Making News: A Major New Article on “America First” Foreign Policy, a Return to National Radio – & More!

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I’m pleased to announce that a major new article of mine on the future of U.S. foreign policy has just been published in The National Interest.  Titled “America First at Home and Abroad,” it looks at the heated debate over President Trump’s approach to international relations from a wholly new standpoint.

Rather than attacking or defending the President’s stances, the piece argues that Mr. Trump’s departure from the nation’s decades-long globalist strategy is much more bark than bite so far, describes what a genuine ‘America First” policy capable of attracting public and political support would look like, and makes the case that such a strategy is likeliest to serve U.S. security and economic interests going forward.

In addition, I’m scheduled to return to John Batchelor’s nationally syndicated radio show tonight at 9 PM EST to help John and co-host Gordon G. Chang provide updated coverage of President Trump’s China trade policies.  Click here to listen live on-line to what’s sure to be a timely and provocative discussion.

And last night, the Newsmax TV program “Newsmax Now” ran a backgrounder segment on U.S.-China trade relations based largely on my analysis of the subject.  Here’s the link; the backgrounder begins at about the 33:40 mark.

And keep checking in with RealityChek for news of upcoming media appearances and other developments.

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(What’s Left of) Our Economy: More Evidence that Trade Wars are Absolutely Winnable for America

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Throwaway lines are among my favorite aspects of opinion writing, largely because in a simple, usually brief, and almost by definition understated sentence or two they can thoroughly debunk or at least gravely weaken shibboleths that have reigned virtually unchallenged for decades. And Financial Times columnist Rana Foroohar had a doozy yesterday.

As is well known by anyone who’s been closely following the development of President Trump’s trade policies and the uproar they’ve triggered, some of the biggest fears surrounding the prospect of the “trade wars” they’re deemed all too likely to ignite concern the impact on global supply chains. As explained this morning by Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman;

[C]orporations have invested trillions based on the assumption that an open world trading system, permitting value-added chains that sprawl across national borders, was going to be a permanent fixture of the environment. A trade war would disrupt all these investments, stranding a lot of capital.”

And since lots of capital would be stranded, lots of employment patterns worldwide would be disrupted, too – including in the numerous American manufacturing industries that have been thoroughly globalized and whose ability to assemble, further process, or produce goods in their U.S. facilities therefore depends on the smooth operations of these corporate networks.

Further, tariffs on imports from China allegedly would be especially damaging, since Chinese factories play such key roles in so many manufacturing supply chains, and since China’s prominence in globalized manufacturing in large part stems from so many special manufacturing strengths that the Chinese have developed – often by hook or by crook – in recent decades. If you need a compelling example, check out this early 2012 article on why Apple, among many others, has concentrated its industrial operations in the PRC.

At the same time, since Mr. Trump won the White House, not a few companies have either started relocated some production in the United States in response to actual or threatened tariffs, or made public remarks indicating that supplying the U.S. market from abroad would make no sense if trade barriers impeded their access. Other corporate leaders were saying even before Mr. Trump’s election that mounting protectionism and populism worldwide were bound to result in more localized manufacturing.   

So it’s become clear in recent years that however much they’ll complain about moving supply chains, business leaders scarcely view the challenge as impossible. Still skeptical? Recall how easy it’s been for them to send even the largest supply chains from inside the United States to outside American borders, or capitalize on the existence of overseas networks. And recall how quickly many of these transfers happened.

Just how fast they took place, and can still take place, is where Foroohar’s column comes in. In yesterday’s column, she echoed my point about supply chain movements that are either already underway or being contemplated:
“Over the long term, China and the US are headed towards regional supply chains for high-growth technologies of the future.” She continued – consistent with the conventional wisdom, “But in the short term, the interdependencies will be difficult to untangle.”

Then, however, came the kicker – which received no special emphasis from the author at all:

Several executives who supply Fortune 500 companies have told me it would take months if not years for the biggest US companies to break completely free of Chinese components.”

