Tag: China

The Conquest of the United States by China

In 1898, after the United States’ quick victory in the Spanish-American war, the great Yale social scientist William Graham Sumner gave a speech titled “The Conquest of the United States by Spain.” He told his audience, “We have beaten Spain in a military conflict, but we are submitting to be conquered by her on the field of ideas and policies.”

He argued that early Americans “came here to isolate themselves from the social burdens and inherited errors of the old world” and chose to “to strip off all the follies and errors which they had inherited…. They would have no court and no pomp; no orders, or ribbons, or decorations, or titles. They would have no public debt. They repudiated with scorn the notion that a public debt is a public blessing; if debt was incurred in war it was to be paid in peace and not entailed on posterity.”

The American citizen “was, above all, to be insured peace and quiet while he pursued his honest industry and obeyed the laws.”

But, he said, if America became a colonizing nation like the empires of Europe, we would become afflicted with “war, debt, taxation, diplomacy, a grand-government system, pomp, glory, a big army and navy, lavish expenditures, and political jobbery – in a word, imperialism.” And in that day we would have thrown away the American principle of liberty for “a Spanish policy of dominion and regulation.”

I was reminded of Sumner’s warning when I read a column in the Washington Post by Eswar Prasad, a prominent trade economist at Cornell University and the Brookings Institution. Prasad warns that in its trade war with China the Trump administration seems determined to emulate China:

China might seem in a better position to cope with a trade war, since it is a heavily managed economy and the government squashes political resistance. Yet its every maneuver carries enormous risks. Meanwhile, Trump, who manages a durable and flexible economy, is not exactly seeking victory for the American way of doing business. His approach, in some ways right out of Beijing’s playbook, would make our economy quite a bit more like China’s.

Prasad enumerates some of China’s “advantages” in a trade war: a state-dominated economy, with state-owned banks, and an autocratic government that can shut down dissent and censor bad news. Trump, on the other hand, has the advantage of an “enormously flexible and resilient” economy and bipartisan support for “getting tough on China.” But Prasad warns:

Yet in exercising his power, he could end up making America’s economy a bit more like the state-dominated one operated by Beijing — and, in so doing, permanently damage the U.S. free market. To rescue the agricultural sector from the consequences of the trade war, Trump has already dispatched $28 billion in government subsidies. He has also jawboned American companies to move their production bases back to U.S. shores, rather than letting them make their own commercial decisions. Trump has even pressured the Federal Reserve, whose independence is seen as sacrosanct, to lower interest rates and suggested that the Fed should help drive down the value of the dollar. With such moves, he risks undermining the true strengths of the United States: the institutions that make the U.S. dollar and the American financial system so dominant.

What’s worse, Trump suggests that the rule of law is up for negotiation. After imposing sanctions on Chinese technology companies such as ZTE and Huawei for running afoul of U.S. rules, he hinted that those sanctions could be negotiated away as part of a trade deal.

Much as Sumner worried in 1898 that the United States was trading its peace and liberty for “a Spanish policy of dominion and regulation,” Prasad fears that

China has made its lack of independent institutions a source of strength in dealing with external economic aggression. In that model, Trump sees something Washington should copy — and seems ready to abandon what makes the United States special. 

We faced a similar challenge in the 1980s when powerful American voices called for an industrial policy similar to the one they credited with the success of the then-booming Japanese economy. But critical analysis from Cato scholars and others across the political spectrum stopped that campaign, just in time for us to watch Japan sink into its “lost decade” of economic stagnation.

Sumner got a lot right. The United States did become a globe-circling imperial power burdened by war, debt, taxation, regulation, and rent-seeking. Will Prasad prove equally prophetic? Will we fight a trade war with China, only to discover that we have adopted “a Chinese policy of dominion and regulation”?

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What Is and Isn’t Currency Manipulation

Do you want to know what’s not currency manipulation? The People’s Bank of China observing the value of the yuan plummet as markets respond to Trump’s tariff frenzy is not currency manipulation. 

Do you want to know what is currency manipulation? The president of the United States imploring the Federal Reserve chairman to lower interest rates for the distinct purpose of reducing the value of the dollar is currency manipulation.

For elaboration, please read my article on Forbes: Trump and Bipartisan Majority in Congress Complicit in Chinese Currency Manipulation Canard.

 

Yes, Tariffs on Imports from China Are Taxes (Even When Absorbed by Business!)

Instead of entering what many anticipated would be the home stretch of negotiations to end the nearly yearlong trade war, U.S. tariffs on about $200 billion of imports from China are set to increase from 10 percent to 25 percent tomorrow morning. There is plenty of speculation as to what happened, who’s to blame, whether President Trump is engaging in negotiating tactics described in “The Art of the Deal,” and which economy is better situated to withstand a wider, longer trade war (as if a 10 percent economic contraction means victory if the other economy shrinks by 15 percent).

