Fred Thompson’s Questionable Views on U.S.-China Trade

Fred Thompson’s relatively late entry into the presidential race has left people scrambling to discern his views on a range of topics from social issues to trade with China. I’ll leave it to others of probe his position on the former, but I came across something this week on the latter that is not encouraging for those of us who support free trade.

Two years ago, the former Tennessee senator was one of 11 commissioners to approve and sign the “2005 Report to Congress of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.” The commission was established by Congress in 2000 to hold hearings and write reports on the implications of America’s growing trade with China.

Americans are right to cast a sober eye toward China’s foreign policy intentions and human rights record, but the commission also dabbles in the worst sort of economic populism toward U.S.-China trade. Among the questionable assertions in its 2005 report:

China’s “active participation in the global economy … is resulting in the movement of jobs, especially manufacturing jobs but increasingly service jobs as well, from the United States to China and other countries offering higher rates of return on capital” (p.3).

“U.S. producers of advanced technology products are also subject to the growing pressures posed by China. In 2004, the U.S. trade deficit in advanced technology products with China grew to $36.3 billion” (p. 4).

“The opening of the Chinese, Indian, and former Soviet bloc economies has led to more than a doubling of the global market’s work force and likely will put downward pressure on U.S. wages for workers at all levels, including higher levels of the wage scale. Mobile capital and technology flows accelerate this trend” (p. 5).

“Congress should consider imposing an immediate, across-the-board tariff on China’s imports at the level determined necessary to gain prompt action by China to strengthen significantly the value of the RMB [its currency]. The United States can justify such an action under WTO Article XXI, which allows members to take necessary actions to protect their national security. China’s undervalued currency has contributed to a loss of U.S. manufacturing, which is a national security concern for the United States” (p. 14).

Cato’s Center for Trade Policy Studies has systematically addressed economic concerns about U.S.-China trade at our web site, but here’s the crib sheet:

U.S. job losses from trade with China have been small and have been more than offset by jobs created in sectors that do not compete directly with China. The U.S. economy has added a net 16.5 million jobs in the past decade of expanding trade and the national unemployment rate is a low 4.6 percent.

Trade with China and other emerging economies has helped to boost living standards in the United States by reducing prices for consumer goods that make our lives better everyday. Average real hourly compensation (wages and benefits) paid to American workers is up 22 percent in the past decade. Tariffs on imports from China would reduce the well being of tens of millions of American households.

Real manufacturing output in the United States is up 31 percent compared to a decade ago. As my colleague Dan Ikenson shows in a new study for Cato, U.S. manufacturers enjoyed record output, sales, profits, and returns on investment in 2006. The “advanced technology products” that the commission worries about are overwhelmingly laptop computers and other consumer electronics. A WTO panel would rightly laugh at the claim that imports from China have somehow endangered America’s “national security.”

Which brings us back to Fred Thompson. Does he really believe the many questionable assertions in the 2005 report of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission that he approved? Or was he not really paying much attention? Or has he revised his views since 2005? An enterprising economics and business reporter should ask him.