Trade

I was recently in Pyongyang, at the invitation of the Korean Association for Economic Development, to participate in a two-day conference on special economic zones, co-sponsored by the University of British Columbia. It was one of the most surreal experiences of my life, which I am still trying to process. Members of our group who have previously visited the country say they perceived more openness and less fear among the people than in the past, but it remains a highly regimented society. Visible signs of commerce are completely absent. The only billboards show pictures of the Great Leader and Dear Leader or revolutionary slogans accompanying images of ferocious soldiers bayoneting the imperialists. Not a corporate logo in sight. Shops – the people do have to buy necessities and the occasional small luxury – are utilitarian, and their signage, though I can’t read Korean, is drab and functional: “Bread.” “Clothing.” “Furniture.” It may be the only country in the world without Coca-Cola.

Our hosts have asked me to return, to visit their zones and provide some advice, but they are not willing to pay anything close to my normal consulting fees. One thing they will have to learn as they try to engage with the outside world and attract foreign investment – if indeed that is what they do intend – is that foreign experts (I modestly include myself in that category) expect to be paid. It’s not as if the North Koreans are starved for funds or foreign exchange. The fleet of spanking new Mercedes S-Class sedans and SUVs that chauffered our group around the city, the big bottles of cognac and 18-year-old Scotch in the state-owned restaurants we were invited to, where the elite go to enjoy themselves, not to mention North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, are proof of that. Of course, to the degree that the country can rejoin the international community on less confrontational terms, it can go down the path well trodden by developing countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and ask for assistance from international donors to pay for my services.

Two weeks ago I was interviewed about my experiences on The Manzella Report, an international business news and opinion magazine that publishes interviews on YouTube. You can view the interview here: Are the North Koreans Ready for Change?

Like the North Koreans, I too may not be ready for prime time, but I am working on it.

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Outgoing WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy has recently criticized EU-US and transpacific trade talks, which have the potential to create the world’s two largest free trade areas and measurably increase prosperity and growth for hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people. He has a point. Several, actually. Regional trade agreements, though they may possibly serve as stepping-stones to global agreements, can also reduce the urgency with which their members approach global trade negotiations in the WTO framework. A transpacific or transatlantic trade agreement, in addition to excluding China, which already sees hostile intent in the transpacific talks, would also leave out some of the world’s most vulnerable economies and people, especially in Africa and South Asia. Lamy also expressed doubt that either of these incipient trade agreements would address agricultural subsidies, which are the most important trade distortion of all.

All true. And yet, given the paralysis affecting the Doha Round WTO trade talks, now in their 13th year, big regional agreements may be the best deal we can get. According to a study by the European Centre for International Political Economy, a transatlantic zero-tariff agreement, reducing existing tariffs from their current levels of three to five percent to zero, would add between 0.99 and 1.33 percent to U.S. GDP. Eliminating non-tariff trade barriers such as subsidies, and harmonizing product safety and drug approval standards, could add even more. The benefits from a transpacific agreement, which could cover forty percent of global trade if Japan’s efforts to join the agreement bear fruit, could be similar. And the wonderful thing about trade is that one party’s gains are not another’s losses. These agreements could raise everyone’s prosperity.

But relatively trivial disagreements could easily stall both sets of talks or derail them entirely. France has insisted that any trade agreement would have to allow it to continue to lavish subsidies on the French film industry. Japan, whose Liberal Democratic Party owes much of its support to wealthy farmers, insists that it should be allowed to protect its producers of rice, wheat, beef, and soy from imports. Japan has long imposed non-tariff barriers against a wide range of products, including skis, claiming the imported variety are unsuitable for Japan’s unique snow conditions. Such practices are not unknown in France either. At one point, all imported videocassette recorders and players had to be inspected in the customs shed in the city of Poitiers.

