Friday, January 9, 2009

Obama Risks Slide to Protectionism

There are few who know more about international trade policy than Jagdish Bhagwati. The Columbia University economist warns that Barack Obama risks caving into demands on the political left for the repudiation of America's historic commitment to free trade:

In the Financial Times, I argued that, unlike with Hillary Clinton, there were several reasons why one could be optimistic that Barack Obama would follow a pro-trade policy despite “prudential” protectionist talk on the primaries circuit (“Obama’s free-trade credentials top Clinton’s”, March 3 2008). But the US president-elect’s eloquent silence on trade issues – and his failure to balance his protectionist appointments with powerful trade proponents – require that we abandon these illusions and sound an alarm.

Consider Mr Obama’s support for the multilateral trading system. It must be admitted that the Doha round is on hold and Mr Obama could not move it forward even if he so desired. A principal problem is that its completion turns critically on the US making further reductions in its distorting agricultural subsidies. But the issue has become even more difficult with the collapse of commodity prices and hence increases in support payments. Besides, history shows that the freeing of trade is nearly impossible to achieve in times of macroeconomic crisis.

But Mr Obama (unlike Gordon Brown) missed the opportunity, provided by the Group of 20’s affirmation of trade’s importance, to affirm that he attaches the highest priority to closing the Doha round and will work on this urgent task throughout his first year.

More important, Mr Obama has missed the bus on preventing a slide back into protectionism. His pronouncements on the car bail-out disregard the lessons of the early 1930s when the Smoot-Hawley tariff was signed into law and a competitive raising of tariff barriers ensued. We learnt then that tariffs and trade restrictions could indeed increase our national income by diverting a given amount of insufficient world demand to our markets. But then others could do the same to divert our demand to their goods, so that the result was reduced trade and deepened depression. Far better to keep markets open and increase aggregate world demand. So, the architects of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (merged in 1995 into the World Trade Organisation) built into it institutionalised obstacles to an outbreak of mutually harmful trade policies.

But what trade barriers did after 1930 can be done also by subsidies. So we now have strict rules on subsidies as well. Under a 1995 WTO agreement, export subsidies and “local content” requirements are prohibited as directly damaging to trade and all other subsidies that are specific to companies or industries are open to complaint; and this applies even when they are claimed to be environmentally friendly.
Read the whole thing. Obama's cabinet appointments are less encouraging for free trade than meets the eye.


Anonymous said...

I am also really worried that this presidency may start a protectionist wave that may very well become unstoppable.

Mark Arza