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Recently I put up a post expressing gratitude that, despite their best efforts, pre-Trump U.S. trade policies didn’t manage to send the entire U.S. textile and apparel industries offshore. After all, companies in these sectors are the companies with the greatest expertise and capabilities in making all the personal protective equipment (PPE) crucial in the anti-CCP Virus fight.

Of course, the nation is therefore reliant for these and other medical products on countries, like China, which have responded to the emergency at various times with export bans. And in the case of pandemic-prone China, much production of all kinds was shut down temporarily because of the original virus outbreak.

Thanks to the release of the latest Federal Reserve industrial production data, it’s possible to quantify the damage done to these vital industries in ways other than the output figures I presented in that previous offering. That’s because the Fed’s monthly releases report in detail not only on increases or decreases in after-inflation output for manufacturing (and related) sectors. They also report the monthly changes in industrial capacity – the resources and facilities available to turn out various goods.

The results through last month are below. They use as baselines the month the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA – which has now been turned into the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement) went into effect, and the month that China entered the World Trade Organization (WTO). NAFTA’s January, 1994 onset signaled to many the transformation of U.S. trade policy into U.S. offshoring policy (see my book, The Race to the Bottom, for this argument). The January, 2002 beginning of China’s WTO membership gave the People’s Republic  overall, and its even-then-immense textile and especially apparel sectors, invaluable protection against American responses to its various forms of trade predation. (Limited safeguards versus “market-disrupting” surges in imports from China were written into the WTO agreement.)

For comparison’s sake, the industrial capacity changes for non-durable goods manufacturing (the super-sector into which textiles and apparel are grouped), and total manufacturing are provided as well:

                                                       Since NAFTA onset    Since China WTO entry

Textiles:                                              -37.05 percent              -44.05 percent

Apparel & leather goods:                   -81.97 percent              -77.18 percent

Non-durables manufacturing:           +17.06 percent                -2.23 percent

Total manufacturing:                         +75.54 percent             +10.78 percent

Clearly, the decimation of apparel capacity sticks out prominently. But although the more capital-intensive textiles industry didn’t suffer nearly as much, it fared much worse than either manufacturing in toto or the non-durables sectors overall. That’s largely because as the apparel industry disappeared, so did a prime domestic customer for textiles producers.

It’s also obvious for all these categories that although NAFTA was, to say the least, hardly a bonanza, the big trade-related damage was done by China’s WTO entry. Afterward that event has been when the shrinkage of textiles capacity accelerated, when the vast majority of the post-NAFTA apparel damage was done, when non-durables capacity gains shifted into reverse, and when total manufacturing capacity growth slowed to a crawl.

Calls are now abounding for remedies to the resulting shortages – like greater stockpiling and various tax and subsidy incentives for reshoring at least some of this production. But material in stockpiles can decay if unused too long, and companies would be foolish to spend heavily on new U.S. factories if they still face the likelihood of being subsidized and dumped out of existence by predatory foreign trade policies. As a result, there’s no substitute for stiff tariffs, and a credible national resolve to keep them in place, for ensuring that America’s health security never becomes so degraded again.