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To say it’s been a bad week at the Washington Post for trade policy coverage and commentary would be a gross understatement. As I pointed out over the weekend, columnist Colbert King on Sunday tried to sell the contemptible idea that many critics of job- and wage-killing American immigration and even trade policies are motivated by racism. Yesterday, no one at the Post sank nearly that low, but the economic ignorance put on full display by two of its leading lights was nearly as depressing.

First came the latest offering by economics columnist Robert Samuelson, describing as “myths” the claims that “Persistent U.S. trade deficits reflect recent free trade agreements” and that “The large trade deficit ($540 billion in 2015) is an important cause of the U.S. economy’s slow growth.”

It seems that Samuelson isn’t familiar with the Census Bureau’s data on America’s non-petroleum goods trade flows. These measure imports and export flows that strip out oil trade (which hasn’t been an issue in trade negotiations and, until recently, in any aspect of trade policy) and services trade (where trade agreements have made only modest liberalization progress.)

As a result, these non-petroleum numbers present the trade flows that are heavily influenced by not only trade deals but by related policy decisions like dealing (or ignoring) currency manipulation. And the Census data show that since the onset of the recovery, it’s up from As made clear by my new article for Marketwatch.com, it jumped from $263.78 billion after inflation on an annualized basis to $681.74 billion in the fourth quarter of last year.

Early in his article, Samuelson attributes this trend to the dollar’s existential strength, but in his conclusion, he also blames policy mistakes – specifically, Washington’s failure to “police” currency manipulation and illegal subsidies. So it seems that this myth is far from mythical.

And as made clear by my Marketwatch.com piece, this strong recovery-era non-oil trade deficit rebound has slowed the growth rate of the current sluggish expansion by more than $400 billion in inflation-adjusted terms. The absolute numbers involved, as suggested by Samuelson, are indeed smallish compared with the size of the U.S. economy (currently $16.46 trillion in constant dollars).

But in calculating the trade deficit’s impact on growth, that’s not the number that counts. What matters is the growth itself, which since the recovery began in the middle of 2009 has been a bit less than $2.1 trillion. So that $400-plus billion trade deficit growth figure amounts to a nearly 20 percent slice – which sure sounds like it deserves adjectives bigger than the “modest” used by Samuelson. In fact, had the real non-oil goods deficit simply remained stable during the recovery, last year’s American inflation-adjusted growth would have been just over three percent, not just under 2.40 percent. That rate of expansion – the U.S. post-World War II norm – hasn’t been achieved in a decade.

Comparably uninformed was Matt O’Brien’s post the same day contending that the threat China’s economic rise has posed to American employment and wages “is slowly starting to go away.” O’Brien cites by-now familiar claims that China’s cost advantage over the United States is quickly vanishing, largely because the PRC ostensibly faces a labor shortage after decades of glut.

I’ve already poked numerous holes in the “overpriced China” meme; if you’re curious, start with this post. But what’s also missed by O’Brien – and so many others – is the threat posed by surging Chinese competitiveness in capital- and technology-intensive industries where labor costs by definition are secondary. It’s easy to measure this rising competitiveness by examining the detailed U.S.-China trade data put out by the U.S. International Trade Commission. And for numbers showing astonishing catch-up – and more – there’s no need to go back to 2001, when China was admitted to the World Trade Organization. Even developments since 2009, the start of the current American recovery, have been stunning.

Here are how America’s trade balances with China in major advanced manufacturing industries have worsened from that point through the end of last year in pre-inflation dollars):

telecommunications equipment: 160.68 percent

farm machinery and equipment: 65.32 percent

construction equipment: $33 million surplus to $953 million deficit

search, detection and navigation instruments: 65.82 percent

semiconductors: 407.85 percent

iron and steel: 34.50 percent

relays and industrial controls: 182.42 percent

ball and roller bearings: 265.62 percent

turbines and turbine generator sets: 62.41 percent

electro-medical equipment: 313.40 percent

metal-cutting machine tools: $118.71 million surplus to $3.68 million deficit

plastics materials and resins: 20.87 percent

And P.S. to O’Brien: These sectors remain very important American employers.

Not that encouraging data is lacking. Here, for example, are some representative high value manufacturing sectors where the U.S. trade balance with China improved between 2009 and 2015, and the size of the improvement:

semiconductor manufacturing equipment: 297.66 percent

pharmaceutical preparation: 483,530 percent (not a misprint!)

analytical laboratory instruments: 106.18 percent

electricity measuring and testing devices: 528.43 percent

surgical and medical instruments: $90.44 million deficit to $248.80 million surplus

metal-forming machine tools: 75.68 percent

aerospace: 195.10 percent

One further problem, though, is that with the prominent exception of aerospace, the trade numbers of the worsening sectors are much bigger than those of the improving sectors. So surely the employment numbers are bigger, too.

Indeed, if you move out to broader manufacturing groupings, you find rapidly deteriorating American competitiveness in areas far removed from widely acknowledged Chinese areas of advantage like smart phones and other consumer electronics products, as well as electronics components. For instance, in non-electrical machinery, the U.S. bilateral deficit has risen by nearly 147 percent since 2009, and in chemicals, a $2-plus billion surplus is now a $468 million deficit. Curiously, the former have been described in the Wall Street Journal as “global champions” and the latter was thought destined for a huge competitiveness boost from cratering prices for natural gas, a key feedstock.

There may of course still be plenty of facts and figures to marshal on behalf of the case that American workers and voters have little to fear from and lots of reasons to support current trade policies. But if these two Post pieces are any indication, supporters of these strategies will need to work much harder to find them.

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