(What’s Left of) Our Economy: No Shortage of Steel Trade Fakeonomics

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Here’s one likely byproduct of President Biden’s unexpected decision so far to maintain most of Donald Trump’s tariff-centric trade policies – including undermining the workings of the deeply anti-American World Trade Organization (WTO): shoddy or just plain incoherent attacks on these economic nationalist measures seem certain to be just as numerous as they were during the Trump years. Indeed, two have just been released.

In the shoddy category is a Reuters article from yesterday reporting that American manufacturers are suddenly very short of steel, that prices are therefore soaring to extortionate and profit-killng levels, and that the Trump steel tariffs – among the previous administration’s measure that Mr. Biden has so far decided to keep – are largely to blame. Even worse, the piece tells us (and entirely predictable according to standard economic theory), the protected U.S. steel industry is taking full advantage by keeping its own production low, and therefore maximizing upward pricing pressures and therefore its own profits.

Yet the statistical basis for these claims falls apart on close analysis. Author Rajesh Kumar Singh starts off by writing that

Domestic steel mills that idled furnaces last year amid fears of a prolonged pandemic-induced economic downturn have been slow in ramping up production, despite a recovery in demand for cars and trucks, appliances, and other steel products. Capacity utilization rates at steel mills – a measure of how fully production capacity is being used – has moved up to 75% after falling to 56% in the second quarter of 2020 but is still way below 82% in last February.”

That’s not, however, what’s said by the Federal Reserve, the offical source of U.S. capacity utilization data. Its tables show that for iron and steel products, capacity utilization rates stood at 76.03 percent last February, and at 77.84 percent last month. Where I learned ‘rithmetic, that’s an increase. Moreover, since bottoming last May, just after the worst of the CCP Virus and shutdowns’ first wave, it’s up 56 percent.

Indeed, steel’s capacity utilization performance is especially impressive – and especially destructive to Singh’s article – given that from last February to this past January, capacity utilization in domestic manufacturing overall is down slightly (by 0.60 percent).

And what Singh somehow left out is that during that same period, different Fed tables show, while overall manufacturing production adjusted for inflation dipped by 0.75 percent, iron and steel products output was off by just 0.71 percent.

His reporting is no more responsible on U.S. steel prices. Yes, they’ve risen strongly lately. But that’s largely because they fell so steeply almost immediately after the tariffs went on, in February, 2018. As made clear by the (chartreuse?) line from the chart below, from the respected consulting firm IHS Markit, they’re still much lower than they were three years ago. Nor, contrary to another claim of his, do they look much different from Chinese and European prices.

Global hot rolled steel prices

In the incoherent category is a study released by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), widely seen as one of the gold standard for American economics, whose main theme is that, contrary to the Trump administration’s claims, American consumers and businesses, not the Chinese or any other foreign countries, paid all the costs of the Trump tariffs.

I’ve repeatedly pointed out the lack of evidence for this contention. (See, e.g., here).  Today, however, I’m more interested in a finding made along the way by the three blue-chip economist authors: When it comes to steel, “The data show that U.S. tariffs have caused foreign exporters…to substantially lower their prices into the U.S. market.”

What they didn’t do is ask themselves why and, even more important, how this could be. That’s especially puzzling because the answer obviously is that foreign steel industries are subsidized by foreign governments. Consequently, they don’t face the same earnings pressures as their U.S.-owned counterparts, and can stay in business – and even ramp up production – despite major price cuts.

So the idea that there’s now or for decades has been free trade in steel has no basis in fact, and anyone who keeps ignoring this global landscape can’t possibly place any value on America retaining a steel industry worthy of the name – or on any definition of free trade that’s remotely reciprocal and therefore sustainable, not to mention one that serves U.S. economic interests realistically defined.

At least as important, as I’ve noted before, anyone blasé about huge quantities of artificially cheap foreign steel flooding into the United States can’t be serious about ensuring that the American economy is predominantly influenced by free market forces of any kind, or about understanding the central importance of productivity gains in spurring technological progress and even durable prosperity.

For the record shows that the recent wide availability of subsidized, cut-rate steel has provided the steel-using industries generally with a crutch that’s relieved them of the need to anchor satisfactory profits in ever-improving efficiency – and kneecapped their productivity performance. And since steel is hardly the only imported product subsidized by foreign governments, there’s no reason to believe that this kind of economic damage is limited to steel-users.

All the same, a continuing flood of trade and tariff fakeonomics may produce a silver lining.  As long as the Biden administration hews to the Trump line, at least the American people will still have an Executive Branch with an interest in pushing back strongly.     

(What’s Left of) Our Economy: A Feeble Case Against U.S. Populism

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Since I’m still glad that Americans elected a President with strong populist leanings in 2016 (however flawed he was in all the temperament and character ways on full display after his reelection loss), I was especially interested in a new academic study on how well populist leaders have run their nation’s economies when they’ve had the chance.