To repeat: Months – and at the outside years – for many companies to marginalize China’s role in particular in global supply chains. And then remember the reward: Greatly diminishing China’s still-burgeoning influence over the American economy and over the broader global economy, and in the process blunting the growing threat it poses to U.S. security interests both in the Asia-Pacific region and around the world.

That sounds like an appealing – indeed, no-brainer trade-off – to me. For an American leader hoping to disrupt U.S. trade and globalization policy for long-term gain, and facing numerous raucous short-term complaints, it should be an especially effective pitch to make, and an urgent policy target to prioritize explicitly and pursue systematically. Anyone seen any politicians like that lately?

(What’s Left of) Our Economy: May US Manufacturing Output Figures Could Feed Optimism or Pessimism

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May’s Federal Reserve domestic U.S. manufacturing production figures presented a puzzling glass-half-empty-half-full picture. Overall sequential real output levels were down 0.63 percent – their worst such performance since July, 2013’s 1.06 percent decrease. Clearly playing a big role was a fire at a factory producing parts for especially popular pickup truck models, which helped depress after-inflation automotive production by 6.45 percent – its worst such performance since April, 2011’s 7.91 percent plummet.

Yet stripped of automotive’s woes, inflation-adjusted manufacturing output was still down 0.18 percent on month in May, and the month’s decline represented the third such fall-off in the last five months. Largely as a result, industry’s annual constant dollar production increase improved in May by just 1.85 percent – the slowest such rate since January’s 1.10 percent. The automotive decline helped drag down monthly production in the durable goods super-sector by 1.16 percent in price-adjusted terms – the biggest such decrease since July, 2013’s 1.42 percent. Real output in the smaller non-durable goods super-sector was off only 0.08 percent in May.

After-inflation manufacturing output is still down 3.85 percent since the start of the last recession – more than eleven years ago.

Here are the manufacturing highlights of the Federal Reserve’s release Friday on May industrial production:

>May’s Federal Reserve industrial production figures contained evidence for both optimism and pessimism about the U.S. economy and its domestic manufacturing sector.

>Optimists could reasonably blame much of the 0.63 percent sequential drop in real manufacturing output – the worst monthly decrease since July, 2013’s 1.06 percent decline – on a fire at a factory providing parts for popular U.S. pickup truck models.

>And indeed, the May overall manufacturing production swoon was led by a 6.45 percent on-month plunge in motor vehicle and parts output – the worst such performance since April, 2011’s 7.91 percent.

>But pessimists could note that even counting the automotive effect, the rest of domestic manufacturing posted a 0.18 percent dip in monthly inflation-adjusted output – the third such shrinkage in five months.

>Largely as a result, manufacturing’s annual growth rate in May was down to 1.85 percent – its weakest since January’s 1.10 percent. Between the previous Mays, real manufacturing production expanded by 1.87 percent.

>Automotive’s troubles also showed up in the results for the durable goods super-sector in which it’s found. Durable goods’ after-inflation production sank by 1.16 percent sequentially in May – its worst such performance since July, 2013’s 1.42 percent plummet.

>In addition, its 1.97 percent constant dollar May annual growth rate was durable goods’ slowest since January’s 0.94 percent. Between the previous Mays, price-adjusted durable goods production advanced by 2.18 percent.

>Inflation-adjusted output held up better in the smaller non-durables super-sector in May. Its monthly production slipped by just 0.08 percent.

>On-year in May, non-durables’ real production rose by 1.73 percent. As with durable goods, this growth rate is the slowest since January (1.28 percent), but the deceleration has been smaller. Moreover, this year’s May annual production rate for non-durables was better than that for the previous Mays (1.57 percent).

>Revisions for overall real manufacturing production were slightly negative. April’s previously 0.47 percent monthly increase was upgraded to 0.57 percent. March’s already downgraded 0.02 percent rise was downgraded to a 0.11 percent decline. And February’s downwardly revised 1.40 percent increase was bumped down again to 1.39 percent.

