Based on these and other related facts — tariffs could end up costing consumers $1,000 per year — I’ve long argued that the trade war is all pain, no gain. But I’ve gotten pushback, mostly from business leaders, and especially from those who have tried to do business in China. Their argument is that somebody needed to get tough on China, and that Trump is doing the country a service that former leaders failed to pursue. Moreover, he’s doing so at his own political expense. Sure, there’s short-term pain, but in the long run, he’s going to force China to play fair with U.S. multinationals that want to locate there, but not under current terms that include technology transfers, investment restrictions and endless non-tariff barriers like taking years to provide operating licenses to U.S. businesses.
JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, for example, argued in April that Trump was “absolutely” right to face off against China, even if he wasn’t “in favor of the tariffs.” “We’re better off dealing with it now, whatever that means for the economy,” Dimon said. Former Goldman Sachs chief executive Lloyd Blankfein tweeted that “Tariffs might be an effective negotiating tool. Saying it hurts us misses the point,” that point being that since China has more to lose than we do in a trade war (we import far more from them than they do from us), the ultimate benefits of forcing them to play more fairly with U.S. companies will outweigh the near-term costs. As Amber Phillips reports in The Washington Post, Republicans supporting the president’s trade war say it’s “… just the price to pay in this long game so that we can achieve a better trading partnership with China.”
“Standing up to” and “getting tough on” China also consistently poll well, even among people who agree that the trade war is a burden for consumers. As reported in the Hill, pollster Mark Penn said that “President Trump has the strong support of the American public when it comes to standing up to China. They realize that the tariffs may have negative impacts on jobs and prices, but they believe the fight here is the right one.” This dynamic creates a real challenge for Democratic candidates for president who want to distance themselves from Trump’s trade policy but not appear soft on China.
That whole way of looking at the issue is misguided.
What is the administration’s goal with the trade war? What would victory look like? In fact, there are two goals: one maintained by Trump, and the other by his negotiators.
Trump’s goal is import substitution — making things here that we currently make elsewhere — with the goal of achieving balanced trade. In July, he tweeted that tariffs are “a powerful way to get companies to come to the USA and to get companies that have left us for other lands to COME BACK HOME.”
I believe he’s wrong about this, at least not without far more drastic measures lasting far longer than is realistic, even in Trumpland. Our economy is simply too interconnected to that of our trading partners to realistically achieve more than a tiny margin of import substitution. Observe how U.S. firms leaving China aren’t coming home; they’re looking for new overseas platforms to relocate their supply chains, mostly other places in Southeast Asia.
The other goal, the main one sought by our trade negotiators, is to get China to stop the practices that make life hard for U.S. multinationals — the tech transfers, cybertheft, investment and licensing restrictions. I’m skeptical, but they’ve got a better chance of meeting this goal than the import substitution one.
But suppose the negotiators succeed. Whom, precisely, does this help? Getting China to be more welcoming to U.S. multinational corporations would increase, not decrease, the incentives for U.S. companies to offshore more production and jobs (note also how goal 2 contradicts goal 1). Protecting intellectual property, allowing more foreign investment and breaking down restrictions that hassle U.S. companies that have relocated or want to do so, will surely boost their bottom lines. It will lower the costs of doing business abroad. But none of that helps American workers in “tradable” sectors, i.e., those who face pressure from offshoring and import competition. To the contrary; it hurts them.
We should have long since disabused ourselves of the assumption that what’s good for multinational offshorers is good for domestic U.S. workers. Yet that sentiment is implicit in the view that the short-term pain will deliver long-term gains. It might do so, but for whom? From where I sit, it looks a lot friendlier to profits than wages.
That’s not necessarily a terrible outcome. Contrary to the tone of some Democratic candidates, I don’t believe corporate profits are evil or definitionally problematic. And the more robust global supply chains that exist out there, the better.
Corporate profits have long outpaced wages, though. And the fact that we’ve run economically significant trade deficits in manufactured goods for over 40 years has done lasting damage to many people and places across the land. For working Americans, I see no advantages to a trade war that, if it succeeds, threatens to exacerbate that damage.
Don’t get me wrong regarding China: While I worry less than the average economist about their trade practices, I would put much more energy into exposing and condemning their human rights abuses. I wouldn’t bother complaining about legitimate aspects of their economic model to which we object, like state-owned firms. In fact, the best solution to the China problem is to beat them at their own game — to look around the next corner and try to capture global market share in areas where demand will be strong, such as green technology, clean energy storage and battery technology.
But if you’re someone who depends on your paycheck vs. your stock portfolio, be careful what you wish for when it comes to victory in the trade war. Just keep asking yourself the key question: Whose victory are we talking about?