OUR POLITICIANS LOVE TO SAY that the United States is “the most open economy in the world,” and it’s true that America’s trade barriers are relatively low compared to most other countries. But we are not the most open economy in the world, not even close. Our generally low average tariff rate disguises high tariff “peaks” on certain goods and other barriers against a range of imports important to millions of American workers and families. Those remaining trade barriers slow our economy and cost American consumers and producers tens of billions of dollars a year.
If an Olympics were held for the most open economy, the United States would be out of medal competition. According to the most recent annual Economic Freedom of the World Report, people living in 26 other countries enjoy greater “freedom to trade internationally” than do Americans. The report considers not only tariffs on imports but regulatory barriers, exchange rate and capital controls, and actual levels of trade. Bragging rights for most open economies belong to, in descending order, Hong Kong, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, Chile, the Netherlands, Ireland, Hungary, Switzerland, the Slovak Republic, and Estonia. The United States lies back in the pack, in 27th place among the 140 ranked nations.
Despite the claims of openness, our government imposes significant barriers against imported clothing, footwear, leather products, glassware, watches, clocks, table and kitchenware, costume jewelry, pens, mechanical pencils, musical instruments, cutlery, hand tools, ball and roller bearings, ceramic wall and floor tile, railway cars, processed fruits and vegetables, rice, cotton, sugar, milk, cheese, butter, and canned tuna. Through 232 separate antidumping measures, the government imposes tariffs as high as 280 percent on products from 39 different countries, most against imported steel and chemicals. Federal law prohibits or restricts foreign competition in domestic airline service, broadcasting, intercoastal shipping, and government contracting.
Declaring War on Consumers
The official Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States rivals the U.S. income tax code for random complexity. It fills 2,959 pages, encompasses 99 chapters, and features 10,253 separate tariff lines.
American workers and families pay for those tariffs every day in the form of higher prices and fewer choices when they shop. The tariffs are really discriminatory sales taxes imposed on imports. Those taxes drive a wedge between prices received by producers abroad and those paid by consumers in the United States. A 20 percent tariff will typically mean U.S. consumers will be stuck paying a higher price for the good than they would under free trade, while the foreign producer of the good makes fewer sales and earns less revenue than he would under free trade. The U.S. government, of course, collects revenue from the tariff, but at the expense of less trade and a less efficient use of our own productive resources.
Among the most damaging trade barriers for American families are those imposed on what they wear and what they eat.
Clothing. When Americans shop to clothe themselves and their children, they pay higher prices, sometimes much higher, than they would otherwise because of government trade barriers. According to the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC), the trade-weighted average tariff on imported clothing in 2005 was 10.6 percent. (A trade-weighted average takes into account the volume of trade, with more heavily traded items accounting for a proportionally larger share of the average.) That is a lot higher than the overall average trade-weighted applied tariff rate of 1.4 percent. Congress imposes some of its highest tariff rates on items that are most popular with American consumers. For example, certain women’s and girls’ man-made fiber pants face a 28.2 percent tariff, blouses 32 percent, and man-made fiber sweaters 32 percent. Men’s and boys’ woven shirts, man-made fiber knit shirts, man-made fiber trousers, and swimwear imported from China and Vietnam face tariffs of more than 20 percent.
Our government artificially jacks up the cost of clothing for American families through tariffs, quotas, and complex “rules of origin” that require foreign apparel makers to use American-made textiles in order for their clothing exports to qualify for the lowest import duty rates. A 2004 “Memorandum of Understanding” with China limited clothing imports from 2005 through 2008 by imposing 21 quotas covering 34 categories of textile and apparel products. The MOU required China to hold shipments to no greater than 7.5 percent above the previous year. The alleged purpose of the MOU was to avoid “market disruption” and promote the “orderly development of trade.” The real purpose was to shield domestic producers from the full effects of liberalized trade with China, all at the expense of American consumers. The USITC calculates that restrictions on imported clothing and textiles are the most costly trade barriers of all.
When the government is not taxing the shirt on your back, it is taxing the shoes on your feet. Some of the highest rates in the tariff schedule are reserved for imported footwear, especially the less expensive shoes families buy at discount stores. The USITC reckons the average tariff on shoes and other imported leather products was 10.7 percent in 2005. Again the average disguises tariff peaks as high as 67 percent aimed at the more popular, mass market footwear.
