Category Archives: trade

The Sugar Swamp

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(June 25, 2017)
As the US, Mexico and Canada get ready to begin talks on the re-negotiation of NAFTA – possibly as early as August – governments are giving a lot of attention to one particular product:  sugar.   The outcome will predictably be a sweet deal for the US sugar industry, quite the opposite of Trump promises to “drain the swamp” of disproportionate influence in Washington by special interests.

It’s an old story, in the US as in other industrialized countries.  The politically powerful sugar producers receive protection in the form of tariffs and quotas on imports, to keep the domestic price of sugar far higher than the price in such low-cost supplier countries as Brazil, Australia, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, and Mexico.

Sugar in NAFTA

As part of NAFTA, the US was supposed to open up the American sugar market to Mexico.   Indeed sugar was one of the few products in which free trade meant the removal of high US barriers, whereas the Mexicans had high barriers on many US products that NAFTA required them to remove.  But the required sugar liberalization was delayed long after NAFTA took effect in 1994.

Mexican sugar exports to the US did not rise strongly until 2013.  Then when they did, American producers and refiners lost no time in seeking protection.  The Commerce Department decided to give it to them:  tariffs up to 80%. This threat forced Mexico to agree in 2014 to limit its sugar exports and to explicitly prop up the US price.

Mexico this month apparently agreed to extend the limits.   According to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, “The Mexican side agreed to nearly every request by the US industry.”  (The recent agreement apparently has as much to do with protecting American refiners per se by tightening the limits on trade in raw sugar, as with any adjustment in the overall level of protection of the sugar industry a whole.)

Why is sugar protection bad?   Consider some cost/benefit analysis.

Let’s start with the benefits, because the list is short.  The beneficiaries are American sugar growers – particularly a small group of wealthy cane producers concentrated in Florida plus sugar beet farmers in places like Minnesota and the Dakotas.  They have a long history of generous campaign contributions to the relevant politicians.  For example the famous Fanjul brothers, Alfonso and Jose (who incidentally are Palm Beach neighbors and friends of Secretary Ross), reportedly gave a half million dollars for the inauguration ceremonies of President Trump in January.  Another company, US Sugar, has been donating equally generously to Florida Governor Rick Scott.

Economic costs of sugar protection

The costs of measures to protect the sugar industry are far more numerous than the benefits.

  • As with trade barriers in most industries, American consumers are hurt by the high price of US sugar, which has been double the world price on average over the last 35 years.  The cost to consumers has been estimated at $3 billion a year.
  • Candy and ice cream companies of course use sugar in their production and so are also hurt by the distortedly high price. They have been shedding employment for years, as confectioners move their factories offshore where their chief input is less expensive.   (Outsourcing of manufacturing jobs, anyone?)  The International Trade Agency of the US Commerce Department found that “sugar costs are a major factor in relocation decisions” and estimated that “For each one sugar growing and harvesting job saved through high U.S. sugar prices, nearly three confectionery manufacturing jobs are lost.”
  • One might think that making sugar expensive would at least have big benefits for Americans’ health. But no.  For one thing, the artificially high price of the white crystals was partly responsible historically for the explosion in the production of high-fructose corn syrup as a substitute and its use in a startlingly wide variety of foods.  HFCS is at least as bad as sugar health-wise.
  • Sugar cane in Mexico is produced by hundreds of thousands of small, mostly poor, farmers. Depriving them of their livelihood is bad foreign policy.  Think of the undesirable alternatives to which those farmers might turn.  Or think of the larger message that is sent to the world when our actions are seen to contradict its lectures about the virtues of the market system.
  • Limiting imports is also bad for our exporters. The macroeconomic channels may not be obvious.  But if Mexicans can’t earn dollars by exporting to the US, they won’t have dollars to spend on US goods; the dollar will appreciate against the peso and so render US exports uncompetitive.  More tangibly, if the US were to ratchet up tariffs against Mexican sugar as  we threaten (which we would do in the name of fighting dumping and subsidies), the Mexicans would immediately respond by raising tariffs against our exports (again in the name of fighting dumping and subsidies).
  • The taxpayer is on the hook as well. Besides import barriers, another way that the US government protects domestic sugar farmers is a policy of putting a floor under the price via non-recourse marketing loans (from the USDA’s Commodity Credit Corporation).   When the domestic price dips down near the floor, as it did in 1999 and 2013, the government in practice subsidizes the producers at taxpayer expense (despite “no-cost” promises to the contrary).

