be enacted immediately.”

In the past year, a Ways and Means Committee that was on top of its job might have held at least a dozen in-depth hearings that would have better informed the American public — and many of us in the press — on a variety of interesting international trade issues. The committee could have highlighted the stakes involved in pressing countries like Vietnam, Malaysia, and China to bring their state-owned enterprises more market-oriented. It could have highlighted what intellectual property issues in the TPP talks are all about. It could have highlighted the important contribution that imports make to sustaining American manufacturing jobs. It could have highlighted the World Trade Organization’s ongoing efforts to expand international support for multilateral trade liberalization. But the Ways and Committee has chosen to highlight —- nothing.

Blame Obama for his own contribution to the stalled U.S. trade agenda, if you will. But don’t just blame him.















Obama: Back on the Campaign Trail

posted by
on January 24, 2014

Obama: Back on the Campaign Trail

 The “Made in America” president got back on the campaign trail last week.

Barack Obama’s name, of course, will not be on anyone’s ballot come the Nov. 4 mid-term congressional elections. But the president, fearing he could become a politically impotent lame duck during his last two years in the Oval Office, is naturally keenly interested in doing whatever he can to head off any possibility that the Republicans could control both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

A key part of Obama’s current politicking portrays congressional Republicans as uninterested in using sensible government leverage (and a few tax dollars) to keep what the president calls good “middle class” American manufacturing jobs at home in a competitive global economy. It is a continuation of a successful political formula based on patriotic-sounding Buy American rhetoric that has helped an inexperienced junior senator from Illinois win two terms in the White House. The Republicans have never figured out an effective response to Obama’s economic nationalist rhetoric.

But while his politics have been savvy — or at least smarter than his political opposition —Obama’s grasp of global economic realities remains uncertain. He’s been missing a simple insight that is at the core of International Econ 101. Nearly four years ago, then-WTO Director General Pascal Lamy began issuing repeated — and well-publicized — reminders to World Trade Organization member countries why open international trade flows are so important. Thanks to the rapid development of modern global supply chains, the WTO chief explained, manufactured products are no longer made in just any one country. Rather, they are assembled from components and raw materials that are “Made in the World.” Put another way, countries that pursue inward-looking policies pressed by parochial politicians who play to protectionist-minded lobbies — whether Buy America, or Buy India, or Buy China — are going to be left behind.

The WTO’s cutting-edge economic research continues under Roberto Azevedo, Lamy’s energetic successor from Brazil. Obama, however, remains a Made in America politician — and bases his economic policies on such. Over the last year, Obama’s top trade negotiator, Michael Froman, has declined to respond to persistent inquiries as to whether the White House would care to associate itself with the WTO’s Made in the World educational endeavors. But that background gets ahead of the facts that drive this story, which begins on Jan. 15, when Obama flew to North Carolina’s celebrated Research Triangle Park.

Some 170 companies conduct advanced high-tech research and development in the Triangle. Some of the biggest names that are associated with modern technological advances —- think America’s IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Biogen, and Cisco; and also BASF, Ericsson, Sumitomo and even China’s Lenovo — have made the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area a living illustration of American technological innovation at its best.  Last week, Obama singled out one particularly admirable company to visit, the research and development offices of Vacon Inc.  The president’s idea was to explain how federal subsidies for such praiseworthy private-sector innovators could help keep manufacturing jobs in America.

Never heard of Vacon? Well, this smart company is in everyone’s daily lives, one way or another. Vacon makes something called AC drives. While AC drives are hardly household words, they are highly useful things. Essentially, they use software attached to electronic boxes to make electric motors run more efficiently. Vacon’s clean-energy drives lower costs for a great many useful things that help make the American economy run more efficiently: including elevators, escalators, fans, pumps, compressors, you name it. Vacon’s biggest customers include the likes of giants like Honeywell and Eaton. As Obama rightly noted, Vacon’s innovations tell a very “good news” story.