>Largely as a result, in price-adjusted terms, domestic manufacturing’s production is now 3.85 percent lower than at the onset of the Great Recession – more than eleven years ago, at the end of 2007.

>After-inflation durable goods output is now 0.10 percent below the levels it hit in December, 2007, and 0.13 percent less than in January, 2008 (its last actual peak).

>Despite their recent out-performance, the non-durables sector has fared much worse since the last recession hit. Its constant dollar output is down fully 8.35 percent from its previous peak, which came in July, 2007.

(What’s Left of) Our Economy: CNBC Interview Now On-Line, Plus Background Info & Context

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I’m pleased to announce that the video is now on-line of my interview yesterday on CNBC on President Trump’s new announced tariffs on imports from China. Click here to see it.

As is usually the case, though, the segment was way too short to deal with all the aspects and angles of this decision that deserve attention. So here’s some material I prepared for the segment producer at her request the night before the broadcast. Sharp-eyed RealityChek regulars will find some of these points familiar, but to me, that just goes to show that many of the questions that have surrounded Mr. Trump’s trade policies since his inauguration remain either completely unanswered, or largely unanswered – as do many of the potential pluses and minuses. These talking points are as follows: 

“1. Although the White House may announce the tariff list tomorrow, it remains far from certain that all, or any, of them will actually be imposed. The Section 301 law providing their statutory basis permits the U.S. Trade Rep’s office 30 days to put them in place after the order formally appears in the Federal Register. In addition, the President could delay the duties up to 180 more days (i.e., after the midterm elections) if he determines that significant progress is being made in trade talks with China, or that the delay would encourage such progress.

“2. Less formally, these windows could enable the President to delay the tariffs’ imposition in order to encourage China to remain cooperative on the North Korea crisis. Mr. Trump has most recently declared his determination to go ahead with the tariffs despite acknowledging China’s help vis-a-vis Kim Jong Un, but at times in the past, he’s linked decisions to ease up or postpone such tariff decisions because of China’s purportedly cooperative attitude. And on a related issue, just before his summit with Kim, he explicitly called his decision to lift the “death penalty” on China telecoms firm ZTE a favor to Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

“3. I personally believe that any linkage between China trade policy and North Korea policy would be a serious mistake, as it assumes that Beijing is helping the United States defuse tensions on the peninsula as an act of charity, rather than a course of action that is squarely in China’s interest. As a result, linkage could reward China for taking steps it would have taken anyway.

“4. The President deserves major credit for recognizing that diplomacy and engagement alone have not sufficed to stem the economic and national security threats presented by China’s wide array of predatory trade and investment policies, exemplified most recently by its Made in China 2025 programs.

“5. In particular, Mr. Trump has recognized that U.S. allies are simply not serious about making significant contributions to a multilateral effort to combat China’s trade and broader economic predation. Similarly, he understands that the WTO is completely inadequate to this task, and that unilateral American action has long been essential.

“6. But his policies can be faulted in several respects.

“a. Some of his China-related goals seem flatly contradictory. Chiefly, the President says he wants to reduce the massive bilateral trade deficit America runs with China. But he also wants China to reduce its recent harassment of U.S. and other foreign companies and make it easier for them to do business in China. If the Chinese agree on the latter, much of the increased American (and other) corporate investment in China will wind up producing goods for export to the United States, thereby increasing the deficit.

“b. Tariffs on imports from China, all else equal, could well reduce the bilateral trade imbalance – especially if China opens its markets wider to U.S. exports, too. But the impact could be limited because shipments from other countries are likely to fill the gap to some extent.

“c. In addition, Mr. Trump should be paying more attention to the makeup of the trade deficit. In this regard, he has (erroneously) indicated that he would satisfied to see stepped up American exports of farm and energy products to accomplish much and even most of the deficit-reduction goal. But it’s much more important to narrow the gap in high value manufacturing industries, which make a much greater contribution to the American economy.