The most prominent explanation for the abrupt reversal is that U.S. negotiators learned that their Chinese interlocutors were backing away from previous commitments to resolve the forced technology transfer problem, which is one of the most important U.S. objectives in these talks. After mulling that development last weekend, Trump opted for escalation. He also promised that the balance of Chinese goods (another $250 billion of imports not yet tariffed) soon will be hit with rates of 25 percent, as well. In response, Beijing announced it will impose yet-to-be-specified countermeasures.

Interestingly, this week’s developments haven’t completely torpedoed the negotiations. A somewhat smaller (than originally planned) delegation of Chinese officials is in Washington for negotiations slated to begin at 5pm, which gives them exactly 7 hours to sort everything out before Trump’s higher tariffs take effect at the stroke of midnight. Don’t expect a comprehensive deal or even the contours of one to materialize, but with Chinese Vice Premier Liu He making the trip to Washington despite this latest upheaval, there is at least some hope that the actual tariff escalation will be deferred.

It turns out that the fine print in the Federal Register notice announcing the new rates states that products leaving China after 12:01, Friday, May 10, will be subject to the higher tariffs. It takes about two weeks for a cargo ship departing Shanghai to arrive in Long Beach, so negotiators really have seven hours, plus about two weeks, to reach a deal before Customs has to tax U.S. importers at the new, higher tariff rate. Of course, time is much shorter (seven hours plus about twelve hours!) for importers of high-value, fragile, and perishable products, which are typically transported by air.

As of this moment, the United States has punitive tariffs in place on approximately $250 billion of imports from China. Since last July, tariffs of 25 percent have been levied on imports that were valued collectively at about $50 billion in 2017. Nearly all of those goods are intermediate inputs or capital equipment—the purchases of U.S. producers. Trump advisor Peter Navarro was pleased to note at the time that, in selecting the products to target, he and colleagues used a special economic model to help them avoid burdening consumers by focusing on business purchases, as if businesses don’t pass their higher costs onto consumers in the form of higher prices or onto to their shareholders and workers in the form of lower profits. Thanks, Pete!

After Beijing retaliated, the Trump administration imposed 10 percent tariffs on an additional $200 billion of Chinese goods. This time, the majority of targeted products were consumer goods. It is this tranche of products for which tariffs are slated to increase to 25 percent at midnight. Makes one pine for the days when Navarro worried about consumers.

If matters aren’t resolved quickly, the likelihood is very high that all U.S. goods imports from China will be hit with tariffs of 25 percent.  Let me try to put that in some perspective.

In 2017 (before the punitive tariffs were in place), U.S. imports from China totaled $504 billion and duties paid to U.S. Customs amounted to $13.5 billion, which is an average applied tariff rate of 2.68 percent. Last year, when tariffs of 25 percent on $50 billion of Chinese goods were imposed in June and July, and additional tariffs of 10 percent on $200 billion of Chinese goods were imposed in late September, the value of imports from China totaled $543 billion and the duties collected came to $23 billion—an average applied tariff rate of 4.23 percent.  Nearly $10 billion of costs associated with the higher tariffs were imposed on consumers, businesses, shareholders, and employees.

It turns out that for many products Americans purchase from China, demand is fairly price inelastic. In other words, a one percent increase in price generates less than a one percent decline in quantity demanded. Total revenue rises. At least that is the case for broad swaths of products within the range of price increases attributable to the tariffs. Afterall, despite that tariffs, import value rose from $504 to $543 billion in 2018. Maybe there aren’t many substitute sources or the costs of finding substitutes and switching is too high relative to the tariffs.

A 25 percent across-the-board tariff could generate different effects. Demand may be more price elastic for more products at that price range. In other words, we will likely see a decline in import value from China if 25 percent tariffs are imposed. That means that the added costs directly attributable to the tariffs would not be 25 percent of $543 billion (the 2018 value), for example, because the value of imports will be lower. How much lower depends on these elasticities and other factors.  However, 25 percent of $543 billion is not an unreasonable, upper end estimate of the costs to U.S. consumers and businesses that would be attributable to a 25 percent across the board tariff. That’s $135 billion. That’s a cost of about $400 for every person in the United States. That’s a lot.

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Bad Policy Begets Insecurity

The New York Times is reporting a major spike in aggressive cyber attacks by Iran and China against businesses and government agencies in the United States. “[S]ecurity experts believe,” the Times reports, that the renewed cyber attacks “have been energized by President Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal last year and his trade conflicts with China.”

Chinese cyberespionage cooled four years ago after President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping of China reached a landmark deal to stop hacks meant to steal trade secrets.

But the 2015 agreement appears to have been unofficially canceled amid the continuing trade tension between the United States and China, the intelligence officials and private security researchers said. Chinese hacks have returned to earlier levels, although they are now stealthier and more sophisticated.