Vacon is one of 18 corporations that are participating in a federally supported consortium of six universities led by North Carolina State that aims to come up with even more advanced clean-energy ideas. Obama’s Energy Department has pledged to support the hub with $70 million over five years, drawing on funds that the president says he has the existing executive authority to spend. The White House says it has another $130 million available to launch two more so-called “manufacturing hubs” that have yet to be announced.

In his 2013 State of the Union address, Obama said he would ask Congress for $1 billion to create a nationwide network of 15 manufacturing hubs. But unsurprisingly, the idea stalled on Capitol Hill. This election year, the president has doubled down politically, saying that what he’d really like is congressional authorization to subsidize 45 public-private manufacturing institutes. While this is hardly likely to happen, Obama at least has the more opportunities to criticize a do-nothing Congress between now and the Nov. 4 vote. And that’s exactly what he did (with tub-thumping relish) in North Carolina last week. “Where I can act on my own, without Congress, I’m going to do so,” Obama declared on Jan. 15. “And today I’m here to act,” Obama said to applause.

The president’s message was delivered to an enthusiastic audience of some 2,000 at North Carolina State: Smart spending of tax dollars is what it takes to promote an American manufacturing renaissance that will keep good “middle class” jobs at home, rather than continue to ship them overseas, Obama declared. “So the reason I came here today is because we’ve got to do more to connect universities like NC State with companies like Vacon to make America the number-one place in the world to open new businesses and create new jobs,” Obama declared. “We want to do that here in North Carolina, and we want to do this all across America,” Obama vowed.

The president recalled how North Carolina had seen textile- and furniture-making factories “closing their doors down” while “jobs were getting shipped overseas.” More federal support for such “good news” success stories like Vacon, Obama said, will keep the jobs of America’s future here at home. “I don’t want the next big job creating discovery, the research and technology, to be in Germany, or China or Japan; I want it to be right here in the United States of America,” Obama said.

The following six sentences about Vacon from Obama’s Jan. 15 speech are worth quoting in their full context, as they clearly illuminate the president’s view of what international economics is all about: “So this company is making these engines and these systems more efficient, saving businesses big bucks on energy costs, improving the environment. Those savings get passed on to customers, puts money in people’s pockets.  And growing companies that need the products that Vacon makes, they’re benefitting enormously.  So it’s a good-news story.  But in a global economy, that company, just like every company in America, has to keep inventing and innovating in order to stay on the cutting edge.  And that’s where all of you come in.”

And that’s where the Made in the World trade flows enter this story. Obama was certainly correct in portraying the innovative Vacon as an entrepreneurial success story. But the praiseworthy entrepreneurial energy came from — Scandanavia. Vacon Plc is headquartered in Vaasa, Finland. Its U.S. operations are only a small (if important) part of the Finnish company’s international business strategies.

Yes, it stands to follow that Vacon’s factory workers in America will benefit from whatever technological advances come from the tax dollars that Obama will channel to the North Carolina manufacturing hub. But that’s only part of the story. Vacon also has factories in Europe and Asia, as well as R&D operations in other countries. So any high-tech breakthroughs that are made in the Triangle will also help Vacon’s workers around the world, including, you guessed it…China.

A quick look at how Vacon is thriving in a competitive global marketplace easily explains.

In 1993, thirteen engineers who worked for the ABB Group in Vaasa, Finland, faced an uncertain future when the giant Swedish-Swiss conglomerate decided to shut down its Finnish lab. At the time, Finland’s economy was in the tank, suffering from a lingering economic hangover after the collapse of the neighboring Soviet Union. Still, the intrepid Finns bravely struck out on their own, launching Vacon Plc. They risked their job security, their homes, their families’ welfare, and took all the other usual risks that aspiring entrepreneurs do as they summon the inner strength to endure. But the geeks believed in the strength of their ideas.

Today, this fine Finnish company that figured out smarter software to transform the ways that electrical energy is processed holds about 5 percent of a worldwide $11-plus billion AC Drive market. Company revenues were over $500 million in 2012. Altogether, Vacon employs about 1,500 people worldwide. Some of these work in the United States.

