As the author of a book titled The Race to the Bottom, you can imagine how excited I was to learn that the main rationale of Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s new proposal for a global minimum tax on corporations is to prevent, or bring to an end, a…race to the bottom.
But this idea also raises a question with profound implications for U.S. trade and broader globalization policies: Why stop at tax policy? And it’s made all the more intriguing because (a) the Biden administration for which Yellen surprisingly seems aware that there’s no good reason to do so even though (b) the trade policy approach that could consequently emerge looks awfully Trump-y.
After all, the minimum tax idea reflects a determination to prevent companies from engaging in what’s known as arbitrage in this area. It’s like arbitrage in any situation – pitting providers and producers that boast little leverage into competition with one another to sell their goods and services at the lowest possible price, and usually triggering a series of ever more cut-rate offers.
These kinds of interactions differ from ordinary price competition because, as mentioned above, the buyer usually holds much more power than the seller. So the results are too often determined by considerations of raw power, not the kinds of overall value considerations that explain why market forces have been so successful throughout history.
When the arbitrage concerns policy, the results can be much more disturbing. It’s true that the ability of large corporations to seek the most favorable operating environments available can incentivize countries to substitute smart policies for dumb in fields such as regulation and of course taxation. But it’s also true, as my book and so many other studies have documented, that policy arbitrage can force countries to seek business with promises and proposals that can turn out to be harmful by any reasonable definition.
Some of the most obvious examples are regulations so meaningless that they permit inhumane working conditions to flourish and pollution to mount, and encourage tax rates to fall below levels needed to pay for public services responsibly. Not coincidentally, Yellen made clear that the latter is a major concern of hers. And the Biden administration says it will intensify enforcement of provisions in recent U.S. trade deals aimed at protecting workers and the environment – and make sure that any new agreements contain the same. I’ve been skeptical that many of these provisions can be enforced adequately (see, e.g., here), but that’s a separate issue. For now, the important point is that such arbitrage, and the lopsided trade flows and huge deficits they’ve generated, harm U.S.-based producers and their employees, too.
But as my book and many other studies have also documented, safety and environmental arbitrage aren’t the only instances of such corporate practices by a long shot. Businesses also hop around the world seeking currency arbitrage (in order to move jobs and production to countries that keep the value of their currencies artificially low, thereby giving goods and services turned out in these countries equally artificial, non-market-related advantages over the competition). Ditto for government subsidies – which also influence location decisions for reasons having nothing to do with free markets, let alone free trade. The victims of these versions of policy arbitrage, moreover, have been overwhelmingly American.
The Biden administration is unmistakably alert to currency and subsidy arbitrage. Indeed a major element of its infrastructure plan is providing massive support for the U.S. industry in general, and to specific sectors like semiconductors to lure jobs and production back home and keep it there. Revealingly, though, it’s decided for the time being to keep in place former President Trump’s steep, sweeping tariffs on China, and on steel and aluminum.
So it looks like the President has resolved to level these playing fields by cutting off corporate policy arbitrage opportunities of all types with a wide range of tools. And here’s where the outcome could start looking quintessentially Trump-y and America First-y. For it logically implies that the United States shouldn’t trade much – and even at all – with countries whose systems and policy priorities can’t promote results favorable to Americans.
Still skeptical? Mr. Biden and his leading advisers have also taken to talking about making sure that “Every action we take in our conduct abroad, we must take with American working families in mind.” More specifically, the President’s White House national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, wrote pointedly during the campaign that U.S. leaders
“must move beyond the received wisdom that every trade deal is a good trade deal and that more trade is always the answer. The details matter. Whatever one thinks of the TPP [the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal], the national security community backed it unquestioningly without probing its actual contents. U.S. trade policy has suffered too many mistakes over the years to accept pro-deal arguments at face value.”
He even went so far as to note that “the idea that trade will necessarily make both parties better off so long as any losers could in principle be compensated is coming under well-deserved pressure within the field of economics.”
But no one should be confident that economic nationalism will ultimately triumph in Biden administration counsels. There’s no doubt that the U.S. allies that the President constantly touts as the keys to American foreign policy success find these views to be complete anathema. And since Yellen will surely turn out to be Mr. Biden’s most influential economic adviser, it’s crucial to mention that her recent speech several times repeated all the standard tropes mouthed for decades by globalization cheerleaders about U.S. prosperity depending totally on prosperity everywhere else in the world.
Whether she’s right or wrong (here I presented many reasons for concluding the latter), that’s clearly a recipe for returning trade policy back to its pre-Trump days – including the long-time willingness of Washington to accept what it described as short-term sacrifices (which of course fell most heavily on the nation’s working class) in order to build and maintain prosperity abroad that would benefit Americans eventually, but never seemed to pan out domestically.
Nor is Yellen the only potential powerful opponent of less doctrinaire, more populist Biden trade policies. Never, ever forget that Wall Street and Silicon Valley were major contributors to the President’s campaign coffers. Two greater American enthusiasts for pre-Trump trade policies you couldn’t possibly find.
And yet, here we are, more than two months into the Biden presidency, and key pieces of a Trump-y trade policy both in word and deed keep appearing. No one’s more surprised than I am (see, e.g., here). But as so often observed, it took a lifelong anti-communist hardliner like former President Richard M. Nixon to engineer America’s diplomatic opening to Mao-ist China. And it took super hard-line Zionist Menachem Begin, Israel’s former Prime Minister, to sign a piece treaty with long-time enemy Egypt. So maybe it’s not so outlandish to suppose that a died-in-the-wool globalist like Joe Biden will be the President establishing America First and economic nationalism as the nation’s new normals in trade and globalization policy.