Now it’s a “trade war.” By slapping tariffs on $200 billion worth of imports from China, President Trump has now placed in harm’s way roughly half of all last year’s American purchases of goods from the PRC. So I’ll stop using quotes around the phrase, at least when it comes to China developments. And here are some points that deserve special emphasis:
>For many of the same reasons that the new tariffs on China or on steel haven’t shown any sign of increasing prices for the intermediate (or producer) goods that businesses buy (the focus of previous tranches, and of the Trump metals tariffs), this larger set of tariffs on consumer goods are unlikely to cause much pain for American shoppers.
As I’ve written, if businesses don’t believe that their markets can currently bear price increases, what it is about the tariffs that will change their assessment – especially in the next few weeks and even months? Put differently, if they’re likely to raise prices then, why haven’t they done so already? Are they really in the habit of giving their customers unsolicited and unnecessary price breaks at the expense of their revenues and profits?
In this vein, President Trump’s decision to exempt some prominent Apple products from the new levies suggests he’s been snookered by the tech giant – for fear of spoiling too many Americans’ Christmases. In fact, here’s an article that makes clear that Apple’s pricing policies have virtually nothing to do with the cost of the components it uses.
Of course, it seems logical to suppose that if consumer products companies won’t be raising their prices much because of the tariffs, then the supplier of those products – China – won’t be harmed either, because sales levels will remain generally unchanged. But actually, the tariffs will accomplish a somewhat related but highly worthwhile goal (that is, if you believe that China’s predatory trade practices pose a major problem for the American economy): They’ll make China a higher cost, and therefore less competitive supplier of these products.
As a result, the American companies they depend on will have further incentives to shift supply chains outside China. For most consumer goods, which are labor intensive, nearly all of the beneficiaries won’t be domestic U.S. competitors and their workers. Instead, they’ll be other very low-cost countries with natural comparative advantages in these industries.
But this result will definitely weaken employment in China and possibly the PRC’s politics – whose stability has long depended on the ability of China’s leaders to deliver rising living standards for a critical mass of China’s population. Both developments would unmistakably serve U.S. interests.
Electronics – both consumer and “higher tech” – look like a conspicuous exception, due to the sheer size of China’s industrial complex in these sectors and the scale advantages alone that they create. Few acceptable alternative production sites will be available for many years. Nonetheless, there’s much more potential for production and job shifts back to the United States for the large number of non-electronics advanced manufacturing industries where domestic American producers would boast considerable competitive advantage – especially if they didn’t need to worry about predatory Chinese competition.
>The President’s decision to limit the tariff on the new group of targeted Chinese products to ten percent (at least initially) strongly indicates his awareness that his trade policies could well provoke even greater opposition than has been expressed already. In other words, despite his professed confidence, trade wars aren’t always “easy to win.” But he needs to do much more to generate and even preserve needed public support. Specifically, Mr. Trump needs to make an address – or even a series of addresses – from the Oval Office, with all its trappings, explaining why the stakes of America’s economic conflict with China are so high, and therefore why some domestic sacrifice will be absolutely essential.
The President has spoken about the need for tariffs at numerous rallies and brief sessions with reporters. But his main points – that the Chinese have been ripping Americans off for decades, that basic fairness must be restored, and even that success will mean investment and jobs flooding back to U.S. shores – are sadly inadequate to the task. As widely observed, at risk from continued China policy failures are the nation’s security and future as global technology leader – which will undercut future U.S. prosperity in ways that dwarf even the employment and production damage suffered so far.
That such an address hasn’t been made – and by such an effective communicator – could be a sign that an overarching China strategy still hasn’t been developed. And although Mr. Trump’s initiatives so far show every sign of throwing Beijing off balance, they’ll fall way short of their (needed) potential unless carried out as part of an integrated strategy.
>My own candidate for such a strategy – economic disengagement from China. The main reasons?
First, the clearest lesson from decades of generally unfettered U.S.-China trade and investment is that the two countries’ economic systems are simply too incompatible to permit mutually beneficial commerce.
Second, as I’ve written, even full Chinese agreement to most American demands can’t be adequately verified by Washington. China’s manufacturing complex is too vast, and its government operates too secretively. In this vein, in particular, subsidies are way too fungible for outsiders to track.
Third, most forms of continued economic engagement with China will inevitably continue to strengthen directly or indirectly China’s ability to challenge U.S. national security interests. In macroeconomic terms, continuing huge Chinese trade surpluses with the United States will keep ensuring that Beijing will have the resources needed to continue its rapid military buildup while satisfying civilian needs satisfactorily. In more sector-specific terms, continued American manufacturing investment will continue bolstering China’s ability to turn out the advanced weapons and other defense-related goods to enable Beijing to narrow further America’s remaining military and underlying technology edges. (That’s one reason why the administration’s stated objective of making China an easier environment for American business is so dubious.)
The Trump administration has made good disengagement progress on the inbound foreign direct investment front. But even here, much more can and should be done. For how can any acquisitions of American businesses or other assets by a non-market economy like China reinforce the free market basis of the U.S. economy? Indeed, how can such transactions help but distort and ultimately weaken American capitalism?
But let’s end on an optimistic note: Assuming Fear, Bob Woodward’s new tell-all book about the Trump administration, is accurate, there’s no more Gary Cohn running around the White House taking advantage of his position as head of the National Economic Council to snatch needed proposals like these from the President’s desk.