Vacon employs nearly 20 highly motivated workers in the Research Triangle. (The words “highly motivated” explain why innovators from around the world find the Triangle attractive.) Another 100 Americans work in Vacon’s factory in Chambersburg, Pa. The company’s U.S. headquarters are in Milwaukee, with support offices in Chattanooga and Houston. They have reason to be enthusiastic about the possibilities of the manufacturing consortium that Obama is pushing — as do Vacon’s factory workers in Suzhou, China, and also in Europe.

Vacon’s website notes that the Finnish company sees its “focus of growth” in six other countries besides the United States: Germany, Brazil, Canada, India, South Korea, and China. Vacon’s website notes that it’s “focus of production is moving to Asia.” Vacon, like other globally competitive corporations, has a natural economic incentive to be near to its growth markets, whether they are in Chambersburg, Pa., or Suzhou.

Moreover, all of Vacon’s factory workers, no matter which country they live and work in, are dependent upon international trade flows across borders, which give them the necessary components they must have to assemble their AC drives. Without access to the imports, all of the factories would fold.

According to Import Genius, an authoritative private research firm that tracks U.S. Customs’ records online, Vacon’s U.S. operations import key parts such as frequency connectors from Finland, valves from China, and control modules from Mexico. Likewise, the workers in Vacon’s factory in China could not assemble their Made in China AC drives without the necessary imported components from various countries. As Karl Marx might put it if he were alive in the 21st century: Workers of the world, you really are united.

But when the president of the United States talks of promoting an American manufacturing renaissance, he is loath to mention that imported components help sustain American manufacturing jobs. The protectionist-minded labor unions that heavily influence the Democratic Party’s trade policies don’t much like to talk about such things.

The puzzle is why the Republicans — who have allowed themselves to be the Fall Guys in Obama’s successful economic morality play — have never figured out how to deflate the patriotic sounding presidential rhetoric. Especially as evidence they would need to put Obama on the defensive is right under their noses.

Remember Obama’s much-touted pledge, first uttered in 2010, that he would move heaven and earth to double U.S. exports between 2009 and 2014? Obama said his White House had a Five Year Plan, which he called the National Export Initiative? It sure had a nice ring to it during the 2012 presidential campaign.

Last week in North Carolina, Obama — who now has new buzz words for job creation, like “manufacturing hubs” — didn’t mention his so-called National Export Initiative. No wonder, considering the numbers.

In 2009, during the economic whirlwinds created by the Great Recession struck, U.S. exports of goods and services totaled $1.5 trillion. But by 2012, the 4th year, U.S. exports had only risen to $2.2 trillion. The numbers aren’t in for all of 2013 (they will be released on Feb. 6.). But it looks like last year was about the same as 2012. So U.S. exports, instead of doubling in five years, have risen by only about one third. To reach Obama’s goal of doubling in five years, U.S. exports this year would have to reach a little over $3 billion. It’s not likely.

But that’s only part of the story. It turns out that there is one existing federal program that actually has an enviable track record of sustaining American jobs — a government program that has steadily been helping exports skyrocket for many years. The reference is to the nationwide network of highly successful U.S. Foreign Trade Zones, which are administered by the Commerce and Treasury departments.

Some 2,800 corporations employ more than 340,000 American workers in FTZs located in every state of the Union, plus Puerto Rico. Manufacturers in these special zones are allowed by the federal government to import the raw materials and components they need to manufacture the finished products, without initially paying import duties. If the goods are sold in the United States, they pay the lower U.S. duty rate for the finished product. Or they could be exported, paying only whatever tariffs buyers in foreign countries are subject to.

The FTZ’s performance clearly illustrates the benefits of a duty-free world. From 2004–2008, the value of exports from FTZs more than doubled, from $19 billion to $41 billion. Since 2009 they have been up more than 80 percent. Last year the department reported that exports from the zones reached a record-high of $54 billion in 2011, a 56 percent increase from fiscal year 2010. (These are the most current numbers the federal government has published.)