The anti-consumer nature of the shoe tariffs prompted a bipartisan group of more than 150 members of Congress to sponsor the Affordable Footwear Act of 2007. The bill would eliminate tariffs on more than half of shoe imports. The bill’s preamble notes that the government collected $1.8 billion in duties on imported shoes in 2006, a tax burden that falls disproportionately on low- and moderate-income families because they spend a larger share of their disposable income on shoes and other necessities. Shoe tariffs don’t even “save” a significant number of jobs. The American shoe sector is so uncompetitive that even when hiding behind tariff walls, imports now account for 98 percent of domestic shoe sales. There are virtually no jobs left to save.
Not content to tax our shoes, the government also taxes imported socks. In January 2008, the Bush administration imposed a temporary 13.5 percent tariff on the 8.3 percent of imported socks that come from Honduras. The tariff was meant to placate a certain Republican lawmaker in Alabama with several sock factories in his district, and a few other lawmakers whose votes were thought necessary for upcoming trade deals the administration wanted. The trade agreements never came to a vote, but 300 million Americans were socked with higher prices to keep their feet warm and dry. All this for the sake of a domestic sock industry that, by its own count, employs only 20,000 workers in jobs that are not well paid.
Food. Americans who have struggled to pay rising food prices may be surprised to know that it is the explicit policy of the U.S. government to keep the domestic price of certain foods fixed well above prices paid on world markets. Our government conspires with producers to restrict domestic supply by imposing tariffs and tariff-rate quotas on imported sugar, rice, milk, butter, and canned tuna.
Tariff rates quotas (TRQs) allow a certain amount of a good to enter from a designated country under a low or zero tariff, but any imports above the quota face prohibitively high rates. In all, 195 tariff lines are subject to TRQs, with in-quota rates averaging 9.1 percent and out-of-quota tariffs an intimidating 42 percent. The intended result is to drive a wedge between the lower global prices and a higher domestic price. Domestic producers and our own government reap extra revenue from the higher prices, while American families and food-processing industries are stuck paying the difference.
One of the most protected commodities is sugar. Because of subsidies and tariff rate quotas in place since 1981, Americans have been paying two to three times the world price for sugar. Higher sugar prices also drive up what we pay for candy, soft drinks, bakery goods, and other products that contain sugar. The federal government guarantees domestic producers a price of at least 22.9 cents per pound for beet sugar and 18 cents for cane sugar. To maintain those prices, it enforces a rigid system of quotas that virtually guarantees domestic producers 85 percent of the nation’s sugar market. The Godfather himself could not have devised a more effective protection racket.
The sugar program redistributes money from the many sugar users to the few sugar producers. According to a 2000 study by the General Accounting Office, the higher prices engineered by the sugar program cost American households and sugar-consuming industries $1.9 billion a year. Of that, $1 billion goes into the pockets of a relatively small number of sugar producers—about 5,000 sugar beet growers and fewer than 1,000 sugar cane growers. Another $400 million goes to the favored sugar producers abroad who are allowed to sell into the inflated domestic U.S. market, what economists call “quota rents.” With tariffs, at least our own government collects the revenue, but with the quota system, the money goes to foreign exporters and their governments. And the other $500 million? It just disappears in lost efficiency. The sugar program enriches a few thousand sugar producers by ripping off consumers and by making our nation poorer.
American families also pay more for their milk, butter, and cheese, thanks to federal dairy price supports and trade barriers. The federal government administers a Byzantine system of domestic price supports, marketing orders, tariff rate quotas, export subsidies, and domestic and international giveaway programs. Federal policy blocks American consumers from buying lower-cost dairy products from more efficient producers in New Zealand and Australia. As the USITC staff concluded, “A consequence of government intervention has been to raise U.S. domestic [dairy] prices substantially above world market prices.” According to the USITC, between 2000 and 2002, the average U.S. domestic price of nonfat dry milk was 23 percent higher than the world price, U.S. cheese prices were 37 percent higher, and the price of U.S. butter was more than double the world price.
Hungry for a bowl of rice with your glass of milk? The federal government protects domestic rice producers with an array of tariffs on various kinds of rice imports. According to the Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States, rice tariffs range from 0.44 cents per kilogram on lower quality, broken rice to 2.1 cents per kilogram on husked, brown rice. Imported white and parboiled rice face an ad valorem (or percentage) rate of 11.2 percent. U.S. tariffs are significantly lower than tariffs imposed by other developed countries, such as Japan and Korea, but existing U.S. tariffs of 3 percent to 24 percent still keep domestic rice prices higher than they would be if Americans could buy rice freely from producers abroad.