Environmental costs of sugar protection

  • If the US hadn’t historically blocked sugar imports from countries such as Mexico and Brazil, it could have used sugar-based ethanol in auto gas tanks, at lower cost to both the environment and the consumer. (This policy failure was worse before 2012.  The American taxpayer paid directly to subsidize corn-based ethanol produced in Iowa, under an incorrect claim of environmental benefits.  At the same time, the US maintained a tariff of 54 cents per gallon on imports of sugar-based ethanol from Brazil, which is indeed good for the environment on net. Even after those egregious features were removed five years ago, an inefficiently high fraction of corn production is still diverted from food use into ethanol.)
  • Speaking of the environment, the last negative effect on the list brings us back to the topic of swamps.  The Everglades – the unique system of wetlands in southern Florida that includes a National Park – have suffered environmental degradation for a century.  They have shrunk to half their original size because the incoming flow of water was diverted by federal water projects early in the last century (by the US Army Corps of Engineers).  Furthermore, phosphorus run-off has altered the eco-system (choking out  sawgrass, feeding algae blooms).  In recent years, plans to reverse the damage to the “river of grass” legislated by Congress in 2000 have been delayed.   The main problem all along has been the nearby sugar cane industry, which demands the diverted water, supplies the phosphorus run-off, and lobbies politicians with some of the resulting profits.  Most recently, sugar interests have posed financial and political obstacles to efforts to build a reservoir (south of Lake Okeechobee) as part of the year-2000 Everglades restoration plan.

Under a free market, it would not be profitable to grow so much cane on valuable South Florida land, if any.  But Trump’s idea of “draining the swamp” in Washington is evidently to artificially stimulate the sugar industry through import protection and subsidies, and to let everyone else bear the cost:  consumers, candy manufacturers, Mexico, and the environment.  That includes draining the Everglades.

[A shorter version appeared at Project Syndicate.  Comments can be posted there or at Econbrowser.]

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Outlook for 2017

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Five journalist’s questions about the economic outlook in the New Year and my answers:

1. In the first year of Trump’s presidency, what do you predict for the US economy in 2017?

The US economy is currently at or near full employment, for the first time in 9 years.  So there is limited capacity for an acceleration of growth in the medium term.  Mr. Trump is fairly likely to follow through with his proposals for massive tax cuts and spending increases (which the economy needed 5 years ago, but were blocked by Republicans).  In the short-term, it may contribute a bit to faster growth.  But the economy is likely to run soon into capacity constraints, in which case the fiscal stimulus will show up more as inflation, interest rate rises, and bigger trade deficits.

  1. Will President Trump be able to keep his word on things he said during his presidential campaign such as infrastructure investment, tax cuts, high tariff, and protectionism?

He certainly won’t be able to keep his word to bring US manufacturing jobs back on net, to any substantial degree.  But he will easily get enough support in congress for tax cuts and, probably, infrastructure investment.   What will happen with respect to tariffs and other trade barriers is impossible to say.  Mr. Trump could do a lot of damage by reverting to protectionism, as the US did under Herbert Hoover in 1930.

  1. China’s annual economic growth is going down to 6% from 10%. What is your view on the Chinese economy? How will it influence global economy?

It was inevitable that China’s economy would slow down from the three decades of 10% growth — and indeed the slowdown began five years ago.  Of course the slowdown is a negative for the world economy, especially commodity-exporting countries.  But it looks like China is avoiding a hard landing, at least this year.

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Brexit, Trump, and Workers Left Behind

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Observers have pointed out many parallels between the June referendum on Brexit in the United Kingdom and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in the US.  One parallel is that both the British movement to leave the EU and the Trump campaign for the American Republican nomination achieved success that few had expected, particularly not the various elites.  In both cases, the general interpretation is that the elites underestimated the anger of working class voters who feel they have been left behind by economic forces in a fast-changing world, and in particular by globalization.

Another parallel is the centrality to both campaigns of promises that are close to logically impossible, and the consequent inevitability with which supporters will feel betrayed when the promises do not come true.  In the United Kingdom, one of the promises that cannot be kept is that if Britain left the EU it could somehow still keep the same trade access to its members, while yet reducing immigration by curtailing free mobility of persons.  Another promise that cannot be kept is that the £350 million ($465 million) supposedly sent to the EU each week would be reallocated to the cash-strapped National Health Service.  On my side of the Atlantic, Trump says that he will bring back the manufacturing jobs that have disappeared. Secondly, as most Republican candidates do, he promises to enact big tax cuts while simultaneously reducing the budget deficit or even the national debt.