The French stance on film industry protection, surprisingly, has come in for more criticism from other EU members fearful of scuppering an immensely valuable deal than from the U.S. and its film industry, which seem fairly relaxed about the whole thing. In a country that has given its highest civilian honor to both Jerry Lewis and Sylvester Stallone, Hollywood has nothing to worry about no matter how much public money French film producers receive. Japanese farmers and their political supporters are, clearly, trying their luck demanding so many exemptions. Kobe and Wagyu beef notwithstanding, none of the products for which Japan is seeking protection has the iconic cultural status of rice, which is tightly bound to Japan’s sense of nationhood. Each year the Emperor conducts special public rituals of sowing, planting, harvesting and giving thanks for rice, while the ceremonies for enthroning a new Emperor include private rites in which he eats specially cultivated sacred rice in an act of communion with his ancestor, the Sun Goddess Amaterasu-ōmikami.

So here is a modest proposal. Each country gets a free pass to protect or subsidize one thing, regardless of fairness or logic. If the French want to give their money to cineastes in the form of subsidies rather than fork out 10 Euros to go see their films, fine. If Mrs. Watanabe wants to buy Japanese rice at a price some 700 percent higher than what she would pay for Thai or American rice, let her. It may not, strictly speaking, be fair to American rice farmers, but it is no more unfair than the subsidies those same farmers get from the U.S. Government (see my recent post on the farm bill), which apparently are legal under current international trade rules. The same rule, of course, would mean that the U.S. would have to choose just one thing to protect or unfairly subsidize. Arkansas rice or cotton growers? Florida sugarcane growers? New England dairy farmers? Archer Daniels Midland? Solar panel manufacturers? And once the choice is made, it’s made. No switching around based on election-year vote counting, depending on who is doing the counting.

On second thought, this is far too reasonable a proposition. It’ll never fly.

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In principle, the decision by House Republicans to strip the food stamp program out of the current farm bill is not a bad thing. In practice, it may not be so bad either.

For the past 40 years or so, agricultural subsidies and supplemental nutrition programs (food stamps) for poor people have been joined at the hip, the idea being that combining the two, otherwise unrelated, initiatives could help win bipartisan support for an omnibus bill that contained something for every constituency: farmers, agribusiness, advocates for the poor, etc. The problem with such an approach is that it embodied the worst of interest-group politics, legislative back scratching, and pork barrel giveaways. No liberal legislator would vote against subsidies for rich sugar or cotton or tobacco farmers for example, if it meant cuts to the food stamp program. No Florida conservative would vote to cut food stamps if it also meant cuts to subsidies for his or her rich, sugar-growing constituents. Everyone got pretty much everything they wanted, and no serious policy debate ever occurred. So separating the two makes profound sense. But encouraging a serious policy debate is the last thing on House Republicans’ minds.

In drafting and voting on a pure farm bill, House Republicans have laid bare their hypocrisy by showing, in black and white, the hollowness of their claims to budget-cutting rigor. It turns out that it’s not government spending per se they object to: as long as it benefits the wealthy, they are quite okay with it. Indeed, in drafting the new farm bill the House Republicans rejected all calls to cap or eliminate subsidies to wealthy individuals and corporations. [click to continue…]

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It must come as some reassurance to Mitt Romney that he is not the only would-be President who says remarkably silly things while visiting foreign lands. Last month Hillary Clinton, on a tour of sub-Saharan Africa, delivered a speech in Senegal in which she said that the United States would stand up for democracy and universal human rights “even when it might be easier or more profitable to look the other way, to keep the resources flowing.” In a barely veiled dig at China, she added, “Not every partner makes that choice, but we do and we will.”

China is widely seen as engaging in an aggressive grab for Africa’s energy and mineral wealth in ways many African leaders find irresistible. Unlike the United States and multilateral institutions such as the World Bank, in which the U.S. has a dominant position, the Chinese offer money and technical assistance without attaching bothersome conditions on human rights, democracy, and free markets. [click to continue…]

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It must come as some reassurance to Mitt Romney that he is not the only would-be President who says remarkably silly things he knows to be untrue. Last week Hillary Clinton, on a tour of sub-Saharan Africa, delivered a speech in Senegal in which she said that the United States would stand up for democracy and universal human rights “even when it might be easier or more profitable to look the other way, to keep the resources flowing.” In a barely veiled dig at China, she added, “Not every partner makes that choice, but we do and we will.” [click to continue…]

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