Thinking of a tuna sandwich for lunch? The U.S. government limits imports of canned and pouch tuna through the familiar tariff quota system. Tariffs average 17.7 percent on tuna packed in oil and 10.8 percent on the more common tuna packed in water. The TRQs take their biggest bite in the Pacific island of American Samoa, where three-quarters of the canned tuna for the U.S. market is processed. TRQs add 4 percent to 8 percent to the final cost of tuna (with producers paying the rest of the tariff). The amount of tuna that can be imported at the lower, in-quota rate is limited each year to 4.8 percent of domestic consumption during the previous year. This rule leads importers to stockpile large quantities of tuna in customs-bonded warehouse in late December while they wait for the quota to be determined for the New Year. Once the New Year arrives, they rush to import the tuna before the 4.8 percent quota is filled.
On top of all those tariffs, the government imposes unnecessary regulations designed to advantage American producers at the expense of consumers. In the 2002 farm bill, Congress imposed a new “country-of-origin labeling” (COOL) requirement on beef, lamb, pork, fish, shellfish, and other perishable agricultural commodities. After understandable resistance from retailers, the government finally began in March 2009 to require that such food items have the country of origin stamped on them. This is nothing but a form of regulatory harassment designed to play to anti-foreign prejudices. COOL provides zero health or safety information; foreign meat and produce must conform to exactly the same health and safety standards that apply to domestic-made goods. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates the COOL regulations will cost $89 million to implement in the first year and $62 million annually even after 10 years of adjustment. Although the costs are significant, the USDA found the public benefits to be negligible. Country-of-origin labeling was not meant to serve the public but instead to provide yet another unfair advantage to domestic producers at the expense of the public.
The cost of all these restrictions on imported food may sound like nickel and dime stuff, but it adds up to real money out of the pockets of American families. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates that U.S. agricultural trade barriers transferred $11.8 billion from American consumers to producers in 2007. That amounted to an annual “food tax” of $39 on every single American, or $155 for a family of four.
Planes, Cars, Cutlery, and Clocks. Government tariffs hit us when we travel and when we stay at home. To make public transportation less economical, the government imposes a 14 percent tariff on imported railway or tramway passenger coaches. Imported motor cars are assessed a 2.5 percent tariff, whereas motor vehicles designed for the transport of goods are socked with a 25 percent tariff. The latter category covers light trucks and at one time even applied to imported minivans.
If you choose to fly instead of drive, you will pay a higher airfare because of government restrictions on airline competition. Foreign-owned carriers are flatly banned from flying paying passengers from one U.S. city to another. Of course, there are legitimate security reasons for not allowing the national air carriers of Syria and Iran to fly across U.S. airspace, but such concerns are silly when applied to British Airways, Qantas, Air Japan, and other established carriers from friendly, developed nations. European Union officials rightly complain that American-owned airlines are free to make money flying paying passengers from London to Berlin or other internal routes in Europe while European carriers are forbidden from serving internal U.S. routes.
Federal law also prohibits foreign investors from controlling more than 25 percent of the voting stock of a domestic airline. Those restrictions preclude entrepreneurs such as Britain’s Richard Branson from starting and controlling a low-cost carrier to serve passengers within the United States—making it more expensive for low-income grandparents to visit their grandchildren. The result of those restrictions is less investment in our domestic airline capacity and less competition for service and airfares. On top of airline restrictions, the U.S. government sticks the flying public with high tariffs on imported luggage.
If you decide to stay at home and build your household nest, the U.S. customs service will not leave you alone. The tariff code imposes an average, trade-weighted tariff of 7.9 percent on ceramic tile; 6.4 percent on costume jewelry; 4.6 percent on cutlery and hand tools; 4.5 percent on glassware; 3.9 percent on musical instruments; 5.1 percent on pens and mechanical pencils; 5.4 percent on tableware, earthenware, and pottery products; and 5.1 percent on watches, clocks, and parts.
Taxing Imports, Taxing the Poor
Import taxes on food, clothing, and shoes fall especially hard on the poor and middle class. The lower a family’s income, the more it will spend proportionately on basic necessities. As the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development concluded in its study on rich-country farm programs, tariffs on imported food “can bear heavily on low-income consumer households, for whom food constitutes a larger share of total expenditures.” In this way, U.S. trade barriers against farm products act as a regressive tax. Higher prices at the grocery store negate some or all of the income support the government seeks to deliver to low-income households through such programs as food stamps. What the government gives with one hand, it takes away with the other.
