Trump has just walked back his threatened new tariffs on China again, this time supposedly to spare customers for Christmas toys and electronic products made in China. Retailers will be ordering these products over the next few months.
The 10 percent tariffs on $300 billion worth of Chinese products were set to take effect September 1. That has now been moved back to December 15. The Dow promptly soared by several hundred points. Merry Christmas, Beijing.
The action came after a round of consultations between Trump’s top trade officials, chief negotiator Robert Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, and their Chinese counterparts. Once again, the negotiators will have some more time—to spin their wheels yet again.
These discussions are plainly going nowhere—and time is on the side of the Chinese. Trump’s vaunted toughness with China is mainly bluster, and he looks weaker every time he reverses his latest impulsive move.
It’s a pity that so many commentators keep getting this wrong. In a long explainer piece in The New York Times, staff writer Ana Swanson contended that Trump’s trade policies were putting Democrats in a tough spot.
On one side are Democratic lawmakers and presidential candidates who hew more closely to Mr. Trump’s isolationist approach, arguing that trade pacts have sold out workers in favor of corporations. On the other are those advocating the type of engagement undertaken by previous Democratic administrations, including those of Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, to try to gain more influence over other countries through negotiation and trade.
Copying Trump’s isolationist approach? For writers like this, the world is binary. You are either a good free-trader or a bad protectionist. But the world is rather more complex.
In fact, Democrats such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who have argued for a tougher trade stance, are anything but “isolationist.” Their point is that China’s mercantilist policies have gamed the system at the expense of American producers and workers. They want the United States to become a manufacturing powerhouse once again.
This will take a lot more than tariffs. It will take coherent industrial policies, something that Trump has shunned. Far from being isolationist a la Trump, an effective set of policies to produce a more symmetrical trading system will require collaboration with other trading nations.
In the short run, Trump’s trade war with China has reduced America’s trade deficit with Beijing, as China’s exports to the U.S. fall and as American producers look for other sources of supply. But unless we get serious about our own manufacturing, those gains can’t last.
Data from the Reshoring Initiative showed a gain of just 45,000 domestic manufacturing jobs as a result of Trump’s tariffs. It’s clear that tariffs alone produce only minimal gains, which are offset by the loss of jobs in export industries.
Thus far, Trump’s trade policy is a triple loser. The longer his stop-and-start threats persist, the more time China has to position itself as a world economic leader that needs the U.S. less and less, and the more America’s bargaining leverage dwindles.
As trade conflict for its own sake escalates, Trump’s strong economy is at risk of weakening, going into an election year. And blue-collar workers, supposedly the beneficiaries of his policies, gain almost nothing.
Trump and his Wall Street Republican allies continue to be on both sides of this issue. Legislation is now pending in House-Senate conference that would ban Chinese state-directed companies from building bus or rail cars for U.S. transit systems. Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy opposes the bill.
There is in fact a huge difference in the trade policies of Trump and his Democratic critics. The main difference is that the approach of Democrats like Elizabeth Warren would actually benefit American workers and U.S.-based industries.