And since I’m particularly keen on properly assessing former President Trump’s record in this regard (it’s the selfish American in me), I was especially disappointed that this research on “The cost of populism” said nothing useful at all about the subject because it lumped the experiences of populist leaders in widely divergeant economies and across many equally divergeant periods of time into one category. Therefore, I thought I’d provide some perspective.

The authors, a trio of German economists, are pretty emphatic in their conclusion:

When populists come to power, they can do lasting economic and political damage. Countries governed by populists witness a substantial decline in real GDP per capita, on average. Protectionist trade policies, unsustainable debt dynamics, and the erosion of democratic institutions stand out as commonalities of populists in power.”

And they highlight their finding that, after taking into account the circumstances faced by populist leaders once they’ve gained power or office (which presumably were pretty bad – otherwise, as the authors recognize, why would the populists have succeeded in the first place?), right after a populist victory, such economies as a group fared increasingly worse in terms of their growth rates compared with economies headed by more establishmentarian leaders. To their credit, the authors also try to adjust for whether the countries examined faced financial crises just before their populist political experiments began.

The question remains, though, whether a study encompassing and deriving averages or medians from a group of countries containing many chronically impoverished lands, as well as the high-income United States, can tell us about the latter, whose single populist leader during the period studied served for just a single brief term. Interpreting this American experience is further complicated by three important, concrete factors the authors apparently haven’t considered.

First, the pre-Trump growth rates of the United States were artificially inflated by interlocking bubbles in housing and consumer spending. And because the growth stemmed largely from these massive bubbles, by definition it should never have reached the levels achieved. So viewing that bubble-period growth as an achievement of establishment leaders isn’t exactly kosher methodology. Even more important: The financial crisis that (inevitably) followed these establishment-created bubbles nearly crashed the entire world economy. So maybe this debacle deserves at least a little extra weighting?

Second, U.S. growth during the populist Trump years compared well with that of the second term of the establishment-y Obama administration, especially before the CCP Virus struck and much economic activity was either voluntarily depressed or actually outlawed. For example, during the first three years of Donald Trump’s presidency, gross domestic product (GDP) after inflation (the most widely followed measure), increased by 7.68 percent. During the first three years of the second Obama term, it rose by 7.63 percent. And don’t forget: American economic expansions usually don’t speed up the longer they last.

Even if you include the results of pandemic-stricken 2020, real GDP improved by 3.90 percent under Trump – a rate much lower than the four-year Obama total of 9.47 percent, but hardly disastrous. Moreover, since this growth has already begun accelerating once again, the claim that Trump’s policies did lasting damage looks doubtful.

The price-adjusted GDP per capita statistics (i.e., how much growth the economy generates per individual American), tell a similar story. During the full second Obama term, this number improved by 6.25 percent as opposed to the four-year Trump advance of just 2.46 percent.

But the pre-CCP Virus comparison shows a 5.58 percent climb under Trump versus 4.81 percent during the first three years of Obama’s second term. And here again, the levels have snapped back quickly so far after plummeting during the worst pandemic and lockdown months. Therefore, the populist Trump administration likely left the pre-Trump trends intact at the very worst.

Third, if you want to go international, the Trump economic record holds up well compared to those of establishment leaders in Germany and France. During the CCP Virus year 2020, France’s economy shrank in real terms by 5.01 percent, and Germany’s by 3.88 percent. The U.S. contraction? Just 2.46 percent.

No reasonable person would conclude that these comparisons prove once and for all that American populism has been vastly superior in economic policy terms. And it’s entirely possible that the U.S. record has no or few lessons to teach other countries. But for Americans, nothing in this paper indicates that they’ve paid any “cost of populism,” and a deeper dive uncovers evidence that they’ve actually benefited.

Following Up: A New Warning on U.S. Allies’ Reliability

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Well isn’t this a kick in the pants for the Biden administration – and by extension for all Americans?. No sooner did the President give a major speech to U.S. allies on his plans to return them to the center of American foreign policy-making because they’ll be such crucial assets in vital efforts to achieve essential goals like coping with China’s rise, than a new study comes out reporting that these hopes could be in vain. 

Specifically, the United States’ allies in Asia could well stay on the sidelines in what’s arguably become the most important potential showdown with China of all: ensuring Taiwan’s independence.

As known by RealityChek regulars, keeping Taiwan free of Beijing’s control has become so pressing for two reasons. First, Chinese dictator Xi Jinping is sounding and acting more determined than ever to “reunify” what he and his predecessors have regarded as a breakaway province by whatever means necessary – including using force. And second, a Taiwanese firm, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corporation (TSMC), has recently grabbed the global lead in actually producing (as opposed to designing) the world’s most advanced semiconductors. If China manages to control TSMC’s capabilities, it could use them to build the electronic devices and defense systems that would secure substantial technological and military superiority over the United States.

President Biden is of course correct in arguing that the more allies the United States can mobilize, the easier it will be to handle China’s increased aggression and economic predation. But that claim inevitably assumes that these allies will actually join with America to push back against China, and especially that Washington can count on their assistance if heaven forbid the missiles and bullets start flying.