In the same way, U.S. tariffs on clothing and shoes fall disproportionately on the poor. Edward Gresser of the Democratic-leaning Progressive Policy Institute has done more than anyone to expose the anti-poor bias of the U.S. tariff code. Poring over those 3,000 pages and 10,000 lines, Gresser has discovered a disturbing pattern: More expensive, higher-end items enter under the lowest or zero tariffs, while the highest rates fall on the less expensive product lines most likely to land in the shopping cart of a poor, single mother.
For example, synthetic fiber men’s shirts prompt a 32.5 percent tariff, cotton shirts 20 percent, and silk shirts 1.9 percent. Ladies’ polyester underwear is assessed a 16 percent tariff, silk underwear 1.9 percent. Men’s dress leather shoes—the kind worn in Wall Street brokerage houses and Washington think tanks—are charged an 8.5 percent duty, sneakers of more than $20 a pair 20 percent, and sneakers under $3 a pair a whopping 48 percent. As Gresser concludes:
In general, American tariffs are low or zero on high-technology products and heavy industry goods. They are zero or trivial on natural resources and industry goods, and also low on luxury goods. But they are very high on a narrow but important set of products: the cheap and simple clothes, shoes, and food that poor people buy and poor countries make and grow.… Without any particular intention, therefore, the United States has created a system that is open and kind to wealthy countries and rich people, but wildly harsh for the poor.
According to Gresser, a recent welfare system graduate earning $15,000 a year as a maid in a hotel will forfeit about a week’s worth of salary in a year to the U.S. tariff system, while the hotel’s $100,000-a-year manager will give up only two or three hours’ pay. And the defenders of the status quo can’t even argue about saving jobs, since so few American workers are still employed making cheap shoes and clothing.
This is the status quo that so many “progressives” in America, from the Public Citizen Naderites to AFL-CIO labor leaders, are expending millions of dollars to defend. They reflexively oppose any trade agreements that would reduce those regressive tariffs. Their trade policy boils down to keeping barriers high on goods made and grown by poor people abroad and consumed by poor people here at home.
Trade barriers are a costly and regressive form of income redistribution. They take from the many and the disproportionately poor, and give the spoils to the politically connected few. What is fair about that?
Mr. Griswold is director of the Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute. This article is an adapted excerpt from his book Mad about Trade: Why Main Street America Should Embrace Globalization, © 2009 by the Cato Institute.
JIM AND ELLEN HUBBARD are the founders of American Film Renaissance, an organization that celebrates timeless American values by producing, showcasing, and distributing films that promote freedom, rugged individualism, and the triumph of the human spirit. AFR has held five wildly popular film festivals, has launched a filmmaker training program, and has now gone into the business of filmmaking itself. We talked recently with Jim and Ellen about their various projects and about the opportunity they see for conservatives to change the culture by getting more involved in making films.
The Insider: So the AFR film festivals are on hiatus for the moment because you’ve delved into filmmaking yourselves. Is that right?
Jim Hubbard: Well, that’s correct. We’ve had five very successful film festivals to date. With what’s going on in the country now, we have a very important project that we’re working on, so we’re concentrating all of our efforts right now on completing this film and getting it to market. If you look at box office returns in the documentary genre and the political documentary subgenre, there hasn’t been a single film that has a right-of-center worldview that has broken into the top 25 or 30 films in the political documentary genre. It’s all left-wing. The one exception might be Expelled, which I guess is a political documentary, and it did break into the top 10. But everything else is Michael Moore, Al Gore, or Robert Greenwald.
TI: What is the documentary you’re making now?
JH: I think it’ll be the most significant documentary on the importance of limited government that’s ever been made. The rough storyline is we have a regular guy who lives in the suburbs who goes and seeks his own bailout, and we follow him through the corridors of power in Washington. That’s the storyline. We even have liberals on camera talking about how when you have a government that’s big it automatically leads to corruption, and we show that. Congress has approval ratings of what—11 … 12 percent? Most of the country—conservative, moderate, liberal, whatever—they have an unfavorable opinion of Congress, so our guy’s basically trying to play a prank on Congress.
