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After reading her interview with The Wall Street Journal, it’s hard to tell whether Clinton-era chief U.S. negotiator Charlene Barshefsky is mainly clueless or mainly arrogant. In other words, is Barshefsky oblivious to how badly she (and colleagues) botched the challenge of admitting China into the World Trade Organization (WTO)? Or is she confident that the bipartisan American economic policy establishment remains so strongly wed to this epic failure that her reputation and current cushy job as a leading trade lawyer won’t suffer in the slightest even when it’s scope is made unmistakable?

Most disturbing, nothing could be clearer from the interview – in which she was joined by one of her former top Chinese counterparts – that her views on the WTO deal and those of Beijing are as close, as the Chinese like to say, “as lips and teeth.” The only significant difference: then Chinese vice commerce minister Long Yongtu denies that his country’s economic reform efforts have gone off the rails in recent years. Barshefsky insists that China “has stopped the process of economic reform and opening and that, instead, has put in place a spate of measures that are zero sum. They’re highly mercantilist and discriminate against U.S. and foreign companies.”

That’s nice to hear. But this claim also underscores how completely blindsided Barshefsky, the rest of the Clinton administration, and the rest of the powers-that-be in American government, business, and academe were by an about-face in a country with a recent history of political instability and course changes, and no record of viewing trade as a positive-sum game or economic openness as a crucial objective in and of itself.

Barshefsky also demonstrates her belief that the phony promises that fueled the Clinton administration’s successful drive to secure China’s WTO entry still hold water – at least with the high and mighty. For example, according to Barshefksy, “The U.S. didn’t alter its trade regime, nor did any other country alter its trade regime. As in any WTO negotiation, it is the acceding country that needs to reform its economy.” But as she surely knows, WTO membership won for China substantial immunity from the national trade law system the United States historically had used to safeguard its legitimate trade interests unilaterally. Once China entered the WTO, Washington’s internationally recognized responses to China’s predatory trade practices largely depended on the assent of the WTO membership – which has been numerically dominated by economies that were major users of Chinese style protectionism.

Barshefsky continues to claim that the safeguards she negotiated with China were adequate to protect domestic industries – at least temporarily – from surges of Chinese imports. The only problem, she contends, is that these mechanisms were “”almost never used.” What Barshefksy omitted, however, was that the big U.S.-based multinational manufacturers that lobbied so lavishly and successfully on behalf of China’s entry were also offshoring production and jobs like crazy to China largely to supply the America market much more cheaply. Limiting America’s imports from China, especially from factories with which they were linked, was the last thing they wanted.

According to Barshefsky, the post-WTO ballooning of the U.S. goods trade deficit with China can be brushed aside because “we have a substantial services surplus with China.” It’s too bad she didn’t provide any numbers, but not at all surprising – since that surplus last year was only about a tenth as big ($37.4 billion) as the merchandise shortfall ($347 billion). Moreover, the manufacturing-heavy nature of this merchandise deficit – which is increasingly comprised of advanced manufactures – should concern all Americans.

And finally, Barshefsky repeated the widely expressed canard that “the trade deficit is a function of macroeconomic factors. Principally, the difference between what Americans save, which is nada, and investment, which is plentiful.” But the relationship between national trade balances and savings rates is simply a mathematical identity – which by definition says “nada” about causation. Indeed, there are plenty of reasons to suppose that, the more the trade deficit grows, the lower the savings rate is bound to become.

Yet interviewing Barshefsky has at least performed one public service. It reminds Americans that alternative facts began shaping the nation’s politics and policy long before the last presidential election.

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