“d. The President is going to remain under attack on the tariff front from industries and sectors of the economy that might suffer losses, and these criticisms could well undercut GOP candidates in the upcoming midterm elections. He will also be criticized for taking measures the increase consumer prices. He could have preempted many of these criticisms in two main ways:

“First, earlier in his term, he should have strongly backed the border adjustment tax contained in the original Republican tax bill. This measure would have in effect both imposed a 20 percent tariff on imports and given a 20 percent subsidy to American exports. And since it would have been across-the-board, it would have provided protection and subsidies for both producers of finished goods (e.g., steel- and aluminum-using industries), and of the inputs for these finished goods.

“Second, he should be doing a much better job of persuading the American people that any change as disruptive as the new trade policies he’s begun to put into effect are bound to entail some short-term costs and sacrifices, but that the long-term benefits are well worth the candle. Tweets are not nearly enough. He needs a full-court PR press – Oval Office speeches, rallies, town hall meetings, the works.”

Another important point I wasn’t able to make: It’s true that, as the anchors and the other guest maintained, most economists think that trade deficits don’t matter to the health of a national economy. But as explained in the post linked here, this claim dangerously overlooks how trade deficits, and especially their increase, inevitably worsen the quality of the economy’s growth and makeup, and weaken the foundations of sustainable prosperity.    

 

Making News: Back on CNBC Today Talking Trump China Tariffs – & More!

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I’m pleased to announce that I’m scheduled to be back on CNBC this afternoon talking about President Trump’s newly announced China tariffs. The segment is slated to begin at about 2 PM EST, and you can watch on-line at this link, as well as on your cable and satellite systems. As usual, if you can’t tune in, I’ll be posting a link to the streaming video as soon as one’s available.

In addition, podcasts of my two latest national radio appearances (both on roughly the same topics) are on-line as well.  For my June 8 appearance on Breitbart News Tonight, click here and scroll down till you see my (misspelled) name. For my June 6 interview on The John Batchelor Show, click here.

Also, my views on trade policy were featured in a June 4 column by former U.S. Senate aide Jim Jatras on RT.com. Here’s the link.

And keep checking in with RealityChek for news of upcoming media appearances and other developments.

(What’s Left of) Our Economy: Manufacturing Labor Productivity Growth is Looking Like an Endangered Species

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Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell stated yesterday that the U.S. economy is doing “very well.” Judging by the metrics that the central bank is supposed to focus on as a matter of law – inflation and the headline unemployment rate – that’s an eminently respectable claim. Based on another key measure of economic performance – labor productivity – it looks like whistling in the dark.

As known by RealityChek regulars, strong productivity growth is widely seen by economists as the best guarantor of sustainable future prosperity and rising living standards. And as also known, labor productivity is the narrower of the two such measures of economic activity tracked by the federal government.

But it’s the gauge that’s updated on the most timely basis, and the latest numbers – which came out last week – should be spurring alarm, not complacency.

These final (for now) results for the first quarter of this year both confirmed that output per person hour worked for the non-farm business sector (the broadest definition of the U.S. economy used in these studies) remains stuck in an historically slow-growth phase, and showed that labor productivity in manufacturing may be shifting into contraction.

The labor productivity performance of both these major sectors was revised down in the latest release from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Rather than having grown by 0.70 percent on an annualized basis sequentially in the first quarter, labor productivity for non-farm businesses is now estimated to have advanced by only 0.40 percent. And in manufacturing, a 0.50 percent annualized increase is now judged to have been a 1.20 percent decrease. That’s its third such drop in the last five quarters.

A glass-half-full analysis would point out that the new non-farm business figure was better than that for the fourth quarter of last year (0.30 percent), and that the manufacturing fall-off followed a 4.20 percent fourth quarter jump.

But the new BLS report also presented manufacturing revisions going back to 2008, and they make clear that its labor productivity performance during this period has been far worse than even previously thought. (And it was already really bad.)