Ellen Hubbard: But he’s doing it, like the rest of us, for his kids. He’s seeing the debt that our country’s in and he knows that they’re going to have to pay the bill. So he finally decides to do something about it and decides to go get his own bailout. But it’s much more complicated than that. It does take him undercover: He visits lobbyists; he visits very powerful members of Congress and their fundraisers. It offers what I think no other film has offered before, and that is a bird’s eye view of what’s really taking place inside the halls of Congress and inside fundraising dinners. It’s important that people understand there is something we can do about it. And that we’ve got to do something about it.
TI: Does your film have a title yet?
JH: Not really. It has a working title of Bringing Home the Bacon.
TI: Have the film festivals accomplished what you set out to accomplish?
JH: Oh, I think so. Number one, we’ve given publicity to films and opened distribution channels to films that otherwise would not have had that opportunity. Number two, we’ve been successful in raising funding for projects through the festival through contacts we’ve made. I’d say for every dollar that we’ve spent in putting the festival on we’ve been able to raise $14 to produce films. Now, that’s not necessarily us producing films; that’s other filmmakers. And our part of it isn’t just having screenings one weekend a year or during one week in the year. It’s pushing the ball forward and getting things done—distribution, publicity, and raising money for future film projects.
EH: Ultimately the goal is to increase products in neighborhood theaters—not just straight-to-DVD stuff, but films that are actually available to a mainstream audience. I think people don’t understand how difficult a goal that is to accomplish. And really, it takes more investments. It takes some brave people with some extra bucks to invest in these film projects because ultimately movies are a volume game. For every 20 films a studio makes, probably only one or two actually turn a profit, but all their movies continue to be shown at the neighborhood theater. People tend to pin all their hopes on one movie. Well, eventually it’s going to require a pipeline of films—constant films in the pipeline—in order to change the culture.
TI: Should conservatives care what goes on in the popular culture?
JH: Pop culture is where so many people, especially independent-minded people, get their information. And it’s not just information. It’s their attitudes and feelings about things. How many people go swimming in deep water, or even freshwater, and get a little bit nervous because they saw Jaws? Or how many people take a shower but they’ve seen Psycho and it kind of creeps them out? People’s opinions and feelings about things get shaped. Just like swimming in a freshwater lake will make you nervous about sharks even though that’s illogical because sharks don’t exist in freshwater, the same sorts of things can be done with gun owners, or people who live in the South, or people of faith, or business owners, or corporations, or the free market. And pop culture has a huge impact on shaping people’s mores, their belief systems, their opinions on things, and it’s just an area that conservatives for some reason have neglected. And I think it’s to their detriment. And, in fact, I would argue that he who controls the pop culture will ultimately control everything in the country, including the political. I just don’t see how you can neglect the pop culture and possibly have your ideas prevail. And that’s what we’re trying to do—influence people’s ideas by influencing pop culture. And there’s a huge vacuum there; there’s a huge void that needs to be filled. And our ideas have to get out.
TI: What do you think conservatives in the business of making movies should focus on?
EH: The focus needs to be on the film itself and making it entertaining and making it appealing—not making a conservative film. So our goal at American Film Renaissance is always to showcase—and, since we weren’t seeing that being done as much as we’d like to see, to produce—films that are entertaining first and foremost and that do have kind of a latent conservative message. But films that don’t beat audiences over the head, that aren’t didactic, that aren’t preachy. They’re films that very subtly and very persuasively convince people to view the world from our perspective. And so that’s our way of trying to convert the masses. We don’t want to preach to the choir, because they already get it. Our goal is to direct our conservative message to a wider, more mainstream audience. And to do that you’ve got to make it something that they enjoy watching.
JH: I don’t really believe in a conservative film movement per se. What I’d like to see is not a conservative film movement but more conservatives involved in the arts period. Our emphasis obviously is film and documentary. There’s no such thing, I don’t think, as a liberal film movement. Liberals simply gravitate toward the arts. (I don’t know what it is—sociologists will have to study this.) It’s really unfortunate that conservatives don’t. We’re not advocating conservatives going out and making more right-wing diatribes; I’d love to see conservative filmmakers get in there and make horror movies and make movies about bank heists and make science fiction films. And just make good films and get involved in the industry.
TI: Speaking of movies that are entertaining, one thing I’ve noticed is that in the thriller and spy genre, Hollywood seems to have some trouble getting the villains right. Would that be one area where you think maybe there’s a left-wing bias that comes through in a film that’s supposed to be entertaining?