Dan Griswold, the president of the National Association of Foreign Trade Zones, has observed that the export numbers “confirm that companies operating through the FTZ program are contributing more than their share toward meeting the president’s National Export Initiative goal of doubling U.S. exports between 2009 and 2014.”  Yet the Obama White House, far from putting FTZs at the center of the president’s National Export Initiative, basically has talked about the free-trade zones as little as possible. The economically thriving zones have been about as far from the center of the president’s National Export Initiative as the White House can keep them.

During the 2012 presidential contest, neither Obama nor his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, visited a Foreign Trade Zone to tout the benefits of a zero-tariff world. In fact, in more than a quarter century of covering the politics of international trade, memory does not recall any example of a presidential candidate of either party who ever trumpeted the jobs-creating virtues of FTZs.

Still, such export success stories are dotted all over the U.S. BMW has exported more than one million spiffy roadsters and four-wheel drive vehicles from the company’s zone in Spartanburg, S.C. since 1994. Mercedes exports its M-Class SUVs and other luxury cars from a duty-free zone in Alabama. Toyota has announced it will be selling its Kentucky-made Venza Crossover to customers in Russia and Ukraine.

Another shining FTZ success is found in Elkton, Va. (pop. 2,700), nestled in the Shenandoah Valley about 100 miles southwest of Washington, D.C. There, pharmaceutical giant Merck operates a sprawling factory that, according to the company’s federal filings, makes drugs to treat diseases ranging from HIV to river blindness to Parkinson’s to cervical cancer. Workers in Elkton make their pills without Merck’s paying U.S. tariffs on imported raw materials (various chemicals, gums, resins) that otherwise would be subject to duties. Free trade is what Elkton, Va. is all about — ask the Merck workers whose jobs depend upon it.

Or take Caterpillar Inc.’s operations in a Foreign Trade Zone in Victoria, Texas, where it makes its iconic yellow excavators and frame assemblies. There is a very long list of imported parts that Cat brings in duty free to keep its Texas workers busy: including various rods and tubes, hoses, fittings, seal strips, clamps, caskets, glass, ceramics, and many more.

There’s another company that has been creating American jobs in a place where they are much needed, but which isn’t in a Foreign Trade Zone. A commendable start-up named Shinola has started putting Americans to work making fine watches and bicycles in bankrupt Detroit. “We know there’s not just history in Detroit, there’s a future,” the company declares on its website.

Hopefully, savvy risk takers like Shinola will become shining successes, inspiring other intrepid entrepreneurs to start re-building Detroit — a sad city that is perhaps the nation’s number one example of the consequences of unenlightened economic policies. (The AFL-CIO’s unions and the old-line U.S. auto manufacturers bear the responsibility for this, but prefer to blame import competition.)

And of course it happens that Shinola’s prospects for success turn on the ability of this entrepreneurial-minded company to benefit from global trade flows. Shinola sources its bike frames and fork tubing from Mississippi, the chainstay plates from Wisconsin, spokes from Colorado — but also imports other necessary parts from Asia and Europe. And the Shinola workers who assemble watches in Detroit, make them from Swiss movements, and also cases, dials, hands, crystals and buckles from China. So this success story is Made in the World, not Made in America.

Given his attitude towards import competition, Obama is not likely to go to Detroit and call for economic policies that would make the entire city a free-trade zone. Nor have prominent national Republicans expressed any such interest.

While American politicians of both political parties remain intellectually trapped in their insular Made in America mentality, other countries — China, for instance — are thinking of better adjusting their economic policies to fit Made in the World economic realities.

Last summer, with the apparent endorsement of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, Beijing announced plans to make parts of Shanghai a free trade zone. As the South China Morning Post, the respected Hong Kong daily newspaper, has observed, this will be the “first Hong Kong-like free trade area in mainland China.” And according to various recent news reports, Beijing is also considering creating another dozen such duty-free zones around the country. They include Guangdong, which is economically close to Hong Kong, the port of Qingdao, and Hangzhou, home of the e-commerce giant Alibaba. While the Chinese plans’ implementation are still works in progress, at least Beijing’s leaders are asking the right questions.

As for Obama, it might help if the president would spend less time thinking about effective campaign rhetoric, and more effective governance. After all, it’s the latter that eventually determines presidential legacies.