Let’s concentrate on how the new statistics have changed the picture for manufacturing labor productivity during the current recovery, and compare those results with those for previous recoveries – since such analyses yield the best, apples-to-apples, results.

Before the new data came out, manufacturing labor productivity during this expansion was reported to have grown by a total of 9.69 percent. That was less than a third of the rate achieved during the recovery of the early 2000s – which was also known as the Bubble Recovery that helped trigger the financial crisis and ensuing recession, and which last only six years versus. The current recovery is approaching its ninth anniversary.

And during the nearly ten-year long expansion that began in the early 1990s, manufacturing labor productivity surged even more strongly – by 45.86 percent.

The new manufacturing labor productivity growth number for the current expansion? Only 8.28 percent! That’s a downgrade of more than 14.50 percent!

Moreover, although the non-farm business labor productivity growth rate for the current recovery wasn’t revised down nearly as much – from 9.70 percent to 9.62 percent. But this figure, too, pales next to those of previous recoveries. During the bubble expansion, non-farm business labor productivity rose by a total of 16.03 percent. During the 1990s expansion, the rate was 23.25 percent.

By the way, don’t put too many hopes in the broader productivity measure – multi-factor productivity – to come to the rescue. Those numbers haven’t been much better.

Some productivity students have been arguing that it’s only a matter of time, and that recent technological advances will soon start super-charging productivity growth after a slow start just as they did in an earlier era of transformative technological change – the 1920s.

These optimists had better be right. Because if not, the only way to return American growth and living standards gains to their historic rates of improvements will be to flood the economy with credit in order to crank up spending. Feel free to scream if the date “2008” means anything to you.

(What’s Left of) Our Economy: The Real Deal with the U.S.-Canada Trade Balance

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Extra! Extra! Read all about it! The nation’s globalist political and media classes have gotten it right on a major U.S. trade policy issue!

I’m talking about the numerous complaints issuing from American politicians, journalists, talking heads, and purported academic and think tank experts about President Trump’s decision to make Canada the focus of so much of his trade-related ire.

Mr. Trump is right about Canada maintaining sky-high tariffs and lavish subsidies in certain sectors of its economy, like dairy and lumber. (I’d add aerospace to this list.) But the idea that Canada represents one of America’s biggest trade headaches, and has been taking advantage of the U.S. economy left and right due to poorly negotiated trade deals, is completely belied by the numbers. And P.S. – it’s not even necessary to point to America’s services trade surplus with its northern neighbor to debunk the numbers.

The keys are recognizing the immense role played by energy in bilateral goods trade. Commerce in crude oil and natural gas is almost never the subject of the U.S. trade deals and broader trade policy decisions that the President – for the most part – has correctly lambasted.

Energy’s predominance is most apparent when U.S.-Canada trade in goods is calculated according to the measures used most prominently by the American government – total exports, and general imports. In fact, these headline data show that the U.S. oil and gas shortfall has typically been twice the size of the overall American merchandise trade deficit with Canada – meaning that when it comes to other goods (like manufactures) the United States has been running a surplus.

For example, in 2009 (the year the current U.S. economic recovery began), according to these figures, the United States ran an overall $20.18 billion goods trade deficit with Canada, a $45.75 billion deficit in crude oil and natural gas, and a $30.02 billion surplus in manufacturing.

Last year, the overall U.S. merchandise deficit with Canada had fallen to $17.50 billion – largely because the energy deficit had sunk to $16.45 billion. And the American manufacturing surplus reached $41.07 billion.

As many trade policy critics have rightly pointed out, the total exports and general imports numbers aren’t the best data for measuring U.S. bilateral trade balances. (They’re fine for America’s global trade balances, though, as the discrepancies that emerge in the bilateral accounts cancel each other out on a worldwide scale.) Instead, the most accurate picture is provided by looking at domestic exports and imports for consumption – i.e., the trade flows that concentrate on exports that are actually made in America (as opposed to being transshipped through the United States from countries where they originated), and on imports that Americans actually purchase for their own use (as opposed to products being transported through the United States to their final destinations).

