Organized labor’s trade “think tank” in Washington, the Economic Policy Institute, claims that currency manipulation is a major cause of the U.S. trade deficit with China, which (along with other unfair trade practices) accounted for 2.4 million American job losses between 2001 and 2008. EPI has been making similar claims for years, getting lots of media attention for its hyperbole, and providing smoke bombs for charlatan politicians to hurl into the discussion to obscure the public’s understanding of trade. For starters, as conveyed in this new paper, I am skeptical about the relationship between currency undervaluation and the trade account.
EPI’s methodology (to use the term loosely) is not to be taken seriously, though, because it derives from a simple formula that approximates job gains from export value and job losses from import value, as though there were a straight line correlation between the jobs and trade data. It pretends that there are no jobs created when we import, and that import value is somehow an appropriate measure of job loss.
The flaws of those assumptions are many, but perhaps the easiest one to convey is that most of the value embedded in imports from China is not Chinese. (The ensuing discussion is from a forthcoming Cato paper.)
According to the results from a growing field of research, only about one-third to one-half of the value of U.S. imports from China comes from Chinese labor, material and overhead. Official U.S. import statistics—which pay no heed to the constituent value-added elements—therefore overstate the Chinese value in those imports by 100 to 200 percent, on average. The cited job loss figures are based on import values that are unequivocally overstated because one-half to two-thirds of that value are the costs of material, labor, and overhead added in other countries, including the United States.
What is seldom discussed—because they are often portrayed as victims—is that large numbers of American workers are employed precisely because of imports from China. This is the case because the U.S. economy and the Chinese economy are highly complementary. U.S. factories and workers are more likely to be collaborating with Chinese factories and workers in production of the same goods than they are to be competing directly. The proliferation of vertical integration (whereby the production process is carved up and each function performed where it is most efficient to perform that function) and transnational supply chains has joined higher-value-added U.S. manufacturing, design, and R&D activities with lower-value manufacturing and assembly operations in China. The old factory floor has broken through its walls and now spans oceans and borders.
Though the focus is typically on American workers who are displaced by competition from China, legions of American workers and their factories, offices, and laboratories would be idled without access to complementary Chinese workers in Chinese factories. Without access to lower-cost labor in places like Shenzhen, countless ideas hatched in U.S. laboratories, that became viable commercial products and support hundreds of thousands of jobs in engineering, design, marketing, logistics, retailing, finance, accounting, and manufacturing might never have made it beyond conception because the costs of production would have been deemed prohibitive for mass consumption. Just imagine if all of the components in the Apple iPod had to be manufactured and assembled in the United States. Instead of $150 per unit, the cost of production might be double or triple or quadruple that amount.
Consider how many fewer iPods Apple would have sold, how many fewer jobs iPod production, distribution, and sales would have supported, how much lower Apple’s profits (and those of the entities in its supply chains) would have been, how much lower Apple’s research and development expenditures would have been, how much smaller the markets for music and video downloads, car accessories, jogging accessories, and docking stations would be, how many fewer jobs those industries would support and the lower profits those industries would generate. Now multiply that process by the hundreds of other similarly ubiquitous devices and gadgets, computers and Blu-Rays, and every other product that is designed in the United States and assembled in China from components made in the United States and elsewhere.
The Atlantic’s James Fallows characterizes the complementarity of U.S. and Chinese production sharing as following the shape of a “Smiley Curve” plotted on a chart where the production process from start to finish is measured along the horizontal axis and the value of each stage of production is measured on the vertical axis. U.S. value added comes at the early stages—in branding, product conception, engineering, and design. Chinese value added operations occupy the middle stages—some engineering, some manufacturing and assembly, primarily. And more U.S. value added occurs at the end stages in logistics, retailing, and after market servicing. Under this typical production arrangement, collaboration, not competition, is what links U.S. and Chinese workers.
EPI’s work on this subject provides fodder for sensational stump speeches. But it is also a major disservice to a public that is hungering for truth, and not self-serving advocacy masquerading as truth.