by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Daniel Ikenson writes at the “Cato At Liberty” blog about the flaws built into the design of the Export-Import Bank and other federal policies promoting exports. He delivered these words during testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade.
U.S. trade promotion agencies are in the business of promoting exports, not trade in the more inclusive sense. That is worth noting because despite some of the wrongheaded mercantilist assumptions undergirding U.S. trade policy—that exports are good and imports are bad—the fact is that the real benefits of trade are transmitted through imports, not through exports.
In keeping with the conventional wisdom, in January 2010 President Obama set a national goal of doubling U.S. exports in five years. Prominent in the plan was a larger role for government in promoting exports, including expanded nonmarket lending programs to finance export activity, an increase in the number of the Commerce Department’s foreign outposts to promote U.S. business, and an increase in federal agency-chaperoned marketing trips.
But the NEI neglected a broad swath of worthy reforms by ignoring the domestic laws, regulations, taxes, and other policies that handicap U.S. businesses in their competition for sales in the U.S. market and abroad. For example, nearly 60 percent of the value of U.S. imports in 2014 consisted of intermediate goods, capital goods, and other raw materials—the purchases of U.S. businesses, not consumers. Yet, many of those imports are subject to customs duties, which raise the cost of production for the U.S.-based companies that need them, making them less competitive at home and abroad. U.S. duties on products like sugar, steel, magnesium, polyvinyl chloride, and other crucial manufacturing inputs have chased companies to foreign shores—where those inputs are less expensive—and deterred foreign companies from setting up shop stateside.
Policymakers should stop conflating the interests of exporters with the national interest and commit to policies that reduce frictions throughout the supply chain—from product conception to consumption. Why should U.S. taxpayers underwrite—and U.S. policymakers promote—the interests of exporters, anyway, when the benefits of those efforts accrue, primarily, to the shareholders of the companies enjoying the subsidized marketing or matchmaking? There is no national ownership of private export revenues.
If policymakers seek a more appropriate target for economic policy, it should be to attract and retain direct investment, which is the seed of all economic activity, including exporting.