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Rules versus Discretion in Trade Policy: An Empirical Analysis

  • Robert W. Staiger
  • Guido Tabellini

We test empirically for evidence that government tariff-setting behavior depends on the degree of discretion with which policy-makers are endowed. We do this by studying government tariff choices under two distinct environments. One environment is that of tariffs set under the Escape Clause (Section 201 of the U.S. Trade Act of 1974). We argue that these decisions afford the government with ample opportunity to reoptimize, and with correspondingly little ability to commit. The other environment is the Tokyo Round of GATT negotiations and the determination of the set of exclusions from the general formula cuts. We argue that these decisions provided the government with a much diminished opportunity to reoptimize, and with a correspondingly greater ability to commit. Comparing decisions made in these two environments allows us to ask whether the degree of policy discretion has a measurable impact on trade policy decisions. Our findings suggest that it does.

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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 3382.

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Date of creation: Jun 1990
Date of revision:
Publication status: published as Robert Baldwin, editor. Empirical Studies in Commercial Policy. Empirical Studies in Commercial Policy. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press,(1991).
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:3382
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  1. Staiger, Robert W & Tabellini, Guido, 1987. "Discretionary Trade Policy and Excessive Protection," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 77(5), pages 823-37, December.
  2. Jonathan Eaton & Gene M. Grossman, 1985. "Tariffs as Insurance: Optimal Commercial Policy When Domestic Markets Are Incomplete," Canadian Journal of Economics, Canadian Economics Association, vol. 18(2), pages 258-72, May.
  3. Kydland, Finn E & Prescott, Edward C, 1977. "Rules Rather Than Discretion: The Inconsistency of Optimal Plans," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 85(3), pages 473-91, June.
  4. Staiger, Robert W. & Tabellini, Guido, 1989. "Rules and discretion in trade policy," European Economic Review, Elsevier, vol. 33(6), pages 1265-1277, July.
  5. Lapan, Harvey E., 1988. "The Optimal Tariff, Production Lags and Time Consistency," Staff General Research Papers Archive 10816, Iowa State University, Department of Economics.
  6. Avinash Dixit, 1989. "Trade and Insurance with Imperfectly Observed Outcomes," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 104(1), pages 195-203.
  7. White, Halbert, 1980. "A Heteroskedasticity-Consistent Covariance Matrix Estimator and a Direct Test for Heteroskedasticity," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 48(4), pages 817-38, May.
  8. Richard E. Caves, 1976. "Economic Models of Political Choice: Canada's Tariff Structure," Canadian Journal of Economics, Canadian Economics Association, vol. 9(2), pages 278-300, May.
  9. David Stafford Ball, 1967. "United States Effective Tariffs and Labor's Share," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 75, pages 183.
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