And this assumption is exactly what’s questioned in a paper recently published by the Washington, D.C.-based Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. According to authors Zack Cooper and Sheena Greitens, there’s not a single country in the Asia-Pacific (or, as it’s now officially called by the U.S. government, the Indo-Pacific) region that’s sure to stand shoulder to shoulder with American forces as they seek to actually repel either a Chinese attack on Taiwan, or an effort by Beijing to turn the island into a satellite through coercive means short of full invasion, like limited military strikes, cyber-attacks, or an embargo.

In fact, write Cooper and Greitens, these allies not only would likely balk at sending their own ships, plans, and troops to buttress American forces. To varying degrees, they’d be reluctant to allow the United States the kind of access to their military bases needed to prevail over China in any of the above contingencies.

The authors believe that sufficient allied cooperation can be generated if the United States begins (ASAP!) “a series of detailed discussions with key allies about their roles in different contingency scenarios involving China and Taiwan (and for some, the South China Sea).” That advice sounds fine as far as it goes.

But the need in the first place for “detailed discussions” on such dangerous and perhaps rapidly growing threats – which would leave all countries in the region far less prosperous and prosperous if not deterred or beaten back – makes appallingly clear just how dysfunctional these alliance relationships have become. Moreover, you can be sure that the longer and more detailed these discussions become, the more allied doubts they’ll reflect, and the less likely they’ll be to produce the kind of certainty when push comes to shove that the United States or Taiwan will need.

I don’t view Cooper and Greitens analysis as gospel. But in my experience, the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center has done serious work on Asian security issues in the past, and the larger project of which this essay is a part has had support from sponsors across the political spectrum. So its warning is worth taking seriously, and if its arguments are on target, the problem they describe will resist easy solution – and not just because truly worthwhile agreements with the allies could take years to negotiate, but because the U.S.-based semiconductor production capacity needed to reduce Taiwan’s importance will take just as long to create.

Luckily, as indicated in the piece linked just above, both Congress and the new administration claim to recognize the need – at least rhetorically – to restore cutting-edge U.S. competitiveness in this and other information technology manufacturing. In the meantime, the Biden administration should of course try maintaining enough of a semblance of allied unity vis-a-vis China to give Beijing pause over Taiwan. Hopefully, Washington  can even inspire some genuine support for preserving the island’s independence.

But as I’ve written previously (in the afore-linked National Interest piece), the greater the emphasis placed on resolving the semiconductor challenge via the homegrown solution of reviving the domestic industry, instead of relying mainly on protecting Taiwan’s security militarily, the better the odds of maintaining American security and prosperity. And in any necessary negotiations with the allies, the sooner President Biden abandons his globalist faith in apologetics and gauzy preaching, and acknowledges the need for at least some of the hard-bargaining Trump-ian “transactionalism” he’s decried, the better.  

Our So-Called Foreign Policy: It’s Official. Uncle Sucker is Back

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If you think this title is too harsh, and especially if you agree with his view that maintaining U.S. alliances must be central to American foreign policy-making, you need to ask yourself this: How can some of the major points President Biden made in his speech Friday to an audience containing heads of major allied governments accomplish anything but keep the United States needlessly paying outsized costs for these arrangements and even worse, running major risks that include nuclear attack, for no good reason whatever?

As known by RealityChek regulars, downsides of American security alliances both in Europe and Asia that arguably were acceptable during much of the Cold War period have become terrifying and – because stemming from stubbornly hidebound thinking and consequent policy inertia – downright inexcusable more recently. That’s because physically devastated allies literally helpless against aggression in the earliest post-World War II decades, but nonetheless retaining vital economic and therefore military potential, had fully recovered by the mid-1970s, and because their continued defense free-riding led Washington to station sizable military units (and their dependents) directly in harm’s way.

The idea was that this U.S. presence’s very vulnerability to superior conventional forces from the Soviet Union and North Korea would deter aggression to begin with. Forit would all but force a U.S. President to approve saving these American lives with nuclear weapons – whose use could trigger an all-out mutually devastating conflict.

This gamble could be defended when the United States enjoyed clearcut nuclear superiority over the Soviets, a nuclear monopoly and near-monopoly over the North Koreans and Chinese, respectively – and when allies and their potentially crucial assets were still down and out. But for many years, the nuclear gap has  closed in Europe and the the monopoly and near-monopoly in Asia vanished, and all allies in question have been amply wealthy enough to defend themselves. So Washington’s refusal to adjust means that the nation could well see nuclear warheads land on its soil because the Europeans, Japanese, and South Koreans have been permitted to be military deadbeats. Could any policy be more recklessly perverse, or determined to reward irresponsibility and cynicism?

Despite loudly griping about allied defense free-riding, raising the temperature in periodic defense burden-sharing negotiations, and rearranging some troop deployments in Europe, Donald Trump never frontally and comprehensively challenged the status quo, at least while President. Would a second term have been different? Who knows?

What is clear, especially from this latest speech by Mr. Biden, is that the United States will now be doubling down on this entire literal Americans Last strategy.