But although these statistics reveal a much larger U.S. merchandise gap, along with deficits in manufacturing, oil and gas predominate in these figures as well. In 2009, the domestic exports etc numbers show a total American goods trade deficit with Canada of $52.89 billion – nearly 87 percent of which was in oil and gas. The manufacturing shortfall, moreover, was tiny – only $200 million.

By 2017, according to this measure, the annual U.S. goods deficit had risen to $64.84 billion. But the oil and gas deficit – which had shrunk dramatically in absolute terms due to the U.S. energy production revolution – still comprised a little over 73 percent of this total. And the manufacturing deficit was only $4.28 billion (out of a U.S. global total of more than $937 billion).

I can understand why President Trump views Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as a pro-globalist showboat. I agree. But when it comes to trade, and turning it into an engine of growth and domestic job creation, Mr. Trump has much bigger fish to fry – starting with the thoroughly and increasingly predatory trade policies pursued by his “good friend,” Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

(What’s Left of) Our Economy: America’s Real Wage Recession Drags On – Especially in Manufacturing

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In one sense, President Trump’s summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un was well-timed – it’s inevitably distracting attention from the latest set of real wage figures (for May) released this morning by the Labor Department. The big takeaways: On a monthly basis, Americans’ inflation-adjusted hourly pay keeps going nowhere, and in fact, constant dollar wages for both the entire private sector and for manufacturing remained in technical recession. That is, they’re down on net for two straight quarters or more of economic activity.

The new data show that, for the private sector overall, real wages inched up sequentially by 0.09 percent in May after flat-lining in April. For manufacturing workers, they fell for the second straight month, with April’s 0.09 percent dip followed by a 0.19 percent drop in May.

As a result, on an annual basis, after-inflation private sector wages are unchanged, and such pay in manufacturing is off by 1.20 percent. Between the previous Mays, real wages in the private sector rose by 0.66 percent, and in manufacturing by 0.28 percent.

The new May statistics reveal that the private sector has been enduring a real wage recession since last June, as constant dollar hourly pay has declined by a cumulative 0.09 percent since then. As for manufacturing, its real wage recession dragged into its 28th straight month, with price-adjusted hourly wages down by 0.28 percent since January, 2016.

Just as worrisome, real wages in manufacturing are nearing the point of complete stagnation during the current economic recovery. Since mid-2009, they’ve advanced only by a barely perceptible 0.19 percent. The private sector’s performance during this period is only decent by comparison: It’s after-inflation hourly pay has risen by 4.27 percent during this nearly nine-year expansion.

Our So-Called Foreign Policy: The Real Trump-Kim Summit Danger

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I’m still skeptical about the prospects for the upcoming summit between President Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un – but not mainly for the slew of reasons trotted out by the Never Trump chattering class since this historic meeting began taking shape.

For example, it’s true that the President has little international negotiating experience. But which of the so-called experts expounding endlessly on the summit in recent weeks – especially those who worked in previous U.S. Administrations – has any record of dealing with the North Koreans that can be accurately described as anything else but abject failure? In fact, if Kim is as unconventional (to put it diplomatically) a leader as he’s commonly described, maybe Mr. Trump’s decades of dealing in the dog-eat-dog New York City real estate world will be much more useful background than anything that can be provided by CIA briefing books.

Has the President already handed North Korea an unearned, unreciprocated victory by agreeing to meet with Kim in the first place? This charge assumes that face-to-face talks with an American leader greatly adds to his North Korean counterpart’s legitimacy. But it’s hard to see how. Kim’s rule in North Korea isn’t based on any form of popular consent. Like his father and grandfather, his hold on power owes exclusively on repression. And in terms of global opinion, this indictment leaves two crucial questions unanswered. First, why on earth is Kim’s global image the slightest bit relevant to U.S.-North Korea diplomacy? And second, what thinking person would fundamentally change his or her views on Kim’s stature or record, or whatever criteria is chosen, solely, or to any extent, because he’s photographed side-by-side with a U.S. President?

