Tar Baby

posted by
on November 27, 2012

As President Barack Obama won’t begin his second four years in the Oval Office until January 21, nobody yet— at least nobody beyond the president himself and a narrow circle of White House insiders like top economic aide Mike Froman — really knows whether the president is interested in bringing a new vision to get US trade policy moving again. He doesn’t seem to be, if a response I received from Froman’s office indicating that trade will not be one of the president’s top international economic priorities turns out to be an accurate guide. The clear impression is that Obama and his top advisors are satisfied that they have already been doing the right things on trade policy, so nothing major will change in the second term. And as I’ll report later in this article, the president’s otherwise highly successful recent trip to Southeast Asia produced more evidence of why U.S. trade policy is presently stuck on the Tar Baby that the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations seem to becoming for Obama.

That’s at least a skeptic’s view. But if it turns out that Obama really will be looking at what he could do to boost global trade flows, while reclaiming America’s lost high ground on important international economic issues, he won’t have to look far. On the decency side of the equation, the president might want to consider the advice that Ed Gresser has patiently offered for years. Gresser is a loyal Democrat and a widely respected trade analyst who directs the GlobalWorks Foundation’s ProgressiveEconomy project. He has become well-known for making both a moral and economic argument that high U.S. tariffs on shoes and clothing should be eliminated. Basically, Gresser reasons that those tariffs — which generally hover from perhaps 12-18 percent to more than 30 percent — are regressive taxes on America’s poorer consumers. He also points out that the tariffs constitute unnecessary trade barriers that hamper millions of women in developing countries who are trying to sew their ways out of poverty. Washington’s traditional reluctance to get rid of those cruel tariffs — in both Republican and Democratic administrations — is widely resented in the so-called Third World, and is one of the reasons why the WTO’s Doha Round of tariff-slashing has been so acrimonious.

And for a very significant international economic payoff, Obama only has to look uptown, beyond K Street to the 19th Street, N.W. offices of the international law firm, Squire Sanders. There, Shanker Singham, who heads Squire Sanders’ global market access practice, has a big idea. Beyond its purely financial rewards, Singham’s idea would truly restore America’s former claims to international economic leadership (especially in the WTO, which remains the all-important bedrock of the global trading system). Read the rest of this article »