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Ways of the World

Carol Stone, business economist & active Episcopalian, brings you "Ways of the World". Exploring business & consumers & stewardship, we'll discuss everyday issues: kids & finances, gas prices, & some larger issues: what if foreigners start dumping our debt? And so on. We can provide answers & seek out sources for others. We'll talk about current events & perhaps get different perspectives from what the media says. Write to Carol. Let her know what's important to you:

Monday, September 28, 2009

Bigger Role for G-20 Elevates Emerging Market Nations

There was a major development at last week's G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh, and it wasn't the protests or pronouncements on climate change. Perhaps the most significant development to come from the meeting was the recognition that this group, the G-20, is now the most relevant forum in the world for coordinating world economic policy. This bigger group, including major "emerging market" countries, thus supplants the more restricted G-8 that covered only the biggest industrial nations.

Specifically, the G-8 consists of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. The European Commission (EC) attends as well, but in an advisory capacity. In sharp contrast, the G-20 contains those countries, plus

Saudi Arabia
South Africa
South Korea

There are thus 19 countries, plus the EC. With the latter, a number of smaller European countries have representation. Now we have the most populous countries added to the discussions as well as several major resource producers. During the meeting, the group also decided to increase the role of these countries in the International Monetary Fund, the IMF, which provides financial support to needy nations. For a time during recent years, it appeared that the IMF might be fading, as it looked like fewer countries were subject to foreign exchange and other financial crises. Those conditions, of course, have changed dramatically and now the focus is on making the IMF's structure and work more responsive to the needs that are weighing on the world financial system.

It seems strange to congratulate a country. But this seems to us like a graduation of sorts, where the newly promoted countries are finally recognized for the stake they have in the world's welfare, as both recipients and providers of economic benefits. We're glad they're to be included in these deliberations.


William Safire

Perhaps all of you routinely check out the New York Times website of a morning, and you have already seen this today. In memory of their renowned columnist William Safire, who died yesterday at age 79, the Times today highlights one of his memorable columns, "How to Read a Column". If you have in fact not seen it, do take it in. You'll never look at such a feature in the same way again!

Mr. Safire published his "On Language" column in the Times Magazine as recently as September 13, on the issue of bending the curve and using other such symbolic phrases. [We can't begin to choose the right words to describe this succinctly, a not inconsiderable irony in speaking of Mr. Safire.] Here it is:

We will miss this pundit, for whom, the Times' affectionate obituary asserts this morning, the word "pun-dit" was likely coined. May Mr. Safire rest in peace, knowing what pleasure he brought to reading about serious -- and pleasurable -- affairs of the day.

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Monday, September 21, 2009

The Tariff on Tires

Just over a week ago, the Obama Administration announced a 35% tariff on certain car and truck tires imported from China. Apparently, the purpose of the tariff is to raise the price of imported tires so they won't be so attractive, thereby encouraging U.S. consumers who are shopping for new tires to choose some produced in the U.S. It's hard to know how savvy tire-shoppers are, but one of them, Debbie from Geranium Farm's Hodgepodge, saw an article the next day with the headline, "Tire Prices To Rise by 20-30%". Debbie thought to alert her relatives and friends who might be needing tires – as she herself does at the moment, she tells me – and she circulated the article to some 40 people, including me. They should buy their tires right away, she thought, before that huge price hike.

I responded to her note immediately, but as an economist, not a tire-buyer. The following poured out of my fingers into the computer in not more than ten minutes (the text here is a bit more elaborate than what I actually sent back to her).

Dear Debbie,

I guess you want a comment about this . . . .

I haven't read this specific piece, but I've kept up with the news in the last couple of days. It is truly disappointing. In a word, protectionism is bad. Raising tariffs in the 1930s was a major contributor to the length of the Depression. Because when we raise them, the other countries retaliate, as China has already threatened on chicken and car parts. So prices go up and jobs go down, everywhere. We've spent years and years since then trying to lower tariffs.

It is false that higher import tariffs will "protect" American jobs. Sometimes, very occasionally, you can make an argument in a very young industry that it deserves "protection" until it builds a customer base and momentum. But even there, they already have patent protection. There might also be national security reasons to discourage buying of products from certain countries.

But in the vast majority of these cases, in fact, the people get hurt who are the very people government officials think they're helping, the workers. These imported tires are cheaper, so they are bought heavily by lower income Americans, who can least afford these higher prices, especially now in the fragile, job-scarce economy.

China and India and Wal-Mart, with their ability to produce and sell at low-cost, are one of the main reasons that the Fed Chairman [last week could] say that he believes the recession now may have concluded and a recovery, however hesitant, begun.

My email ended here, but let me finish the thoughts. One of the saving graces in these dire times has been the availability of low-price options for many products. By shifting to shopping at Wal-Mart, for instance, people can make their limited dollars stretch farther. If they need new tires, they can find some they can afford. Further, the imposition of the tariff, by chopping demand from the exporters in China and India, will export our economic hurt to the people of those countries, who are just starting to enjoy the fruits of their own economic emergence. They, in turn, would buy less of the products we try to sell, hurting our exporting companies. The industries are different: the Chinese tend to make the consumer goods and the U.S. firms specialize more in capital equipment, but the mutual harm is the same.

The dollars here are not large – car tires are hardly our biggest import – but the pending action sends a very difficult message at a very sensitive time in the world economy, and it comes just days before the leaders of the G-20 nations are scheduled to meet together in Pittsburgh. The British-based magazine The Economist last week highlighted this issue on their cover: "Economic Vandalism", they called it. They have supported the President editorially on other issues, and they do tend to be on his side. But the language in their article is stronger than mine here.

It is true that trade relations with China need attention. But it would seem that joint examination and negotiation would be more appropriate ways to work on them. And we haven't even mentioned that China owns substantial assets in the U.S. and has recently become the largest creditor of the U.S. government. That position makes our unilateral tariff action problematic as well.

Thanks, Debbie – I think – for showing so clearly how important these policy decisions can be in our everyday lives.

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