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Good things just came in twos on the U.S. trade policy front, in the form of two separate reports that spotlighted a major, vastly under-appreciated result of America’s approach to the international economy for many decades, and that proposed an excellent new idea for shielding U.S.-based workers and businesses from Chinese (and some other foreign) predatory trade practices.

The first study was released November 14 by the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) and alertly covered by Ana Swanson of The New York Times. The USITC researchers usefully reviewed the academic literature on trade policy’s impact on various U.S. population groups and found that overall, and came to two major conclusions. First, “in the face of trade shocks [like the soaring levels of imports from China that followed Washington’s decision in the 1990s to expand greatly bilateral economic ties], Black and other Nonwhite workers [fared] worse than their White counterparts.” Second, “import competition had a large and disproportionately negative effect on wages of minority workers.”

The reasons, the USITC stressed, were many and varied, and included discrimination in hiring and firing practices and the generally lower education levels of minority groups, which has tended to concentrate them in labor-intensive manufacturing sectors that have been vulnerable the longest to penny-wage competition from China and other developing countries. But one conclusion that shone through was the historic importance of manufacturing generally – including the kind of heavy manufacturing found in the Midwest, to minority prospects for economic progress.

And these conclusions will come as no surprise to RealityChek regulars, as the harm done to minority communities by a trade policy that I’ve long argued has been offshoring- and import-friendly has been the subject of two posts from several years back. (See here and here.) But as the X indicated, and the USITC report emphasized, too many gaps remain in the data currently available and too much of what can be accessed is too poorly structured to create a genuinely satisfactory picture. So how about USITC folks getting on the horn to their Census Bureau counterparts to get cracking?

One other point worth mentioning (which the USITC understandably didn’t include): The first recent President who tried at all to change the trade policies that apparently have hit U.S. minorities hardest was one Donald Trump – who’s still being widely pilloried as a white supremacist.

The second, more forward-looking report was released Monday by the Infomation Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, and recommended a creative way to use U.S. trade law to shut out of the American market products whose competitiveness has benefited from “unfair trade practices in non-market, non-rule-of-law economies such as China.”

The trade law provision ITIF would employ is called Section 337. The reason? Unlike other U.S. trade law measures, rather than authorize the imposition of tariffs on imports that are sold to Americans at below-market prices (dumping) or enjoy certain kinds of subsidies, or profit from intellectual property theft (the main alleged trade crimes addressed by American trade law), in certain circumstances Section 337 authorizes completely banning U.S. imports from foreign entities shown to have profited from such practices.

ITIF proposes to increase greatly the number of these circumstances, especially for cases not involving intellectual property, for transgessions by China and other economic rogues.

Perhaps most important, in cases involving such outlier countries, it would eliminate the (already weakened) requirement that a plaintiff domestic company or industry has been injured by predatory trade practices. (In the U.S. trade law system, plaintiffs not only need to demonstrate that an outlawed practice exists, but that it has seriously harmed them.) As ITIF argues,

“It should be irrelevant if the domestic company is harmed in the here and now. The point is that the unfair practices should not be rewarded, period. The other point is that all too often, especially in technologically complex industries, by the time harm is determined it is too late: The company has suffered irreversible decline in its competitive position. Adjudicating blame becomes a coroner’s inquest over dead U.S. companies.”

Two other crucial ways ITIF would lower barriers to winning Section 337 cases involving non-market economies: First, it would spur U.S. trade law to cover foreign governments that provide predatory support for their entities, as well as specific foreign entities themselves. This improvement matters a lot because in so many instances (for example, in every single instance of Chinese transgressions), American businesses and workers are facing an entire national system aimed at creating advantages having nothing to do with free market forces. As a result, U.S. plaintiffs typically wind up facing a defendant with ultimately much deeper pockets, and the high costs of American trade lawyering and the uncertain chances of success deter many from going this route to begin with.

Second, current U.S. trade law implicitly assumes that the damage inflicted by foreign trade predation is limited to a plaintiff company or industry. But given all the linkages among industries nowadays, that view is way too narrow, and can leave the entire economy exposed to much wider-ranging and long-term damage.

To remedy both problems, ITIF would also entitle Washington to take up their causes by permitting any U.S. government agency to file a trade case against a non-market economy.

I’ve got a few bones to pick with these ITIF recommendations. For example, damaging trade predation is by no means confined to China. Many economies that it would let off the hook, especially in East Asia, operate national systems of protection and predation, too. At the same time, as the report suggests, this approach could induce the kind of international cooperation that would increase by orders of magnitude the price China – clearly a culpit in a class by itself – would pay for what ITIF rightly calls its “economic aggression.”

Moreover, the new trade law regime wouldn’t encompass “multinational firms operating in China.” That’s an awfully big loophole, not only because it’s these companies (including U.S.-owned companies) send stateside lots of products that benefit from China’s mercantilism, but because taking advantage of these predatory practices has been a prime reason for moving their factories to China to begin with (as well as lying behind their support for admitting China into the World Trade Organization, and thereby providing these exports with a vital layer of international legal protection against effective, unilateral responses from Washington).

But in the name of making sure the perfect doesn’t prevent the good, I can support this policy, too (at least as a start). And because ITIF’s proposals would go far toward adjusting the decades-old U.S. trade law system to recent global economic reality, I hope both major paties in Washington get behind it ASAP.

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