Second-year Columbia Law student Benjamin Lash sat down with Professor Petros Mavroidis, the Edwin B. Parker Professor of Foreign and Comparative Law at Columbia Law School, for an interview with fascinating insights into international trade. Professor Mavroidis has previously worked in the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) legal division, and spends half of the year teaching at the University of Neuchatel in Switzerland. At Columbia, Professor Mavroidis teaches courses on the law of the WTO and International Antitrust.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
JTL: One of your areas of expertise is the WTO. How would you evaluate the effectiveness of the WTO today, and what is one area in which you would like to see the organization improve?
Mavroidis: It is the only area where I work, and expertise is a loaded term. In my view, for various reasons, it is difficult to evaluate precisely the expertise of the WTO. Furthermore, it depends whether we speak of effectiveness of the negotiating leg or the dispute settlement system. The former is anyway not performing well by any reasonable standard. We only managed to add one agreement since 1995, when there is obvious demand for trade deals as evidenced by the number of recently concluded free trade areas. Measurement is tough with respect to the latter. Under certain assumptions, the regime works well, but there are a number of cases where dissatisfaction as to the implementation of outcomes has been voiced.
JTL: Can you describe your involvement in the WTO Case Law Project?
Mavroidis: We started the project with my coauthor, Henrik Horn, a Swedish economist, for the American Law Institute back in 2000. The idea was to write joint law and economics reports regarding case law by the WTO. It was all Henrik’s idea. Our initiative evolved into the only mainstream of evaluation of the quality of case law. We have now a group in place (more or less permanent) that meets in late spring and discusses all case law of the year before. The idea is to ask whether the outcome and the methodology used make sense in light of the mandate of WTO judges, but also to point out to legislative failures (that judges being agents cannot correct). All papers are published in a leading trade journal, the World Trade Review. Chad Bown, formerly of the World Bank, and now at the Peterson Institute, has been added to the team of editors in recent years, and has brought some excellent new ideas to reinvigorate the process.
JTL: How would you evaluate the potential economic impact of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)?
Mavroidis: Tough to do so. There are of course a number of estimates available and many of them are floating around in the internet, but there is no comprehensive evaluation since one would then have to assess it in light of all preferential deals that are being routinely signed. I will say just this: there is some tariff liberalization of course, but the steps on addressing non-tariff barriers place in comparison to what has been committed to, say, in the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, or what is being negotiated in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership [between the United States and the European Union].
JTL: Recently, there has been a noticeable increase in anti-trade rhetoric in American political discourse. What advice would you give a policymaker concerned with the political implications of supporting multilateral trade agreements?
Mavroidis: To calm down. Populism is a bad counsel always. There is not one single economist that would disagree with the proposition that trade liberalization is welfare enhancing. It should not be demonized. Opening to trade of course entails that there are winners and losers, but the amount that societies win in almost all circumstances (except for some extreme cases that I have seen mentioned in academic papers only) outweigh the losses. The real question is what amount are governments prepared to compensate losers to keep the momentum going. It is quite amazing that in the United States, the country where Nobel Prize winner Secretary Hull first laid out his view on how trade liberalization dovetails with peace, that the rhetoric is now that imports are bad and exports are good. This is pure mercantilism, and I should not have to remind anyone what happened when recourse to mercantilism occurred in the past.
JTL: In addition to teaching at Columbia University, you also spend part of the year teaching in Switzerland. Are there any differences between Swiss and American attitudes towards international trade?
Mavroidis: Switzerland is a small market, and quite comfortable in terms of GDP per capita. It’s quite attached to the European market but also open to other economies. The question of trade liberalization is posed in a different way in Switzerland than in the United States, a big market with the potential to affect terms of trade, and a rather flexible labor market to go with it.
JTL: Finally, what advice would you give law students hoping to work on international trade issues in their careers?
Mavroidis: Over the years I have enjoyed meeting many CLS students who went on to make illustrious careers in trade. Some are in the government (and most notably, United States Trade Representative or national administrations, since we have many foreign students year in year out at CLS) and/or in law firms, the WTO, the World Bank, etc. I think it is a great study area since trade concerns every single domestic policy from fiscal to public health policy. But by studying trade, students get immersed into the interface of regulatory diversity, and all the problems and opportunities it represents. It is both intellectually a fascinating exercise, and also a very promising career path.
Benjamin Lash is a second-year student at Columbia Law School and a staff member of JTL. He graduated from Washington University in St. Louis in 2014 with a degree in history.