For not only did the President repeated the pre-Trump standard Washington endorsement of the core principle of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) that “An attack on one is an attack on all. That is our unshakable vow” – which inevitably tells the allies that they can continue free-riding militarily to their heart’s content and count on American protection no matter how potentially disastrous the consequences for the American people.

He actually praised “Europe’s growing investment in the military capabilities that enable our shared defense” even though these expenditure will be definition be utterly inadequate as long as their level leaves a military gap that American conventional and nuclear forces still need to fill.

Further, in declaring that he would not view U.S. alliances as “transactional” he assured America’s so-called partners that their relationships with Washington need involve no give and take whatever, thereby guaranteeing that these opportunistic governments would raise their chronic free-riding to much loftier levels, and that Americans would bear more of the costs and risks of these arrangements than ever.

And most foolishly of all, Mr. Biden explicitly told the Europeans (and consequently the Asians) that, after the stormy Trump years, it was up to the United States “to earn back our position of trusted leadership.” That is, the kinds (long overdue) burden- and therefore risk-sharing criticisms made by the former President were completely illegitimate, and that whatever ailed the alliances resulted from Trump’s America First words and (much more modest) deeds, not from decades of allied risk- and burden-shirking.

Of course, Mr. Biden’s words were actual U.S. policy for decades before the Trump years. That’s why these arrangements became so dysfunctional from any sensible American standpoint in the first place. But by making this approach explicit, and giving the Europeans and Asians official license for their longstanding “heads we win, tails America loses” priorities, the President has not only gravely weakened his own country’s safety and prosperity. He’s destroyed whatever legitimate hopes ever existed that multilateralism and collective security could ever adequately serve any reasonable definition of American interests.

(What’s Left of) Our Economy: In Case You Still Doubt How Much Manufacturing Matters

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One of the most encouraging recent developments in American public policy lately is the virtual disappearance of the idea that manufacturing boasts no special importance to the American economy. I guess that’ll happen when a pandemic reveals dangerous shortages of key medical equipment (and the long supply chains needed to supply equally key parts, components, materials and the production equipment to make all of these items).

Ditto for the loss by a U.S.-based company (Intel) of the global lead in the knowhow to produce the world’s most powerful semiconductors – which run not only the world’s exploding numbers of electronics devices and networks, but soaring percentages of production machinery, as well as lying at the heart of nearly all present and future defense-related goods.

But I’m far from taking this triumph for granted – no doubt because this victory has been so recent, and because I’ve spent so much of my career making the case for government promotion of manufacturing against a free market-worshipping opposition that not only represented an entrenched conventional wisdom, but that could vastly out-spend and therefore practically drown out us “industrial policy” supporters.

And that’s why I was so pleased to see an article just out from the Japanese publication Nikkei Asia that dramatically illustrated how a robust national manufacturing base can supercharge an entire national economy and its workforce’s well-being.

Nikkei Asia described the effect on Taiwan of the new expansion programs being carried out by its world-class semiconductor manufacturing company TSMC (the firm that, along with South Korea’s Samsung, has taken the global microchip manufacturing technology lead from Intel). TSMC’s planned growth is dramatic, largely because the CCP Virus and its effects have created such surging demand for and consequent shortages of microchips. Blame (or credit) the booming popularity of semiconductor-powered electronic devices critical for increasingly popular stay-at-home work and leisure, and the on-and-off jolts generated by the pandemic for giant semiconductor-using industries like the automotive sector.

Compounding the impact, according to authors Cheng Ting-Fang and Laury Li, is the trend of “other Taiwanese companies…bringing production home from China amid Beijing-US trade tensions.”

And the results? “Business has never been brisker for construction companies in Taiwan….” Consequently, wages are way up for construction workers with both ordinary skill sets and specialized knowledge. But even though labor shortages are evident, Taiwan’s government shows no signs of killing this living standards bonanza by trying to open immigration flood gates.

As explained by a manager in the construction industry itself, “Foreign workers are not the ultimate solution as the government sets limits on their entry and many positions, such as electroplating specialists, require professional knowledge.”

Bottlenecks are already appearing and more are sure to come. But it also seems that Taiwan’s businesses will be solving the problem in the way that brings the greatest, most broadly shared national benefits – with technological and managerial innovation (i.e., by improving productivity) rather than by suppressing wages via artificially pumping up Taiwan’s labor supply.

At the same time, it’s not just workers that are in great demand on Taiwan. As the Nikkei Asia article specifies, “Cranes, trucks, excavators and all manner of heavy vehicles stream in and out of the vast construction site for” TSMC’s new advanced semiconductor factory in the city of Tainan. So the need for these machines is pressing, too – and thus for the workers and machinery needed to turn them out.

Is there a downside? Absolutely. Higher wages (and they’ve advanced throughout the economy) have driven major real estate and housing price increases (though the wage hikes indicate that affordability remains pretty much the same, and therefore bubble fears are unwarranted so far). And Taiwan’s water supplies and other infrastructure systems are under strain.

