Debating the tire tariffs [UPDATED]

After the sturm und drang of last week's decision by the Obama administration to slap tariffs on Chinese tires, I've seen a bit of a pushback among the economic commentariat.  This pushback comes in one of two forms: 

  1. This is not a big deal
  2. Obama has his eyes on the larger prize

Over at TNR, Noam Scheiber makes the first case -- that this is a tempest in a teapot

With anti-trade sentiment rising in the aftermath of the worst financial crisis since the 1930s, it's become increasingly difficult to resist genuine protectionism--to say nothing of passing new trade pacts. (Bilateral deals with Colombia, South Korea, and Panama have all stalled out in Congress.) Absent a small gesture on behalf of American workers, it's safe to say the trade agenda would be doomed for the foreseeable future. (It may be anyway, of course.) Which is why Obama's decision seemed relatively straightforward once the International Trade Commission ruled that Chinese tires were in fact disruptive. Even so, Obama announced that the tariff would top out at 35 percent, well below the 55 percent recommended by the ITC.

So the tariff is modest, narrow, legal, and designed to preserve the political viability of free trade....

[B]oth Bush and Obama were rhetorically committed to free trade at the time of their tariff flirtations, and both men had taken practical steps to promote it. (Bush had sought fast-track authority from Congress; Obama, in a much tougher political environment for trade, scaled back a "buy American" provision in the stimulus.) So pretty much the only way to divine this difference is by peering into the two men's souls.  

Hmmm........ no, not buying the equivalence between Bush and Obama here.  First, to repeat, just because something is legal doesn't mean it's good policy. 

Second, as Phil Levy pointed out, the Bush administration specifically declined to apply these tariffs when he was president.  So there is some different between the two administrations' perspectives on trade.

Third, if Scheiber is correct that this is merely "a small gesture on behalf of American workers," then I'd be fine.  But I'm curious about his faith in that assertion.  All the political signs point to a lot of gestures in the protectionist direction.  Each of them, by themselves, is Lilliputian in their effects -- but the cumulative effect can be to keep the Gulliver of freer trade under lock and key. 

The Financial Times' Alan Beattie makes the more interesting argument -- which is that a short term sacrifice of trade policy in favor of health care will sow the seeds of a viable long-term policy of trade liberalization: 

The conventional wisdom in Washington is that this is a straight trade-off. Placate the labour unions on trade and get them to support Mr Obama on healthcare. Whisper it quietly, and be prepared for accusations of heresy to rain down on your head, but that might be a deal worth making....

Instead of hoarsely exhorting the benefits of trade to people who aren’t listening, [trade enthusiasts] need to be seen to soften its downside. Since the American public seems to ascribe much job loss in the US economy to globalisation – usually wrongly, but there we have it – this means reducing the costs of being laid off. Since much healthcare is currently tied to employment, achieving universal coverage would be one of the best ways of doing that....

Mr Obama has now come down on the wrong side of three big decisions on trade: happily signing a stimulus bill with Buy American provisions, abrogating an agreement allowing more Mexican trucks to operate in the US, and now granting the first ever emergency tariffs under a particular “safeguard” measure in US law. All are damaging both to trade and to the US’s international standing. All risk inflaming protectionist sentiment at a sensitive time.

But if he can use his capital to achieve universal healthcare and begin to shift the visceral dislike of trade that has gripped large parts of the American public and their representatives on Capitol Hill, it might prove worth it. He is playing with fire, which has creative but also destructive power. Just like globalisation.

Beattie gets at an interesting proposition -- that stronger safety nets will make Americans more comfortable with globalization.  You can certainly point to public opinion polling in support of this hypothesis

It's a good argument, and it's the one I suspect Larry Summers and Tim Geithner told themselves after the tire decision was made.  The thing is, I'm not sure whether it's politically accurate. 

