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When you’ve been in the trade policy trenches as long as I have, it’s important these days to look up from time to time and pinch or otherwise remind yourself how dramatically Donald Trump’s election a president has changed the policy landscape. And I’m of course someone who broadly supports his stated objectives in this field.

Weirdly, however, folks who oppose Mr. Trump’s views keep showing that their need to wake up is even greater, and this goes double for backers of the general trade status quo intellectually honest enough to acknowledge many of its serious problems. The biggest adjustment they need to make? Demonstrating that they can develop approaches to solving these problems that are realistic alternatives to the tariff-centered measures that the president is apparently contemplating. Recent offerings from the Financial Times‘ Martin Wolf and the Council on Foreign Relations’ Brad Setser reveal how much more progress is needed.

In Wolf’s latest column, he heaps scorn on the Trump-ian claim that expanding trade with China (or with any country) has played a “significant” role in causing any of U.S. manufacturing’s problems. And he declares that “Nothing [President Trump] does will reinstate manufacturing to its lost role as the dominant provider of “good jobs”.

But Wolf continues to see a different – and arguably more important – danger stemming from preserving the global trade status quo:

[H]uge current account surpluses in some countries forced deficit countries into financial excesses as an (ultimately unsustainable) way to maintain demand in line with potential output. The [2007-08 financial] crisis vindicated the concern of John Maynard Keynes about the potentially malign role of surplus countries in the global economy.”

So logically, Wolf is telling readers that if better balance doesn’t come to global trade, Financial Crisis 2.0 could easily result – echoing a warning made both by me and by many eminent economists.

What does he recommend to stave off such a catastrophe? A “proactive, not defensive” approach that includes a drive to “open global markets” (as if this hasn’t been tried before?) and – most interesting in light of his opposition to U.S. trade barriers – “forcing” chronic trade surplus countries like China “to rely more on domestic and less on external demand.” It’s somewhat encouraging that Wolf recognizes that the surplus countries (read “protectionists”) won’t take these steps voluntarily. But what could he possibly mean by “forcing” if no “defensive,” or even punitive, measures like tariffs are permissable? Maybe he’ll tell us in his next column?

The gap between diagnosis and prognosis is at least as wide in Setser’s January 18 post on “China’s WTO Entry, 15 Years On.” The essay is worth reading in its entirety, for it decimates the arguments made by the entire bipartisan U.S. globalization cheerleading policy establishment (not to mention the corporate Offshoring Lobby) about the unprecedented benefits that would flow from admitting China into the global trade rule-making and enforcement body – and thereby shielding it legally from most American unilateral economic power and leverage. Here, though, are a few key examples:

>”It now seems clear that the magnitude of the post-WTO China shock to manufacturing was significantly larger than was expected at the time of China’s entry into the WTO. China already had ‘most-favored-nation” (MFN)/“normal trade’ access to the U.S. Market….But China’s pre-WTO access to the U.S. came with an annual Congressional review, and the resulting uncertainty seems to have deterred some firms from moving production to China.”

>”Moving final assembly of electronic goods to Asia created pressures for the full supply chain [i.e., the much more valuable and innovative production of parts and components, as well as the research and development and engineering work] to move to Asia….Even if the currency issue is taken off the table, I suspect that the trade gains—or really the export gains— from integrating China into the WTO’s “rules” were overestimated.”

>“It is now clear that WTO accession was not enough to make China into an easy market for foreign firms to supply from outside China.

Here is a point that I think should get a bit more emphasis. China’s imports of manufactures, net of its imports of imported components, peaked as a share of Chinese GDP in 2003—and have fallen steadily since then. There is no ‘WTO’ effect on China’s imports of manufactures, properly measured (i.e. leaving out imports for re-export).”

>”Some firms have succeeded in China, but generally by producing in China for the Chinese market, not by selling to China. Successful challenges to some specific Chinese practices in the WTO have yet to alter this pattern….The WTO rules aren’t all that constraining in a country like China—thanks to state control of commanding heights enterprises and banks, and institutions, such as the National Development and Reform Commission (NRDC), that assure party control of major state firms and large investment projects.”

>Many WTO-legal remedies that might have worked were not used “because U.S. and European firms benefited from making use of Chinese production to meet global demand” – and because George W. Bush’s administration danced to their tune.

But Setser’s policy recommendations seem no more realistic than Wolf’s, especially if significant, unilateral tariffs are ruled out:

The correct fight right now is against the domestic policies that keep China’s savings so high, against a surge in capital outflows that leads to a yuan depreciation that then becomes entrenched (if China’s currency goes down, I worry it won’t go back up), and against Chinese import-substituting industrial policies that aim to displace major exports to China.”

In the pre-Trump period, the diagnosis-prognosis gap unaddressed by intellectually honest supporters of the trade status quo didn’t matter much, since American presidents were so determined to preserve that status quo. But this time, it seems to be different.  And if these trade advocates hope to prevent what they tend to describe as a counterproductive – and maybe worse – shift in American policy, they’ll need to do a much better job of showing that no major course change is needed at all.

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