JH: There’s no question about that. The one film that really comes to my mind is The Sum of All Fears, which is based on the Tom Clancy book. In that book, I believe the terrorists were Muslim extremists. Of course, Hollywood couldn’t do that; they had to change it to right-wing fascists in Europe. Now, the last I checked, right-wing fascists in Europe really haven’t been a threat to world civilization since about the ’40s.
TI: I think another example would be the James Bond film From Russia with Love, where the original Ian Fleming plot was that the Russians were the bad guys trying to lure James Bond and they changed it around so it wasn’t. They didn’t want to make the Soviets out to be the bad guys.
EH: Well how about that stupid one we saw this weekend, The Stepfather? The serial killer is the one with the traditional family values. That happens so many times in films. Usually it’s a Christian who ends up being some diabolical, ruthless, evil person. It’s unbelievable to see this portrayal. We’ve heard of people in the industry who are in meetings and they’ll literally sit there and say: “Well we can’t make him a Muslim. It can’t be this person. It’s got to be a Christian who’s the villain.” There’s a set of rules that Hollywood lives by because they’re very liberal. And make no mistake about it: They definitely know exactly what they’re doing.
TI: So if you were an investor with a sky’s-the-limit budget, what kind of project would you put your money into?
JH: A film that kind of stands out in my mind as being really interesting to watch, though it was pretty much ignored by Hollywood in terms of the critics, is Taken. And look, I’m not putting that up there as a great cinematic work of art. And I would also mention Clint Eastwood’s most recent film, Gran Torino. I want you to take a look at both of those films as kind of case studies. There’s a huge infrastructure in place right now to promote liberal ideas in film—from film festivals, to critics, to organizations all over the country. Now they don’t call themselves liberal organizations, but they are—like the Academy Awards. For instance, if you want to get an Academy Award in the documentary field and it’s a film about a subject that resonates with the predominately liberal folks out there that run the industry, you’re going to get critical acclaim. Just look at Michael Moore’s films and how he’s won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and received critical acclaim. The industry is very tilted to the Left. Milk—would Sean Penn have received an Academy Award for Best Actor if that film had been about an evangelical preacher instead of a gay activist? I don’t think he would have.
EH: But most of the films that receive all those top awards don’t perform well at the box office. Taken did unbelievable numbers.
JH: And that’s the thing. Look at Taken or Gran Torino—what are these about? They’re about middle-class Americans who have been marginalized by society. In Taken you had a guy who didn’t want his daughter to go to Europe because he was worried about her safety. She went. She got in trouble. The villain who tried to buy her on the slave market was a Muslim. This film was ignored, and Gran Torino was also ignored by the critics. It didn’t get great reviews but did tremendously at the box office despite that. We see this year in and year out. For the first five years of our organization’s existence, we polled conservative-leaning producers, directors, screenwriters, and film critics around the country, asking: What are your favorite films? And every year, we came out with a list of the top five films in the country. And AFR’s top five films of the year always outperformed the top five films at the Academy Awards—every single year—and usually by wide margins.
TI: Can you each tell me what your favorite movies are—your favorites both overall, from the universe of movies, and of the movies that you’ve featured in your festivals?
EH: I personally love Hitchcock movies. I like North by Northwest, Rear Window, and the great courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder.
JH: I think the greatest movie of all time is Gone with the Wind.
EH: Spoken like a true Southerner!
JH: I am totally a sucker for epic films. I love Gone with the Wind, I love The Ten Commandments, I love Braveheart. These are the movies I can watch over and over again and not get tired of them. Lately, I like little offbeat Indie films like Sideways—I love that movie, even though that probably has more of a blue-state aesthetic. In terms of our film festival, we’ve had a lot of fantastic films. Our opening night film at our Hollywood film festival was Anthony Hopkins’s film The World’s Fastest Indian.
EH: That’s a good little film!
JH: For a film festival of our size, that was really a phenomenal catch for us. And I would include Evan Maloney’s Indoctrinate U, which was just a huge crowd favorite.
THERE’S NO MAGIC FORMULA that propels a blog from obscurity to popularity, but there are some basic steps you can take to improve your content, establish a community of readers, and even make some money. Here are seven simple steps to help you achieve those goals:
1. Quickly respond to news events. Perhaps the greatest benefit of blogs is their ease of use, making virtually anyone a publisher. One of the most effective ways to use your blog—and tap into the intellectual firepower of policy experts—is responding to news as it’s happening in state capitals, Washington, D.C., or the international community. This has multiple benefits: increased exposure for you and your staff, an opportunity to highlight previous research, and the overall perception that you’re staying on top of current events.