Overall, though, I’d bet on Taiwan to cope successfully with these and other actual and potential problems – which most other countries would actually love to have. And that’s precisely because, to a practically unrivalled extent, the country knows how much manufacturing matters. 

Full disclosure: I own some TSMC stock.  

 

(What’s Left of) Our Economy: Too Little China Realism Too Late from the U.S. Chamber

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The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has just released a report warning of the high costs of any efforts to decouple the American economy from China’s completely. That’s not especially big news: The Chamber has long campaigned for closer trade and investment ties with the People’s Republic, which until very recently have been clearcut boons to the bottom lines of the multinational companies that run this premier American business organization.

What is big news is that the Chamber hasn’t come out against decoupling as such. Far from it, and that’s noteworthy. But the report, and the China record of groups like Chamber, also reenforce the importance of asking and answering a big question about U.S. strategy toward this increasingly wealthy, powerful, and hostile Asian giant that American political leaders and news organizations keep energetically ducking.

First, though, the report’s overall conclusion deserves highlighting. According to principal author Daniel Rosen, an analyst with a consulting firm called the Rhodium Group, “U.S.-China engagement was always contingent on shared liberal economic goals. As Beijing diverges back toward greater state planning, a less permissive stance is necessary. But our self-interest lies in purposeful decoupling, not a gratuitous pulling apart. This study is a step toward re-sizing our engagement rationally.”

These points matter because despite the Chamber’s claim that it’s “long advocated for a balanced and rational approach to commercial relations with China,” especially when key decisions were being made, it’s consistently described the choices faced by Americans in the crudest either-or terms possible. As one of its members told a Congressional hearing in 2000, as the nation was debating the landmark question of whether to accept China’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO), “We have a simple choice to make. We can either embrace and profit from China as a trading partner, or stick our heads in the sand and hope they go away.”

Yet however welcome the Chamber’s new acknowledgement that greater Sino-American economic integration and trade, investment, and technology flows aren’t always net winners for the United States, it’s troubling that the study chose to focus on the economic downsides of “complete disengagement” and “full decoupling” from China. For any change of the kind is many years away at best, and no major voices have recommended that it be accomplished immediately.

Further, the report’s overarching assessment that “the costs of anything approaching ‘full’ decoupling are uncomfortably high” is torpedoed by an analytical framework that the Chamber itself admits is woefully deficient practically across-the-board.

For example, readers early on will learn that “because of the many variables at play, it is beyond the capacity of economics to deliver a precise answer regarding the costs of decoupling” and that the report’s “estimations are derived from economic models of ‘normal’ before the COVID-19 pandemic; the macroeconomic assumptions about future supply and demand that such models depend on must now be viewed with great skepticism.” The honesty is refreshing, but also casts doubt on the point of the entire exercise, as it’s a high-falutin’ way of saying “Garbage in, garbage out.”

A closely related flaw: Nowhere does the study look at the counterfactual – that is, the impact on the U.S. economy of maintaining the degree of decoupling that’s been achieved already, or of expanding it on the margins. This failure is especially serious since the Chamber itself agrees that decoupling has long been high Chinese priority – at least since 2006, when Beijing (formally) announced an “indigenous innovation” policy that (in the Chamber’s words) sought to “reduce reliance on foreign technology.”

The Chamber also admits that its analyses “explore only the economic welfare effects: they do not attempt to price in the costs or benefits to U.S. security, which is a critical factor in the rethink of engagement with China.” But enhancing national security in all of its dimensions – including the supply chain vulnerabilities highlighted by the pandemic in medical goods of all kinds, and by Intel’s loss of the global lead in semiconductor manufacturing knowhow in the information technology sector – is, as the authors write, “a critical factor in the rethink of engagement with China.”

No one with a brain in their head would insist that no economic costs will be incurred from significant decoupling. (And yes, in this vein, former President Trump was wrong to boast that when it comes to countries running big surpluses with the United States, “trade wars are” both “good and easy to win.”) It’s the nature of the tradeoffs that now most urgently needs careful examination.

These problems in turn lead to the big question mentioned above. Every American whether acting on their own or in groups has every right to participate in the China policy debate. But the supporters and opponents of ever greater engagement have been vying for decades now, and having been a leader of the former, the Chamber ranks prominently among the losers on the substance. Why, therefore, since the organization and its allies have been so behind the curve for so long, should their input deserve much credibility today?

Sure, as made clear by the Chamber report and the China policy shift seen throughout the mainstreams of the American business, political, and policy communities (at least rhetorically), some learning has taken place. But where’s the evidence that the engagers’ views and instincts are any on target and more valuable in this new environment than they were in years past, when they steered American policy so incompetently, and in fact largely created the current danger? The positions they back today might have worked had they been put into effect before China became such an economic, technological, and military force. But now that the damage has been done, why believe that they’ll suffice now?

At the least, the engagers should face the burden of explaining why their abysmal record over so many years still entitles them to a serious hearing. And it’s even more reasonable to assume that if the likes of the Chamber are backing limited decoupling nowadays, the best course for America is pursuing this goal even  more aggressively and comprehensively.

