In theory, once can always be dismissed as a gaffe (even President Biden isn’t the speaker) or a trial balloon motivated by genuine uncertainty and curiosity. Twice, especially within two days, looks an awful lot like the preview of a policy change. Which is why recent remarks by two senior Biden administration officials last week are so worrisome. If that’s the game they’re playing, then the President is planning what could be major cuts in the Trump tariffs on China – without requiring any meaningful concessions from China in return. Even worse, the rationale being advanced – reducing inflation — is completely bogus.
This potential tariff-cutting spadework began last Thursday, when deputy White House national security advisor Daleep Singh told a conclave of globalist poohbahs that tariffs could advance U.S. [in the words of Reuters reporter Andrea Shalal “strategic priorities such as strengthening critical supply chains and maintaining U.S. preeminence in foundational technologies and to support national security.”
But, he added (in his words) “For product categories that are not implicated by those objectives, there’s not much of a case for those tariffs being in place. Why do we have tariffs on bicycles or apparel or underwear?”
“So that’s the opportunity,” he continued. “It could be that in this moment of elevated inflation and China having its own very serious supply chain concerns … maybe there’s something we can do there.” Singh also suggested that eliminating such U.S. tariffs could prompt China to cut duties on comparable American products, though he didn’t establish such Chinese moves as a condition.
The very next day, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said on Bloomberg Television that “We’re re-examining carefully our trade strategy with respect to China” and that removing the tariffs is “worth considering. We certainly want to do what we can to address inflation, and there would be some desirable effects. It’s something we’re looking at.”
One immediate problem with Yellen’s position is that she herself has belittled it. As recently as last December, she testified to Congress that cuts in so-called non-strategic tariffs would not be an inflation “game-changer.”
In addition, although Yellen might be excused for not recognizing a major strategic benefit that the China tariffs could create, to the second in command in President Biden’s National Security Council – which is supposed to look at the nation’s global opportunities and challenges holistically – they should be obvious. Specifically, these kinds of labor-intensive consumer goods are exactly the kinds of products that could create the kinds of vital economic opportunities in Mexico and Central America that could many of the incentives for mass emigration.
Indeed, as I’ve written, pre-Trump presidents’ short-sighted decision to pursue trade liberalization with virtually all low-income countries guaranteed that the gains that could have flowed to U.S. neighbors via the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) would shift instead to China and the other more competitive economies of East Asia. Just something to keep in mind the next time the Biden administration claims it’s serious about solving the “root causes” of mass migration in this hemisphere.
As for the inflation angle, Singh and Yellen have some big questions to answer. First of all, all sports vehicles (the category in which the U.S. Labor Department includes bicycles when it breaks down the contributions made to rising prices by different types of goods and services) comprise about 0.4 percent of the core Consumer Price Index (CPI) and apparel makes up about 3.2 percent. So it is indeed difficult to understand how stemming price rises of these products could be an inflation game-changer, as Yellen observed. (See here for the official CPI breakdown.)
Second, and at least as important, announced tariffs on some Chinese bicycles and bike products had already been suspended for much of the Trump China trade war period. For the rest of imports from China in this grouping, the 25 percent tariff remained unchaged. Yet annual inflation in the sports vehicles category has ranged from 4.8 percent in February, 2021 (President Biden’s first full month in office) to 10.52 percent this past January. Why such dramatic price fluctuation and big net increase over time?
As for U.S. apparel imports, products from China represented just about a quarter of the U.S. global total last year – so it would seem that these goods represented just about a quarter of the total apparel contribution to the CPI (or about 0.80 percent). And the Trump trade war levies cover just a tiny share of these imports, according to this industry source. Even so, however, annual apparel inflation rates have fluctuated even more dramatically than those for the bicycle category during the Biden presidency. They’ve ranged from -3.72 percent in February, 2021 to 6.79 percent last month (the latest available figures).
The only possible explanation for these trends: As with the rest of the economy, apparel and bicycle prices have been determined ovewhelmingly by forces other than tariffs – principally the status of the CCP Virus pandemic and of the overall economic growth and consumption rates it’s so powerfully influenced; the injection of trillions of dollars worth of stimulus injected into the economy by the administration, the Congress, and the Federal Reserve; the supply chain snags that have caused shortages and therefore boosted prices of practically everything that needs to be transported; and the energy price rises that have generated the same kinds of effects. In other words, it’s the supply and demand, stupid.
And speaking of stupid, that adjective doesn’t begin to describe the politics of this seemingly impending Biden move. In an election year, does the President really want to expose himself to charges of being soft on China? Especially since evidence keeps emerging of his son Hunter’s lucrative business dealings with Chinese interests – which have clearly feathered the nests of the entire Biden family, including the President’s?
Even though, as I’ve pointed out, Mr. Biden has been a China coddler for his entire career in Washington, I was convinced that the American public’s mounting fear and loathing of the Beijing dictatorship would keep persuading him to follow the basic Trump approach to China trade. Indeed, his chief trade advisor implicitly endorsed this Trump strategy less than a month ago and indicated it would shape Biden administration polic going forward.
The President can still stop this initiative in its tracks. But if he doesn’t, he’ll have only himself to blame when his political opponents ramp up their charges that he’s in Beijing’s pocket after all, and that his early China hawkishness meant that the payoff from his election, far from being off the table, was merely being delayed.