The Heritage Foundation’s blog, The Foundry, is our organization’s primary vehicle for rapidly responding to events on Capitol Hill; it is updated constantly throughout the day with posts often written by our policy analysts. Blog posts might result in a TV interview and almost always generate more Web traffic to previous research. One thing is for certain: We are able to communicate our message more effectively thanks to the blog.
2. Establish a community of readers. The content of your blog might not be all that different from what you’re producing for op-eds or research papers, but there’s an added element that you don’t get with a newspaper column or lengthy policy piece: Comments foster a sense of community and promote interaction.
Don’t get me wrong, turning on the comments can create a flood of headaches. From foul language to annoying critics, they require moderation if you want to avoid a free-for-all. But with free tools like DISQUS, a plug-in that works on nearly all blogging platforms, it’s easy to track the discussion. With DISQUS, you’ll also have the benefit of letting your readers spread content to Facebook and Twitter with ease—likely resulting in new readers.
3. Cover events live. Earlier this year when President Obama went to Congress to deliver a speech, the Cato Institute’s blog used Cover It Live software to feature its experts’ instant reaction to Obama’s remarks. Cover It Live is a free live-blogging tool that embeds on your blog much like a YouTube video.
Live blogging works best when it’s happening around a major event, but you could also use it to host question-and-answer sessions with your readers. This instant analysis is wonderful, but don’t forget to promote your research and drive traffic to your Web site during the discussion.
4. Use pictures and videos. There’s nothing more unattractive than a large block of text on a page. Fortunately, digital cameras and handheld video cameras make it easy for you to supplement great writing with some imagery and motion to make your page more enticing.
A couple things that work well: charts and interviews. Any time you’re writing about data, add a chart to the blog post so readers can see the numbers visually. And a handheld (and inexpensive) Flip camera is a great way to interview speakers at an event or even staff about policy issues.
5. Use a customized design. The look and feel of your blog might be the last thing on your mind after focusing so much attention on content. And while content is king, there’s good reason to spend time and money to design your blog. Not only will you have a unique look, but it also allows you to maintain consistent branding across Web properties.
The good news is that WordPress and Movable Type offer a variety of themes and styles to choose from. But if you can’t find one, there are plenty of designers who specialize in this work and can create something that’s the right fit.
6. Make some money. One of the easiest ways to make money from your blog—without adding much to your workload—is tapping into some of Amazon’s offerings. Sign up for an Amazon Associates account, which allows you to create unique links that earn you money when someone buys a product. Given the sheer number of products on Amazon—not to mention political and policy books—it’s a great way to earn a little revenue.
Amazon’s Kindle, a wireless reading device that costs about $250, is an excellent distribution vehicle for your blog. And because Amazon requires you to charge a small fee—The Foundry, ranked No. 7 in news and politics, is available for $1.99 per month—a portion goes to you and the rest to Amazon.
7. Link frequently to friends and allies. Your ability to produce and maintain Web traffic will often depend on other bloggers linking to you. Don’t treat your blog as the Roach Motel—expecting others to link in, but never linking out. This is the mistake of organizations that constantly promote their own material but don’t give enough attention to others.
If your goal is to generate buzz, employing an effective linking strategy is key. Develop relationships with popular bloggers and pitch them your posts. Make sure you target the right bloggers depending on the issue. And don’t be discouraged if they don’t link; keep linking to their material. Bloggers notice these things, and when you do have a big scoop, they’ll likely reciprocate.
Mr. Bluey is director of online strategy at The Heritage Foundation. He oversaw the creation of The Foundry (blog.heritage.org) in January 2008.
My Adventure in Self-Publishing: How You Can Take Advantage of Today’s On-Demand Publishing Tools, Too
THE ORIGINAL PLAN for my novel The First Assassin involved a high-stakes bidding war among major publishers, a million-copy laydown during the autumn book-buying season, a lavish promotional tour, a record-breaking movie rights deal, and a theme park ride in Florida.
It didn’t work out that way.
For a while, in fact, it looked like The First Assassin would languish in the dark recesses of my filing cabinet. Although I’ve sold non-fiction books to the likes of Doubleday and HarperCollins, my historical thriller found no takers. First-time novelists always run into a towering wall of skepticism, my agent told me. What’s more, the book industry’s sales were sluggish well before the economy tanked. Nobody was in the mood to take risks. So I was out of luck.