(What’s Left of) Our Economy: As Trump’s Tariffs Stay in Place, U.S. Manufacturing Output Keeps Surging

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It’s tough to describe this morning’s manufacturing production figures from the Federal Reserve (for January) as anything but excellent, and anything but another strong endorsement of the stiff, sweeping tariffs former President Trump imposed on goods, especially from China. By shielding industry from a flood of imports from the People’s Republic, these trade curbs have undoubtedly contributed to a manufacturing recovery that entered its ninth straight month in January, and brought its production to within a whisker of pre-CCP Virus levels.

Moreover, as noted last month, the sector’s prospects seem bright, since not only has the entire economy kept recovering as CCP Virus vaccination proceeds and accelerates, but the aerospace industry revives both from its Boeing safety-related woes and the pandemic-related travel slump, and vaccine production surges.

Domestic manufacturers’ real output rose by 1.04 percent sequentially, increases were broad-based, and revisions were strongly positive. Although December’s previously reported 0.95 percent growth was downgraded to 0.94 percent, November’s was revised up for the second straight time (from 0.83 percent to 1.10 percent), and October’s for a third straight time (from 1.34 percent to 1.51 percent).

Due to these revisions, despite the severely recessionary impact of the CCP Virus both at home and abroad, domestic manufacturing’s inflation-adjusted 2020 production decline now comes in at just 2.01 percent, rather than the 2.63 percent reported last month. In addition, price-adjusted manufacturing output has advanced by 24.11 percent since its April nadir, and is now a mere 0.75 percent below its last pre-pandemic level last February.

As encouraging as the January figures and revisions were was their breadth. In fact, for the second straight month, the constant dollar output improvement came despite a small (0.72 percent) sequential dip in the automotive sector, whose major ups and downs have heavily influenced overall manufacturing production results for much of the pandemic period.

One cautionary note: January monthly after-inflation output growth for the big machinery category – which turns out production equipment for the rest of manufacturing, and devices crucial for other major industries like construction and agriculture – was only 0.52 percent, just half that for the entire manufacturing sector. And revisions were mixed.

More encouraging: Machinery’s growth has been strong enough that its real output is now back to within 1.12 percent of its February pre-pandemic levels.

January also saw accelerating growth in aircraft and parts production. Monthly output in expanded by 2.89 percent in January, December’s strong initially reported 2.78 percent increase is now judged to have been 3.03 percent, and November’s has been upgraded from 2.39 percent to 2.50 percent.

In fact, recovery in these aerospace sectors has been so vigorous that their output is now 6.77 percent greater than their February pre-pandemic levels.

Probably reflecting the vaccine effect, price-adjusted production of pharmaceuticals and medicines increased by 2.42 percent on month in January – the best showing since July’s 2.57 percent. But revisions were mixed, and this vital sector’s real output is only 4.11 higher than in February, just before the pandemic struck the U.S. economy in full force. On the brighter side, immense vaccine demand makes clear that the industry’s upside is enormous for the time being.

As for medical equipment and supplies – including virus-fighting items like face masks,face masks, protective gowns, and ventilators – their production performance keeps lagging badly. Inflation-adjusted output for this category (which encompasses many other products as well) actually fell in January for the second straight month – and by 0.54 percent. In fact, constant dollar output in this sector is 2.18 percent lower than during the last pre-pandemic month of February, 2020.

Im-Politic: The Epidemic of Bogus CCP Virus Analyses Stays…Viral

We have another female Republican Governor now described in the Mainstream Media as queen of a death cult – Iowa’s Kim Reynolds. In coverage reminiscent of reporting on South Dakota’s Kristi Noem’s decision to adopt a relatively hands-off approach to CCP Virus-fighting in terms of business, personal behavior, and school restrictions, it was practically no time before Reynolds – whose virus strategy has been similar – started receiving the same treatment for her February 5 decision to lift a mask-wearing mandate she’d originally imposed on November 17.

As the headline in a November 10 Washington Post Outlook article exclaimed, “Welcome to Iowa, a state that doesn’t care if you live or die.” (See here and here for comparable coverage.)

But just as the charges against Noem were completely irresponsible because they lacked any meaningful context, the accusations faced by Reynolds fall apart for the same reasons once any effort is made to find genuine comparisons.

In the case of South Dakota, as explained in my December 9 post, its CCP virus record was awfully close to that of New Mexico, a demographically similar state (with somewhat warmer weather to boot) whose Democratic Governor’s strategy was much more restrictive. And just about the same conclusions emerge from a detailed comparison of Iowa and strikingly similar Nevada – also governed by a Democrat.

For example, the former’s population is estimated right now at 3.16 million, the latter’s, 3.19 million. The median Iowan is 38.2 years old, the median Nevadan 38. (See here.) The big demographic difference is in population density – Iowa is nearly twice as more crowded (57 people per square mile) than Nevada (29). So all else equal, the virus should have spread more slowly in Nevada. And another coronavirus-related advantage enjoyed by the Silver State: In November, when case numbers rose strongly in both states, its weather stayed considerably warmer for longer. 