In my debates about trade over the years, I've talked with a lot of union activists on the other side of the fence.  These are people dedicated to the protection of them and theirs -- and given the economic straits of their workers, I can't blame them.  I know from talking with them, however, that a stronger social safety net will have zero effect on their trade position.  Sure, they want health care -- but they also want to make sure that their union continues to exist as a viable political entity.  Regardless of universal health care coverage, globalization eats away at the unionized employment sector in the United States.  For unions in the 21st century, protectionism is not a policy position to be traded away -- it is at the core of their perceived interests.  Health care will not affect that position. 

Am I missing anything? 

UPDATE:  Noam Scheiber responds on TNR's blog to say that maybe I am missing something

[T]he political context looms incredibly large here. Simply put, it's incredibly difficult to defend, much less expand, free trade in the middle of a deep recession. And this is the deepest since the 1930s. In that context, the best you can probably do is beat back the worst protectionist excesses and live to fight another day. 

Which is to say, you can't just make a straight-forward point-by-point comparison between Bush and Obama. The question is, what would a pro-trade president do in the current political context? My point is that it's far from clear he or she would behave any differently from Obama.

Scheiber is absolutely correct that the curent political environment is hostile to trade -- but I'm not all that sure the environment was any less toxic in the early half of this decade.  In December 2001, George W. Bush, flush from the success of the war in Afghanistan, possessing an approval rating above 80 percent and larding out pork like no one's business, secured the passage of Trade Promotion Authority through the GOP-controlled House of Representatives by a single vote.  In 2005, CAFTA made it through the House by a two-vote margin. 

Let's face it, however -- this debate is about the future.  If Obama abstains from futher acts like the tire tariff, I'll concede that I've overreacted.  If there's more of this to come, then I think Scheiber will have underreacted. 

Daniel W. Drezner

Theory of International Politics and Zombies

[NOTE TO 2011 AND BEYOND READERS OF THIS POST:  If you like what you read here, then trust me, you'll love the book that came from it:  Theories of International Politics and Zombies, (Princeton University Press, 2011).  This post is where it all began!!]

Alex Massie alerts us to this BBC story about modeling who would win if the dead actually did rise from the grave

If zombies actually existed, an attack by them would lead to the collapse of civilisation unless dealt with quickly and aggressively.

That is the conclusion of a mathematical exercise carried out by researchers in Canada.

They say only frequent counter-attacks with increasing force would eradicate the fictional creatures....

To give the living a fighting chance, the researchers chose "classic" slow-moving zombies as our opponents rather than the nimble, intelligent creatures portrayed in some recent films....

[T]heir analysis revealed that a strategy of capturing or curing the zombies would only put off the inevitable.

In their scientific paper, the authors conclude that humanity's only hope is to "hit them [the undead] hard and hit them often".

They added: "It's imperative that zombies are dealt with quickly or else... we are all in a great deal of trouble."  

Now, one could argue that this finding represents a Blinding Glimpse of the Obvious. On the other hand, the report has clear freaked out Alex Massie:

[The researchers] are cheating. It's like something out of Dad's Army: You can't fight like that, it's not in the rules... Then again, if we can be destroyed by Zombie 1.0, just think how powerless we'd be when confronted by Next Generation Zombies...

To try to make Massie feel better let's have some fun with this and ask a different question -- what would different systemic international relations theories* predict regarding the effects of a zombie outbreak? Would the result be inconsequential -- or World War Z

A structural realist would argue that, because of the uneven distribution of capabilities, some governments will be better placed to repulse the zombies than others. Furthermore, anyone who has seen Land of the Dead knows that zombies are not deterred by the stopping power of water. So that's the bad news. 

The good news is that these same realists would argue that there is no inherent difference between human states and zombie states.  Regardless of individual traits or domestic instiutions, human and zombie actors alike are subject to the same powerful constraint of anarchy. Therefore, the fundamental character of world politics would not be changed. Indeed, it might even be tactically wise to fashion temporary alliances with certain zonbie states as a way to balance against human states that try to exploit the situation with some kind of idealistic power grab made under the guise of "anti-zombieism." So, according to realism, the introduction of zombies would not fundamentally alter the character of world politics. 