Except that I wasn’t—and my experience may hold lessons for think tanks and other organizations that release books and monographs from time to time.
As national correspondent for National Review, plus a contributor to The Wall Street Journal and other publications, I’ve spent my career writing for wide audiences. The First Assassin is intended for my widest audience yet. Set in 1861, it tells the story of a mysterious hitman who has been hired to murder Abraham Lincoln at the start of the Civil War. Most of the action takes place in Washington, D.C., though other locations figure in as well. The hero is an Army colonel who is in charge of presidential security. He is a Union man but not a Lincoln man—he didn’t vote for the guy whose life he must protect. The action unfolds as Lincoln takes the oath of office and Fort Sumter falls.
Bestselling novelist Vince Flynn praises The First Assassin in a cover blurb: “An excellent book—it’s like The Day of the Jackal set in 1861 Washington.”
Does this sound like a book that should succeed commercially? That’s what I thought, too, which is why I spent years researching and writing The First Assassin. I’ve never written anything that a good editor couldn’t help improve, but I was confident in my manuscript and disappointed in my failure to find a publisher.
So I decided to self-publish. It wasn’t an easy decision. Until recently, my mental image of self-publishing was of a market that depended on little old ladies who write bad poetry that nobody wants to read. This probably isn’t fair to many of the people who actually have self-published over the years, but that was how I viewed it.
Whatever the reality in the past, the reality today is far different. A number of companies and online tools make it possible for anyone to become a publisher—and to produce a high-quality product at an affordable rate and with a good chance for profits. I partnered with CreateSpace.com, a subsidiary of Amazon.com. It offers a print-on-demand service. Clients upload their files, make a few choices about appearance and price, and put their work on sale. When customers buy copies, on Amazon.com or elsewhere, CreateSpace.com prints and mails them.
This was the other image I had of self-publishing: boxes of unwanted books sitting in garages because their authors had failed to sell them. I’ve experienced something like this in the past. When I worked at a couple of think tanks in the 1990s, we occasionally issued monographs. It was always a challenge to anticipate demand and figure out how many to produce. Sometimes we printed more than was necessary and our office closets became miniature book warehouses. Other times, we didn’t print enough, but the cost of a second printing was prohibitive.
Self-publishing through CreateSpace.com or one of its print-on-demand competitors offers an excellent solution. Here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned:
The cost is inexpensive. After a few small start-up costs—for The First Assassin, it was less than $100—you can be ready to roll the presses. There are, of course, other investments. It takes time to write a book or a monograph. You may want to hire a professional (as I did) to design the cover and the interior. Once the product is finished and all that’s left is to reproduce it, however, print-on-demand publishing is surprisingly affordable.
The product is high quality. For The First Assassin, I was determined not to have a book that appeared homemade. I wanted it to look like a book that belongs on the front table at Barnes & Noble or Borders. In self-publishing, this is entirely possible. If you do the right kind of work on your end, a print-on-demand publisher can deliver a handsome volume.
The distribution is easy. I hoped to make it possible for anybody who wants a copy of The First Assassin to obtain one online. With CreateSpace.com, I was able to have my book on sale quickly. It’s available on Amazon.com plus a special CreateSpace.com e-store. When customers buy through the e-store, I make a higher royalty, but most prefer the familiarity and convenience of Amazon.com. I make a royalty there as well, just not as much. The loss of revenue is worth it because Amazon.com’s popularity and reach is unparalleled. Finally, print-on-demand does not involve unbearably long delivery times. Buyers of The First Assassin have told me that their copies arrive just a few days after purchase.
The publicity is up to you. As any serious public policy organization knows, the production of a great idea is only half the battle. There’s also the marketing. A self-published book is also a self-marketed book. For an individual author, this can present daunting challenges. With The First Assassin, I’ve had the benefit of National Review Online and its built-in readership, plus several other venues. For a group with a communications staff, the test is fundamentally the same, but at least there are people whose very job calls for them to get your product mentioned in newspapers and on blogs.
Is self-publishing the best choice for a think tank? That’s a decision organizations will have to make on their own. But it’s definitely more of a choice than it used to be—and one that organizations should consider when they debate the best ways to put their ideas in front of readers.
Mr. Miller is national correspondent for National Review and the author of The First Assassin. His personal Web site is www.HeyMiller.com.