(See this website and look up the figures for Des Moines and Las Vegas – where some 73 percent of Nevadans lived in 2019. (See here and here for Clark County and the entire state.) Des Moines is home to many fewer Iowans proportionately – just over 15 percent. (See here and here for Polk County and all of Iowa.) At the same time, it’s located in the middle of the state, so its weather would seem much more representative of Iowa’s as a whole than Las Vegas,’ which sits the southeastern-most corner of Nevada.)

There’s no question that Iowa’s virus-fighting efforts have been much less restrictions-heavy than Nevada’s. Indeed, according to an index compiled by Wallethub.com, between last April and last month, the former has gone from the 40th most restrictive state in terms of “prevention and containment” measures to the third least restrictive state overall. In April, Nevada was the 38th most restrictive state and by January had moved only to the middle of the pack.

But despite these major policy differences, the two otherwise decidedly similar states look decidedly alike in terms of virus infections and deaths patterns.

For instance, from February 29 (the starting date for the Washington Post virus tracker I’m using here) through November 17 (when Iowa’s Reynolds imposed her mask mandate after refraining from substantial restrictions until then), Iowa’s seven-day average (7DA) for cases rose from zero to 4,189. Nevada’s rose at less than half that rate (to just 1,641), but don’t forget – it’s population density is much lower, and most of its inhabitants lived in a significantly warmer region.

Since February 5, when Reynolds lifted Iowa’s mask mandate, through February 12 (a Friday, and therefore a day whose data is likely complete, at least for now), the 7DA for cases has dropped from 848 to 668. That’s a short time sample, but a noteworthy 21.23 percent fall-off.

It’s also very close to Nevada’s comparable 888 to 647 drop, even though that state’s masks are still supposed to be on.

The fatality figures tell an even more revealing story, especially taking into account Nevada’s lower population density and balmier temperatures. During that February 29 through November 17 period, Nevada’s 7DA daily virus death count rose from zero to 8. Iowa’s increase more than twice as fast (zero to 22), but again, it’s more densely populated and was colder.

But during the February 5-12 stretch, the Nevada 7DA daily death numbers declined from just 35 to 29, while Iowa’s are down from 70 to 22.

As should be obvious from this analysis, identifying terrific apples-to-apples comparisons between states is difficult. But anyone who can look at the Iowa and Nevada figures and find a clear-cut case that mask-wearing and other restrictions have stemmed the CCP Virus tide, and that more laissez-faire strategies are recipes for needless mass suffering, must be wearing a psychological or ideological mask.

Making News: New Article on the GOP’s Future Now On-Line

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I’m pleased to announce that my newest freelance article is on-line – an essay for The National Interest on the Republican party’s post-Trump and post-second-Trunp-impeachment future (and whether the former President is even likely to be left behind).

Here’s the piece, which I think you’ll find unusually interesting because of the poll results it describes about the demographic and ideological makeup of Trump voters last November. After all, they still comprise the vast bulk of Republicans. Please note: This is not a re-posting of a previous blog item. 

And keep checking in with RealityChek for news of upcoming media appearances and other developments.

Our So-Called Foreign Policy: Mr. President, U.S. Dealings with China are No Game

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For literally decades, American foreign policy makers, and especially the pre-Trump globalists, fell into the dangerous habit of obsessing about second-order questions (like whether the old Soviet Union was a fundamentally aggressive or defensively-oriented power, whether military force or diplomacy was the nation’s most effective foreign policy tool, whether unilateral or multilateral actions were most likely to succeed, and whether a more or less involvement in world affairs was preferable).

As a result, they typically neglected the paramount first-order questions: Principally, what overseas goals does the United States need to achieve to secure adequate levels of safety and well-being? In other words, which foreign objectives matter decisively for the United States in and of themselves, and which don’t? And those are first-order question because assessing others’ intentions is much more guesswork than science, and because no one can sensibly choose tools for a job without knowing what job they want to do.

(See this 1985 FOREIGN POLICY essay and this 1991 Atlantic Monthly article on the general failure of not only American leaders but of presumed foreign policy experts to think rigorously about national interests. See this 1991 New York Times piece about the hazards of divining intentions as opposed to capabilities. Apologies if the first two are no longer available for free on-line.)

Therefore, it’s awfully depressing to see the Biden administration staging its own version of backwards strategizing. It’s evidently determined to base its China policy on figuring out what kind of relationship it wants with the People’s Republic, and paying much less attention to identifying specific actions the United States wants China to take, stop, and refrain from in the first place.

The Biden approach is completely mistaken for two main reasons. First, whenever relationships are pursued regardless of their impact on particular, concrete interests, these national needs and wants inevitably become subordinated to atmospherics and abstractions and processes – a decidedly unpromising recipe for national success.

