America Embraces Trade Discrimination

NEW YORK – Economists generally agree on the advantages of openness in trade. But the case for non-discrimination in trade is also a compelling one. So good trade policy should push for multilateral trade liberalization such as at the Doha Round, rather than preferential trade agreements (PTAs) such as free-trade areas (FTAs), and also ensure that any retreat into protectionism does not degenerate into discriminatory trade practices.

The last G-20 meeting in Canada was a disappointment on the first front. At the insistence of the United States, an earlier reference by the G-20 to a definite date for completing the Doha Round was dropped. Instead, unwittingly rubbing salt into the wound, President Barack Obama announced his administration’s willingness to see the US-South Korea FTA through.

On the second front, there are distressing recent reports that the US Commerce Department is exploring ways to strengthen the bite of anti-dumping actions, which are now generally agreed to be a form of discriminatory protectionism aimed selectively at successful exporting nations and firms. Equally distressing is Obama’s decision in August 13 to sign a bill, approved in a rare special session of the Senate, that raises visa fees on H1(b) and L-1 temporary work visas in order to pay for higher border-enforcement expenditures.

This proposal gained its legs from long-standing worries about the H1(b) and L-1 programs on the part of Republican Senator Chuck Grassley and Democratic Senator Richard Durbin, and had recently attracted the sponsorship of the influential Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York. Schumer had long agitated against “outsourcing” as inimical to American economic interests, even allying himself with the supply-side economist Paul Craig Roberts. But he gained clout with the onset of the current crisis, and concern over intractable unemployment numbers is enabling politicians to justify all sorts of superficially attractive remedies.