The Obama administration spent much energy over the weekend attempting to discredit Standard & Poor’s credit rating agency’s downgrade of U.S. debt, which they said was based on a “basic math error of significant consequence.”
In sum, the administration argued that S&P applied the Budget Control Act’s deficit reduction dollar amount of $2.1 trillion to a non-inflation adjusted baseline scenario, when that number was derived from a scenario where discretionary spending levels grew with nominal GDP. In 2021, government debt as a share of GDP would be 93 percent under S&P’s original methodology, while it would be 85 percent under what Treasury maintains is the correct methodology. This claim of an error has been all over the press for days.
It would sure be nice if the Treasury and press got as worked up about basic math errors that the White House itself is making on the three pending trade deals with Korea, Colombia and Panama.
The administration maintains that the Korea deal will boost U.S. exports by $11 billion, when in fact the administration’s own numbers within the U.S. International Trade Commission study show that the deal will lead to a decline in net exports of about $416 million. The S&P’s debt number overstated the debt by about nine percent, but the administration’s claim of exports under the Korea deal overstates the magnitude of the change in the trade balance by 25,000 percent, in addition to getting the direction of the change wrong. If, as the Treasury Department says, the S&P debt error was “of significant consequence,” the administration’s trade-deal export claims must qualify as a misstatement of colossal consequence.
Similarly, the administration says that U.S. exports will increase by $1 billion under the Colombia deal, when the administration’s own numbers show that net exports will take a $66 million hit under the deal. (No estimates have been provided for the U.S.-Panama deal.)
Why these discrepancies? In its public statements, the administration is selectively looking only at one side of the ledger, extracting a number for bilateral exports, while not accounting for the overall change (the change in exports minus imports under the deal). In budget economics, this would be akin to looking only at what the government is taking in as revenue, without looking at what the government is spending. If the government simply assumed away any government spending, I’m betting that the press would call them on this “basic math error of significant consequence.”
The administration is also selectively looking at just the change in U.S. exports to Korea and Colombia under the pacts. But as the administration’s own reports show, these deals will also induce changes in trade patterns with other countries. At the end of the day, the U.S. is projected to be importing more than it is exporting as a result of these deals.
It is newsworthy that the administration’s own reports (produced by the USITC) conclude that net exports will decline under the deal, especially since their primary public rationale for the deals is that exports will increase. These USITC reports in the past have tended to be wildly optimistic, such as underestimating the increase in the U.S.-China trade deficit after China entered the World Trade Organization by $166 billion. But, the reports have nonetheless always concluded that, even if bilateral deficits increase, the global U.S. balance will improve. That is, until the reports on the three pending deals, and the deal with Peru (negotiations on all four were concluded in 2007), predicted a worsening of the overall balance.
This fact was even trumpeted by no less of a champion of NAFTA-style deals than Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who said that the total net export number is the “the one number that is of significance to our economic health.” (See full quote below, after the jump.)
It is unclear why the press continues to report as fact (or unchallenged assertion) the claim that the pending trade pacts will create jobs. These claims rely on using the wrong trade numbers from the government’s own study. Unlike many complex economic debates, all these numbers are publicly available, very straightforward and involve reading no more than two pages in two reports to simply verify the administration’s claims (pages 2-14 and 2-15 of the Korea report and pages G-12 and G-13 of the Colombia report). Moreover, the administration’s basic math error has been known for over nine months, and communicated to reporters and their editors repeatedly over that time (see “Survey of Studies on Potential Economic Effects of the Korea FTA Show Rising Deficits and Job Losses”, “Survey of Studies on Potential U.S. Economic Effects of Korea Trade Deal Shows Rising Deficits and Job Losses, 2010 ‘Supplemental Deal’ Does Not Alter These Outcomes”, “Guide to the the State of the Union on Jobs, Exports”, “Previewing Ways and Means Chair Camp’s Request for USITC Analysis of the December 2010 Korea FTA Supplemental Auto Deal”, “The Korea FTA is Lose-Lose for the U.S. and Korea: The Facts”, “Here’s an Impediment to Job Creation That Ways and Means Hearing Should Discuss: Korea Trade Deal Is Projected to Increase the Overall U.S. Trade Deficit”.
Reporters can and should quote advocates of these trade deals, and explore their reasoning for wanting Congress to pass them. But, to the extent that job and export claims are based on the administration’s basic math errors, this needs to be pointed out in reporting.
(For what it’s worth, there is also no historical support for the notion that NAFTA-style deals increase exports in relative terms. This would also cast doubts on the administration’s stated rationale for pushing the agreements. However, one would not even have to examine the record to report that the administration is misrepresenting its own research.)
Grassley floor speech on CAFTA, June 30, 2005, Congressional Record, Page S7681:
After some critics are done arguing that CAFTA is meaningless to the United States, they do, however, point to another part of the [U.S. International Trade] Commission's report and offer another doom-and-gloom scenario. They point to the Trade Commission’s estimates that suggest that once CAFTA is implemented we will increase our bilateral trade deficit with these countries by as much as $110 million. Those critics ignore the Commission’s conclusion that if you take into account likely changes in our global pattern of trade, once CAFTA is fully implemented, then our overall trade deficit is likely to decline by $750 million.
Now, how does the figure of $750 million get ignored, but a $110-million figure gets taken into consideration? Well, it is quite obvious that the people who are quoting from this report quote what benefits their position for voting against CAFTA and do not look at the overall beneficial impact of CAFTA on the United States.
That $750 million is a very important number. Our bilateral trade balance with individual countries or regions may be interesting to consider, but the one number that is of significance to our economic health is our overall trade deficit. According to the ITC, the International Trade Commission, CAFTA will help reduce that trade deficit by $750 million.
Now, all the people crying about our trade deficit, are they going to take into consideration $750 million? Why on Earth would we walk away from that benefit, as the opponents of this agreement will have the United States do with their ‘no’ vote?
I hope this dispels the critics' misinformation about CAFTA. The fact is, when you read the ITC report in its entirety, it becomes clear that implementing CAFTA offers meaningful benefits to the United States, both in terms of improving the economic welfare of the United States and in terms of reducing our overall trade deficit.