…Threats from China and Iran never stopped entirely, but Iranian hackers became much less active after the nuclear deal was signed in 2015. And for about 18 months, intelligence officials concluded, Beijing backed off its 10-year online effort to steal trade secrets.

But Chinese hackers have resumed carrying out commercially motivated attacks…

In other words, the United States has been the target of major cyber attacks from both Iran and China as a direct consequence of two Trump administration policies, neither of which were justified.

Last year, against the advice of his own top national security officials and the US intelligence community, as well as US allies, President Trump withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA). That deal rolled back Iran’s nuclear program and imposed strict limits on it for the foreseeable future. To this day, it remains one of the most robust non-proliferation agreements ever negotiated and Iran continues to comply with its stringent controls and invasive inspections regime. Trump’s withdrawal, which lacked a national security rationale (at least one that had any relation to reality) resulted in the automatic re-imposition of harsh economic sanctions against Iran. Although the sanctions have hurt the Iranian economy, the regime in Tehran has kept to its obligations anyway, even amid threatening and overtly hostile rhetoric from the Trump administration that strongly suggests it is seeking regime change.

Many predicted withdrawal from the JCPOA would pressure Iran to unburden itself from the deal’s restrictions and restart its nuclear enrichment program in earnest, the exact opposite of the White House’s stated aim. Thankfully, this has not happened (yet). But what has happened is that Iran has ramped up aggressive cyber attacks against us.

Likewise, Trump’s determination to initiate a trade war with China, arguably America’s most important trade partner, cannot be justified on either economic or national security grounds. China’s immediate response was to retaliate with its own tariffs against US imports. Both the US and Chinese economies have consequently suffered an economic hit worth billions of dollars. We can add to these costs the apparent revocation of the arrangement Obama and Xi secured in 2015 not to engage in commercial cyber espionage. 

As I see it, we can draw two lessons from this. First, countries are likely to retaliate if we punish them for engaging in cooperative diplomacy with us. Second, Trump’s policies have made America less safe.

For those who think the proper response to intensified Iranian and Chinese cyber attacks is to adopt a more aggressive, offensive cyber posture (in retaliation for the retaliation), I recommend reading this Cato Policy Analysis we published last month which demonstrates the dangers, and low utility, of such a path.

U.S. Trade Policy Agenda in 2019? Fixing What’s Been Breaking Since January 20, 2017

Upon taking office in 2017, President Trump accused trade partners of underhandedness, demonized U.S. companies with foreign supply chains, and perpetuated the false narrative that trade is a zero-sum game requiring an “America First” agenda. He withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, threatened to pull out of North American Free Trade Agreement and the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, and initiated a war of attrition against the World Trade Organization by refusing to endorse any new Appellate Body judges until his unspecified demands were met. Yet, those were still the halcyon days of trade.

In 2018, straining all credulity, the Trump administration dusted off a seldom-used law (Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962) to impose tariffs on imported steel and aluminum from most countries on the basis that national security is threatened by U.S. dependence on foreign sources of these widely available commodities.

Later in the year, invoking another controversial U.S. trade statute (Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974), which is widely considered an act of vigilantism under WTO rules, the administration announced tariffs on $50 billion worth of imports from China for alleged unfair practices, such as forced technology transfer and intellectual property theft. When Beijing retaliated with tariffs on U.S. agricultural products, Trump announced that he would hit another $200 billion of imports from China with tariffs. Once again, Beijing responded by broadening its list of targeted U.S. products and the president subsequently threatened to apply U.S. levies to all imports from China (over $500 billion in 2017).

To be fair, U.S. trade policy in 2018 wasn’t only rancor, hostage-taking, and trade war. Juxtaposed against this contentious, grievance-based, enforcement-oriented U.S. posture was some “trade liberalization.” Instead of withdrawing from NAFTA and KORUS, the Trump administration renegotiated both. Both included some liberalizing provisions, but also some lamentable, protectionist retrogression, which wasn’t totally unexpected given that, in both cases, U.S. insistence on renegotiation was motivated less by an interest in updating, expanding, and modernizing the agreements than by a desire to revise provisions that would—at least nominally—tilt the playing field in favor of U.S. workers and certain manufacturers.

As 2019 begins, five major issues cast long shadows over the trade policy landscape. First is whether and how the U.S.-China trade war will be contained, scaled back, and ultimately ended. Second is the looming possibility that the Trump administration will invoke national security to impose sweeping new tariffs on automobile imports. Third is the question of whether and when Congress will pass the implementing legislation for the new NAFTA (the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement or USMCA). Fourth is whether, when, and how the crisis at the WTO will be resolved. And fifth concerns whether the Trump administration has the wherewithal to make good on its stated intentions of negotiating new trade agreements with Japan, the European Union, the Philippines, possibly the United Kingdom, and other countries. With much of the rest of the world moving forward with a slew of new trade agreements and the United States stuck on revamping old deals, the real and opportunity costs to U.S. businesses, consumers, and taxpayers continue to mount.

