China

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.”

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.

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.)

The U.S. Trade Beef with China

The big picture of U.S. - China trade tensions can be difficult to sort out. How problematic are China’s trade practices, as compared to those of other countries? What is the appropriate U.S. government response? These are not easy questions to answer (although we do have some views).

Weighing Trump’s Trade Apologists

In the wake of the recent “trade agreement” between President Trump and EU Commission President Jean Claude Juncker, we have seen a surfeit of commentary heaping praise on the U.S. president for his strategic trade policy vision and tactical brilliance. Much of that praise has come from people who share the president’s flat-earth view that trade is a zero-sum game played by national governments where the objective is to promote exports, block imports, and secure a trade surplus. Trump throwing U.S. weight around to assert the rule of power over the rule of law is music to this crowd’s ears.

But then there are the apologists who know better; the enablers. They are the bigger problem. In their obsequious tones, they explain how our brilliant president is blazing his own path toward free trade and that the evidence of his success is all around us. If we just disregarded Trump’s nationalist rhetoric, ignored his belief that the trade deficit means the United States is getting ripped off, shoveled away his mounting pile of destructive, protectionist actions, and stopped believing our own lying eyes, we too would rejoice in the greatness of a man who is committed—above all else and above all others—to free trade. 

Engaging in such extreme mental contortions is no easy task, but that’s exactly what an op-ed by tax reform luminaries Steve Moore, Art Laffer, and Steve Forbes in the New York Times last week expects readers to do.

Moore, Laffer, and Forbes (MLF) portray Trump’s “gunboat diplomacy” (you open your markets fully or I’ll close ours!) as strategic genius, akin to Reagan’s nuclear arms race, which broke the Soviets’ backs.  They conclude: “Just as no one ever thought Mr. Reagan would stem nuclear proliferation, if Mr. Trump aggressively pursues this policy, he could build a legacy as the president who expanded world commerce and economic freedom by ending trade barriers rather than erecting them.” Well, yeah, maybe he could.  But so far Trump has only increased trade barriers, more are coming, and there are no negotiations underway—with anyone—aimed at lowering tariffs or other barriers to trade.  But just close your eyes and imagine.

Why All Went Quiet on the Western Trade Front

Although many hailed last week’s “trade agreement” between President Trump and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker as an important achievement, it included no firm commitments to reduce tariffs, non-tariff barriers, or subsidies—or to do anything for that matter. The only agreement of substance was that new tariffs would not be imposed, while Washington and Brussels negotiated longer-term solutions to problems both real and imagined.

Those hungering for some good trade news might call that progress, but the only new tariffs that were under consideration (outside the exclusive domain of the president’s head) were those related to the Commerce Department’s investigation into the national security implications of automobile and auto parts imports. Of course, that investigation is still proceeding and there’s no reason to think Trump won’t leverage the threat of imposing auto tariffs to bend the outcome of those EU negotiations in his favor.

So what does Trump want? Trump seems committed to prosecuting a trade war with China and he expects the EU to have his back in that fight. Trump’s tariffs on $34 billion of Chinese products are scheduled to expand to $50 billion in early August and potentially to $250 billion in September. In a recent CNBC interview, Trump even threatened to subject all Chinese goods—more than $500 billion worth of imports in 2017—to additional tariffs.

For the first $34 billion, China has retaliated in kind, targeting mostly agricultural, aquaculture, and meat products. Beijing has pledged to go tit-for-tat throughout, even though its retaliation would have to take other forms—such as penalizing U.S. multinationals operating in China—because annual U.S. exports to China are in the neighborhood of only $130 billion.

The only real factor constraining Trump’s trade war is the potential that workers in red states will abandon the cause and turn on him. But so far, even as domestic production and employment are threatened as a consequence of the tariffs and the retaliation, Trump’s base still seems to be supporting his unorthodox, zero-sum approach to trade. Last month, a worker at Wisconsin’s Harley-Davidson facility, which will be downsizing as the company shifts production to Europe as a result of the EU’s retaliatory tariffs, said of Trump: “He wouldn’t do it unless it needed to be done, he’s a very smart businessman.” That worker and many others agree that the United States should be throwing its weight around to obtain a larger slice of the pie—even if that process ends up reducing the overall size of the pie.

A Trade Armistice in the Works?

President Trump set off another round of Twitter hyperventilation and financial market selling these past 18 hours with his latest threat to assess duties on another $200 billion of Chinese imports. What to make of this?

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