Will Mr. Trump turn out to be over-anxious for success and agree to a cosmetic or outright bad deal just to boost his ego, or his domestic poll numbers – and Republicans’ chances in this fall’s midterm elections? This concern actually resembles my own principal fear, but my underlying reasons are fundamentally different (and much more coherent) than those of run-of-the-mill Trump critics. And more important, the policy conclusions I draw remain fundamentally different.

The Trump critics seem to define a bad deal as one in which the President makes concrete concessions to North Korea (say, some relaxation of economic sanctions, or the withdrawal of some U.S. military forces) in return for vague or misleading or unenforceable promises by Kim to take some steps to start dismantling his nuclear arsenal. In addition, it’s argued that if this pattern drags on, North Korea could pocket valuable gains (a stronger economy, an improved military position on the Korean peninsula, more time to make more covert progress on its nuclear program) at the expense of the United States and its South Korean and Japanese allies. And don’t forget the alarms expressed at the prospect that, if Mr. Trump concludes he’s been snookered, he’ll angrily cut off the negotiations and – much worse – his administration could resume military threats that eventually, whether intentionally or not, trigger real conflict.

The main problem with the critics’ warnings isn’t that they’re far-fetched. Indeed, they’re all too plausible. Instead, the main problem is that the bulk of the critics have urged North Korea policies that would create many of the same dangers – principally, American agreement to relax the sanctions, and/or to military steps like halting certain exercises condemned as needlessly provocative by the North but essential for maintaining readiness, in exchange for moves by Kim that would fall way short of complete, verifiable de-nuclearization.

In other words, the critics, like the over-anxious Trump of their purported nightmares, seem to be willing to live for quite some time with a North Korea that remains a formidable nuclear power, and with one that might keep on perfecting a weapon that could destroy one or more American cities in the event of a peninsular war. As I’ve explained, this arsenal, along with the ongoing presence of a U.S. tripwire military force, could easily produce a White House decision to enter a war that might result in almost unimaginable damage to the American homeland.

I’m not saying that this terrifying scenario will unfold inevitably. Nor am I completely pessimistic about the stars aligning for success over time – such as Kim’s reported determination to develop North Korea’s primitive economy (for reasons that include a self-interested calculation that more domestic prosperity is his best bet for regime survival), the Trump administration’s promise to maintain its intensified sanctions in the absence of major de-nuclearization progress, and Kim’s possible fear that the administration’s talk about preemptive or preventive war isn’t just bluster.

What I am saying is that the uncertainties are still so great, and the stakes (a nuclear attack on American soil) are so high, that it remains reckless to assume any needless risk to the nation at all. And the best way by far to eliminate needless risk from the Korea nuclear crisis, as I’ve written repeatedly, is to remove American troops from the peninsula and to allow North Korea’s neighbors to deal with its nuclear arsenal however they wish.

Such a withdrawal would remove any rational reason for Kim to attack the United States with his nuclear weapons in the event of a peninsular war. And an American threat to retaliate massively for an attack on its own territory would be almost infinitely more credible than a threat to retaliate for an attack on another country – especially if and when North Korea develops intercontinental nuclear strike capabilities.

The drawbacks of withdrawal should by now be familiar – destabilization and possibly war in East Asia, and a missed opportunity to end finally a frightening, decades-long threat to this region of big populations and economies. But the advantages – which are not nearly familiar enough because the nuclear risks of America’s alliances policies have been obscured from the public for so long – entail minimizing the chances of what would be by orders of magnitude the worst catastrophe in the country’s history. What a tragedy – and indeed scandal – that this question is still open.