It is true that, for some years, most national income gains have been going to those at the very top, with many workers having fallen behind.  Apparently this inequality and globalization, and the perceived connection between the two, play a large role in the anger among many workers that we see in the Brexit and Trump campaigns.  It is far from clear that either trade or migration is in fact among the top reasons for widening inequality. But that is the way many see it.

It is certainly true that globalization produces both winners and losers.  How can the concerns of angry workers be addressed?

A fundamental proposition in economics holds that when individuals are free to engage in trade, the size of the economic pie increases enough that the winners could in theory compensate the losers, in which case everyone would be better off. Formally it is a case of what economists call the Second Fundamental Welfare Theorem.   (The proposition requires that there be no market failures like monopolies or pollution externalities.)

Skeptics of globalization may understand this theorem and yet, quite reasonably, point out that the compensation in practice tends to remain hypothetical.   Some of the skeptics suggest that we should recognize political reality, take the failure to compensate losers as given, and so work on trying to slow down or roll back globalization.   But an alternative would be the reverse strategy: to take globalization as given and instead work on trying to help those who are in danger of being left behind.

The second strategy is the sensible one, not the first.  For one thing, it would be difficult to roll back globalization even if we wanted to.  Presumably the policies would include attempting to renegotiate NAFTA or TPP (or, for Britain, the EU), or dropping out of the World Trade Organization, or else unilaterally imposing tariffs and quotas even though they violate existing international agreements.  Even leaving aside the negative effects of trade wars on economic growth, anything that a president does would be very unlikely to bring trade back down to the levels of 50 years ago, and still less likely to bring the number of steel jobs back up to the levels of 50 years ago.   Globalization is a reality.

That we can’t turn back the clock on globalization is understood fairly widely.  But a second point is less often made.  In the context of US presidential elections, the choice between the two parties is less a referendum on globalization than it is a choice whether to adopt the specific policies that would help those who are in danger of being left behind.   Much is new and different in the 2016 election, but not that.

Policies to help those who are left behind [or, in clinical theoretical terms, to compensate the losers] are precisely where the two parties disagree.  They most effective measures, as I see it, are ones that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, like his predecessors, try to push and that the Republicans try to block.

The main program to help specifically those who have lost their jobs due to trade is Trade Adjustment Assistance.  But why help only the small number of workers who have identifiably lost their jobs due to trade agreements?  Wouldn’t it be better to help those who have been left behind regardless if the cause is trade, technology, or something else?  Sensible policies to do that include wage insurance, an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit and universal health insurance, among others.  Also: a more progressive payroll tax structure, universal quality pre-school, and infrastructure investment spending.  These are all policies favored by Democrats.  Most have been opposed by Republicans. [Still, one hopes that even if a second President Clinton once again had to deal with a Republican Congress, the two might be able to find common ground in the EITC and infrastructure investment.]

Not long ago, it was possible to admire the sort of political equilibrium achieved by the British electoral system.  The two largest parties tended to be led by relatively competent and consistent leaders who represented relatively well-demarcated stances on the issues: right-of-center in the case of the Conservatives and left-of-center on the part of Labor.  Voters could make their choices based on the policy issues.  Under a parliamentary system, the victorious prime minister could work to carry out the policies that he or she had campaigned on.  It compared favorably to the ever-worsening gridlock of the American system, where presidential initiatives could and would be blocked by congressmen from the opposite party, even when the initiatives were consistent with philosophies that they themselves had espoused in the past.

To state the obvious, the British system has broken down.   Some of those competent leaders eventually made fatefully ill-advised decisions: Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax, Tony Blair’s support for the US invasion of Iraq, and David Cameron’s decision to hold the Brexit referendum. What is now left is a mess.  It is hard to discern much clarity or consistency in the new crop of English politicians.  When the next election is eventually held, the voters could well be asked to choose between parties that do not correspond in any clear way to the relevant policy decisions that Britain must make, mainly whether to seek to negotiate a relatively close association with the EU or to cut off completely.

In some familiar ways the American political system has also deteriorated in this election cycle, bringing past trends to a reductio ad absurdum.  But the American political situation at the moment has an advantage that the Brits lack: ability for voters to choose what is to be the national policy orientation. The Democrats still favor policies like wage insurance and universal health insurance and the Republicans still oppose them. So American voters in 2016 are still able to make the relevant choice, either for or against policies that deal with the reality of globalization by helping those who are left behind.

[This is an extended version of a column that appeared at Project Syndicate, July 14, 2016. Comments can be posted there or at Econbrowser.]

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