Throughout the year ahead, these major issues will be the predominant focus of the research and writing of the Cato Institute’s Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies.

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A New Cold War with China?

Picking up on Vice President Mike Pence’s speech at the Hudson Institute several weeks ago, Hudson’s Seth Cropsey detailed a plan in the Wall Street Journal on “How to Win a Cold War with Beijing.” At the center of Cropsey’s op-ed is a dramatic increase in the U.S. presence in Asia that would require, among other things, accelerating the current naval buildup, increasing naval patrols, and bolstering naval and Marine forces in Australia. In effect, Cropsey wants to apply the strategy that helped end the former Cold War to America’s growing conflict with China. Quoting Ronald Reagan, Cropsey explains “The objective in this strategic competition [is] ‘We win, they lose.’”

Cropsey’s approach, however, is based on several flawed assumptions, including about the inevitability of conflict between the United States and China. He also places undue faith in the United States’ capacity to face down its rising rival by building more warships and deploying them close to China’s shores.

Implicit in Cropsey’s call for a large naval arms race with China is the assumption that China will back down in the face of it. Convinced of the futility of such competition, Cropsey appears to believe, the Chinese will simply accede to our demands, including on Taiwan. But I have seen no evidence to support such an assumption. The more likely result of an arms race is…a further arms race, as my colleague John Glaser explained earlier this year. Cropsey also ignores the fact that the world is moving into an era of defense-dominance, which puts America’s exquisite, but enormously costly, naval platforms at increased risk from small, smart, and cheap weapons.

The current Sino-U.S. competition is unlike any we’ve seen – at least in a very long time. The Cold War was, in large part, a zero-sum fight between two diametrically opposed ideologies. However, whereas Soviet Communism and Western Capitalism couldn’t coexist, China’s and America’s current systems can. Or at least might.

If you doubt that, consider that Americans have helped to lift hundreds of millions of Chinese out of desperate poverty over the last quarter century through trade, greatly enriching China in the process. That wasn’t the intention, per se; as Adam Smith famously explained, trade is driven by mutual “self-love.” “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner,” he wrote, “but from their regard to their own interest.” 

Which U.S. Industries Will Bear the Brunt of Trump’s China Tariffs?

This morning, as anticipated, the Trump administration broadened the scope of its punitive tariffs on imports from China. The list of products subject to 25 percent duties increased from 818 to 1,097 harmonized tariff schedule (HTS) subheadings. Last year, the value of these imports from China amounted to roughly $50 billion, so the tax incidence (ceteris paribus), for the sake of the argument, will be roughly $12.5 billion. 

As expected, Beijing retaliated in kind, assessing similar duties on a commensurate value of U.S. exports, which is certain to cause revenues to fall for U.S. producers of the industrial goods and agricultural products subject to those retaliatory tariffs. But let’s not forget the adverse impact of our own tariffs on our own manufacturers, farmers, construction firms, transportation providers, miners, wholesalers, retailers, and just about every other sector of the U.S. economy.

About half the value of U.S. imports consists of intermediate goods (raw materials, industrial inputs, machine parts, etc.) and capital equipment. These are the purchases of U.S. businesses, not households. The vast majority of the Chinese products on the tariff list fit this description. They are nearly all inputs to U.S. production. By hitting these products with tariffs at the border, the Trump administration is, in essence, imposing a tax on U.S. producers. Trump is raising the costs of production in the United States in sector after sector.

How significant is a roughly $12.5 billion tax in a $19 trillion economy? Well, not especially significant when put in that context. But that context masks the burdens directly imposed on the companies that rely on these inputs and indirectly imposed on their workers, vendors, suppliers, and downstream customers.

The Input-Output tables produced by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis reveal—among other things—information about the relationships between industries in the United States. The “Use” tables map the output of all industries to their uses by other industries as inputs, as well as by end users.

The most recent “detailed” tables present the U.S. economy in 2007. The value of total commodity output at the time was $26.2 trillion, of which $14.5 trillion was consumed for end use and $11.7 trillion was consumed as intermediate inputs to further production. The $11.7 trillion dollar value of output from each of 389 industries (defined at the 6-digit NAICS level) is mapped to the input of each of the other 388 industries. In other words, $11.7 trillion of commodity output from 389 industries is simultaneously depicted as $11.7 trillion of intermediate inputs to 389 industries. Although the values of that industry-specific output and input certainly have changed over 10 years, it is not unreasonable to assume a roughly similar composition of input use on a percentage basis.  (Sure, production processes change and, consequently, the inputs demanded change too. But the 2007 table provides the best information available and it should produce some useful results.)

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