A liberal institutionalist would argue that zombies represent a classic externality problem of... dying and then existing in an undead state and trying to cause others to do the same. Clearly, the zombie issue would cross borders and affect all states -- so the benefits from policy coordination would be pretty massive.

This would give states a great opportunity to cooperate on the issue by quickly fashioning a World Zombie Organization (WZO) that would codify and promnulgate rules on how to deal with zombies. Alas, the effectiveness of the WZO would be uncertain. If the zombies had standing and appealed any WZO decision to wipe them out, we could be talking about an 18-month window when zombies could run amok without any effective regulation whatsoever. 

Fortunately, the United States would likely respond by creating the North American F*** Zombies Agreement -- or NAFZA -- to handle the problem regionally. Similarly, one would expect the European Union to issue one mother of a EU Directive to cope with the issue, and handle questions of zombie comitology. Indeed, given that zombies would likely be covered under genetically modified organisms, the EU would trumpet the Catragena Protocol on Biosafety in an "I told you so" kind of way. Inevitably, Andrew Moravcsik would author an essay about the inherent superiority of the EU approach to zombie regulation, and why so many countries in Africa prefer the EU approach over the American approach of "die, motherf***ers, die!!"  Oh, and British beef would once again be banned as a matter of principle. 

Now, avid followers of social constructivism might think that Wendt and Duvall (2008) have developed a model that would be useful for this kind of event... but you would be wrong. Back when this paper was in draft stage, I specifically queried them about wther their argument about UFOs could be generalized to zombies, vampires, ghosts, the Loch Ness monster, Elvis, etc.  Their answer was an emphatic "no":  aliens would be possessors of superior technology, while our classic sci-fi canon tells us that the zombies, while resistant to dying, are not technologically superior to humans. So that's a dead end.

Instead, constructivists would posit that the zombie problem is what we make of it.  That is to say, there are a number of possible emergent norms in response to zombies. Sure, there's the Hobbesian "kill or be killed" end game that does seem to be quite popular in the movies.  But there could be a Kantian "pluralistic anti-Zombie" community that bands together and breaks down nationalist divides in an effort to establish a world state. Another way of thinking about this is that the introduction of zombies creates a stronger feeling of ontological security among remaining humans -- i.e., they are not flesh-eaters (alas, those bitten by zombies are now both physically and ontologically screwed). 

Unfortunately, I fear that constructivists would predict a norm cascade from the rise of zombies. As more and more people embrace the zombie way of undead life, as it were, the remaining humans would feel social pressure to conform and eventually internalize the norms and practices of zombies -- kind of like the early-to-middle section of Shaun of the Dead. In the end, even humans would adopt zombie-constructed perceptions of right and wrong, and when it's apprpriate to grunt in a menacing manner. 

Now, some would dispute whether neoconservatism is a systemic argument, but let's posit that it's a coherent IR theory.  To its credit, the neoconservatives would recognize the zombie threat as an existential threat to the human way of life.  Humans are from Earth, whereas zombies are from Hades -- clearly, neoconservatives would argue, zombies hate us for our freedom not to eat other humans' brains.   

While the threat might be existential, accommodation or recognition are not options.  Instead, neocons would quickly gear up an aggressive response to ensure human hegemony.  However, the response would likely be to invade and occupy the central state in the zombie-affected area.  After creating a human outpost in that place, humans in neighboring zombie-affected countries would be inspired to rise up and overthrow their own zombie overlords.  Alas, while this could happen, a more likely outcone would be that, after the initial "Mission Accomplished" banner had been raised, a fresh wave of zombies would rise up, enmeshing the initial landing force -- which went in too light and was drawn down too quickly -- in a protracted, bloody stalemate. 

Readers are hereby encouraged in the comments to posit other IR theoretical prediction of the response to a zombie uprising. For example, would the zombie uprising confirm Marxist predictions about the revolt of the proletariat? 

*Alas, your humble blogger does not have the time to puzzle out the zombie effect on two-level games. 

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images