I’m pleased to announce that the video is now on-line of my interview yesterday on CNBC on President Trump’s new announced tariffs on imports from China. Click here to see it.
As is usually the case, though, the segment was way too short to deal with all the aspects and angles of this decision that deserve attention. So here’s some material I prepared for the segment producer at her request the night before the broadcast. Sharp-eyed RealityChek regulars will find some of these points familiar, but to me, that just goes to show that many of the questions that have surrounded Mr. Trump’s trade policies since his inauguration remain either completely unanswered, or largely unanswered – as do many of the potential pluses and minuses. These talking points are as follows:
“1. Although the White House may announce the tariff list tomorrow, it remains far from certain that all, or any, of them will actually be imposed. The Section 301 law providing their statutory basis permits the U.S. Trade Rep’s office 30 days to put them in place after the order formally appears in the Federal Register. In addition, the President could delay the duties up to 180 more days (i.e., after the midterm elections) if he determines that significant progress is being made in trade talks with China, or that the delay would encourage such progress.
“2. Less formally, these windows could enable the President to delay the tariffs’ imposition in order to encourage China to remain cooperative on the North Korea crisis. Mr. Trump has most recently declared his determination to go ahead with the tariffs despite acknowledging China’s help vis-a-vis Kim Jong Un, but at times in the past, he’s linked decisions to ease up or postpone such tariff decisions because of China’s purportedly cooperative attitude. And on a related issue, just before his summit with Kim, he explicitly called his decision to lift the “death penalty” on China telecoms firm ZTE a favor to Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
“3. I personally believe that any linkage between China trade policy and North Korea policy would be a serious mistake, as it assumes that Beijing is helping the United States defuse tensions on the peninsula as an act of charity, rather than a course of action that is squarely in China’s interest. As a result, linkage could reward China for taking steps it would have taken anyway.
“4. The President deserves major credit for recognizing that diplomacy and engagement alone have not sufficed to stem the economic and national security threats presented by China’s wide array of predatory trade and investment policies, exemplified most recently by its Made in China 2025 programs.
“5. In particular, Mr. Trump has recognized that U.S. allies are simply not serious about making significant contributions to a multilateral effort to combat China’s trade and broader economic predation. Similarly, he understands that the WTO is completely inadequate to this task, and that unilateral American action has long been essential.
“6. But his policies can be faulted in several respects.
“a. Some of his China-related goals seem flatly contradictory. Chiefly, the President says he wants to reduce the massive bilateral trade deficit America runs with China. But he also wants China to reduce its recent harassment of U.S. and other foreign companies and make it easier for them to do business in China. If the Chinese agree on the latter, much of the increased American (and other) corporate investment in China will wind up producing goods for export to the United States, thereby increasing the deficit.
“b. Tariffs on imports from China, all else equal, could well reduce the bilateral trade imbalance – especially if China opens its markets wider to U.S. exports, too. But the impact could be limited because shipments from other countries are likely to fill the gap to some extent.
“c. In addition, Mr. Trump should be paying more attention to the makeup of the trade deficit. In this regard, he has (erroneously) indicated that he would satisfied to see stepped up American exports of farm and energy products to accomplish much and even most of the deficit-reduction goal. But it’s much more important to narrow the gap in high value manufacturing industries, which make a much greater contribution to the American economy.
“d. The President is going to remain under attack on the tariff front from industries and sectors of the economy that might suffer losses, and these criticisms could well undercut GOP candidates in the upcoming midterm elections. He will also be criticized for taking measures the increase consumer prices. He could have preempted many of these criticisms in two main ways:
“First, earlier in his term, he should have strongly backed the border adjustment tax contained in the original Republican tax bill. This measure would have in effect both imposed a 20 percent tariff on imports and given a 20 percent subsidy to American exports. And since it would have been across-the-board, it would have provided protection and subsidies for both producers of finished goods (e.g., steel- and aluminum-using industries), and of the inputs for these finished goods.
“Second, he should be doing a much better job of persuading the American people that any change as disruptive as the new trade policies he’s begun to put into effect are bound to entail some short-term costs and sacrifices, but that the long-term benefits are well worth the candle. Tweets are not nearly enough. He needs a full-court PR press – Oval Office speeches, rallies, town hall meetings, the works.”
Another important point I wasn’t able to make: It’s true that, as the anchors and the other guest maintained, most economists think that trade deficits don’t matter to the health of a national economy. But as explained in the post linked here, this claim dangerously overlooks how trade deficits, and especially their increase, inevitably worsen the quality of the economy’s growth and makeup, and weaken the foundations of sustainable prosperity.