Second, the particular relationship on which President Biden and his top aides are focusing – one marked by competition – is so intrinsically ambivalent (especially in the realm of world affairs) that its much likelier to confuse than to provide useful policy guidance. In addition, competition is a concept that evokes the playing field, where both victory and defeat have ultimately trivial consequences, rather than the fundamentally anarchic and much more dangerous international landscape. Consequently, its use tends to downplay even stakes otherwise defined more threateningly.

These obstacles to clear foreign policy thinking and numerous others all rear their heads in statements the new President and his leading advisers have made during the campaign and transition, and since Inauguration Day.

For instance, Jake Sullivan and Kurt M. Campbell, who have become, respectively, Mr. Biden’s White House national security adviser and National Security Council “czar” for the Asia-Pacific region, perceptively noted in a prominent 2019 article that terms used by the Trump administration like “strategic competition,” unless elaborated on, can’t help but connote uncertainty about what that competition is over and what it means to win.”

They did write of the need to decide what “kinds of interests the United States wants to secure.” And they do dance around some specific objectives, like maintaining unimpeded navigation in Asia-Pacific (or, to use a term more expanive and popular lately because it includes India – “Indo-Pacific”) waters, and preventing China from taking over Taiwan, and safeguarding America’s global technology leadership. 

But the authors also drone on and on about achieving a state of coexistence that “would involve elements of competition and cooperation, with the United States’ competitive efforts geared toward securing those favorable terms” (but never absolutely committed to securing them); and about “accepting competition as a condition to be managed rather than a problem to be solved”; and about how the Chinese competitive challenge differs from its Cold War-era Soviet counterpart; and about how China has become an “essential partner” as well as a formidable competitor with the United States because of the appearance of shared global dangers like climate change and pandemics; and about an “emerging” global contest of social and economic models; and about how to “get the balance between competition and cooperation right.” Indeed, the piece is titled “Competition Without Catastrophe.”

In addition, last year, new Secretary of State Antony Blinken took pains in a lengthy interview to emphasize that although “we are in competition with China,” there’s “nothing wrong with competition if it’s fair” That point is entirely valid in the context of a sporting event, a spelling bee, or other forms of competition with relatively trivial consequences.

At best, however, it’s deeply puzzling when dealing with decisions that can bring either great benefit or harm to an entire nation, and that can create major risks and require massive expenditures of national blood and treasure. In cases where winning and losing matter considerably and even vitally, it should be obvious, that prevailing or figuring out how to cope with defeat are worth the candle. Yet if and when it’s the fairness of the outcome that matters most rather than the outcome itself, why bother competing at all? Worse, these efforts can produce inexcusable wastes of resources that will surely be invaluable in the more important situations sure to come somewhere down the line.

In one instance reminiscent of the Cold War thinking they generally criticize in the China context, Campbell and Sullivan write that winning that competition of social and economic models with Beijing counts significantly because the United States (in unspecified ways to be sure) will be much better off in a world mainly made up of free market democracies than in one dominated by countries that try to emulate China’s totalitarianism.

Their point is fortified by the leading role advanced surveillance systems play in China, which additionally means that the United States must stay ahead in these fields both in order to ensure military superiority when push comes to shove, and to defend itself against Chinese cyber-aggression. Moreover, intuition and common decency lead all Americans to root for the widest possible global triumph of political and economic freedom (realizing of course that the latter can be defined in many different ways).

Even here, though, the framing U.S. strategy as a competition with China can complicate as many choices as it clarifies. For example, a defining principle of Biden foreign policy is that, in the President’s words, “America’s alliances are our greatest asset” in world affairs. Yet if so, then the new administration, as with its Cold War predecessors, will need to recognize that many of its current and desired partners won’t be either political or economic democracies or even close (in Asia, Communist-ruled Vietnam and the quasi-at-best democracies of Thailand and the Philippines come to mind), and that today’s genuine democracies often feel free – as during the Cold War – to ignore or actually undermine U.S. interests (like Germany nowadays regarding both China and Russia).

Finally, it’s all too easy to conclude that the Biden-ites’ focus on second-order questions first and foremost represents a series of word games aimed at masking their inability or unwillingness to identify first-order issues. Take the President’s insistence that he’ll carry out an “extreme competition” with China. Even leaving aside that he immediately proceeded to trivialize the term by declaring that his approach will differ from Donald Trump’s by focusing on “international rules of the road” (another second-order priority), what exactly will be “extreme”? And how does his definition of extreme competition compare with the other varieties of competition detailed by Sullivan and Campbell?

Similarly, Blinken has just ventured that the U.S. relationship with China entails “adversarial,” “competitive,” and “cooperative” aspects. The last category is no mystery. But what’s the difference between the first and the second? Does the first refer to American interests that must be advanced or defended at all costs and risks, or at least major costs and risks? Does the second refer to those situations and interactions where fairness is overriding? 

Sullivan and Blinken in particular admit that they used to belong to the dangerously naive China engagement mainstream of the U.S. foreign and economic policy communities.  But until they, their colleagues, and the President stop talking about the China challenge as if it was a game, ample doubt will be justified as to whether they’ve yet become China realists.