(What’s Left of) Our Economy: A Fake News Attack on the Trump Metals Tariffs

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Pundits like the Washington Post‘s Catherine Rampell have every right to warn that President Trump’s metals (and other) tariffs will ultimately harm the U.S. economy more than it helps. What they have no right to do is peddle demonstrably false claims like her contention that because of the price hikes so far seen for steel and aluminum since these levies came onto the American trade agenda earlier this year, companies reliant on these materials for their final products “are now less competitive.”

I call these claims demonstrably false because every month, the U.S. government publishes detailed statistics on the nation’s trade performance, and the data through April contain absolutely no evidence that domestic metals-using industries are on the ropes – or anywhere close.

Let’s examine what seems to be the national chattering class’ and policy establishment’s favorite measure of industrial competitiveness: American exports. If the Trump tariffs have indeed been pushing U.S. metals-using industries close to the ash heap of economic history, then their overseas sales for the first few months of this year (the tariffs became likely when the Commerce Department officially recommended them in mid-February), should be much lower than they were the first few months of last year – or at least growing much more slowly.

In fact, just the opposite has been seen, at least when it comes to three major sectors of the economy that are especially heavy users of steel and aluminum – transportation equipment, non-electrical machinery, and fabricated metals products.

Over the first four months of this year (the latest data available), America’s global exports in these categories were not only 5.83 percent greater than over the same period in 2017. The year-to-date growth rate was some 7.2 times higher than that for 2017 (0.81 percent).

Perhaps more significant, the difference between the January-April, 2018 export growth rates for these metals-using industries and their January-April, 2017 growth rates was much greater than for American manufacturing as a whole. During the first four months of 2018, total U.S. manufacturing exports have grown 7.45 percent year-to-date. That’s higher in absolute terms than the export growth for the metals-using industries, but this export increase has been only 2.12 times faster than their export growth rate for January-April, 2017 (3.52 percent).

But what about my favorite measure of American competitiveness – trade balances and how they’ve changed? I focus on these two-way flows because the theory of comparative advantage at the heart of all justifications for the freest possible global trade makes sense only if these surpluses and deficits have consequences for global production patterns.

After all, comparative advantage holds that trade is the best possible way to create the best possible global division of labor – meaning that in a world of unfettered commerce, countries that trade products and services most successfully will inevitably wind up making those products and providing those services most successfully, and that all countries will benefit on net. And the countries that trade products and services most successfully are those that amass the biggest surpluses in those products and services. The opposite propositions logically hold the impact of running deficits in various sectors.

As it happens, the trade balance figures don’t show or presage any apocalypse for America’s metals-using industries, either. During the first four months of 2017, their cumulative trade deficit with the rest of the world increased by 10.56 percent on year. For the comparable period this year, the deficit’s year-to-date growth rate was faster: 11.64 percent. But clearly, this trade shortfall didn’t grow much faster.

The comparison with trade deficits for manufacturing as a whole is instructive as well. During January-April, 2017, this trade gap increased by 10.19 percent on year. During January-April, 2018, the figure was 10.85 percent.

So the metals-using industries’ trade deficit did grow faster during both periods than the shortfall for manufacturing as a whole. But the difference in the rate of acceleration has been trivial. In the metals-using sectors, the deficit during the first four months of 2018 grew 1.10 times faster than it grew during the first four months of 2017. For manufacturing as a whole, the deficit during the first four months of 2018 grew 1.06 times faster than during the same period in 2017.

I’d be the last to argue that this situation will never change. The Trump metals tariffs haven’t been imposed very long. Moreover, they’ve been phased in, so the full impact of their final (for now!), most sweeping version hasn’t yet been felt.  

Nonetheless, the effects could also be swamped by the benefits metals-using sectors have gained from the new corporate tax cuts and the regulatory relief offered by the Trump administration – two policies that industry as a whole has hailed enthusiastically as major boosters of competitiveness.

What should be unmistakably clear, though, is that claims that U.S. metals-using industries are already suffering from the Trump steel and aluminum are no better than Fake News – and deserve nothing more than scorn from all fair-minded readers.