For Sanity on China

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What are our stated objectives with China?

  • We want to bring them into the world economic system on appropriate terms of fair play.
  • We want access to their markets according to those rules of fair play.
  • We want protection for our businesses and workers, also according to those rules of fair play.

Those are perfectly normal and achievable objectives.  We can be specific about how to get there, and the probability of success is high.

What are our actual objectives in the trade war?

Trump has been clear about this in both words and deeds.  Our trade war is to assure that China will never be able to challenge our technological, economic, and military dominance.

Those are not the same as the stated objectives (although the press seems confused about the difference).  They are objectives for a real war.  And if you’re going to fight a real war—with bullets or with tariffs—you had better be sure you’re going to win, or the results won’t be pretty.

Problem #1:  We don’t run the world.  We are 18% or Chinese exports, same as the EU.  We’ve gone out of the way not to have an alliance with the EU on this issue.  (It’s worth noting that the EU already has a far lower balance of payments deficit with China than we do.)  The Chinese domestic economy is already larger than ours.  We can inflict pain, but we can’t put them out of business.

Problem #2:  China’s technological and military strength is not just because they’re stealing from us.  That genie is already out of the bottle, and it is an imperialist delusion to believe we can keep them poor and dumb.

Problem #3:  We’ve converted an issue of international good behavior into a matter of domination.  Without boots on the ground there’s no way in hell we’re going to enforce an agreement of subjugation.  (The distinction is not a gray area—we’re either thinking about rules we’d be willing to apply to ourselves or not.)

What’s going to happen?

The Chinese will go build their (very large) part of the world without us.   We will have no effective access to their markets or their technology (already today technology is a two-way street).  We’ll be back in a cold war with all that entails in risk, mutual hostility, military spending, and stunted world growth.

What should we do?

  1. The first step is to cool the chest-beating jingoism. (China is in fact a mixed bag for the US economy.) That way we can at least recognize the difference between the two types of objectives.  It’s the only way to behave rationally.
  2. If what we want is a correct and viable world order, then that means we need an alliance supporting our view. Ultimately this should end up in the WTO, but a first step is to codify what we want and assemble wide support.  That will add both carrot and stick to achieve our objectives.  The Business Roundtable of corporate CEO’s was explicit about this from the beginning.
  3. History shows that the best way to avoid war is mutual commerce. That means establishing rules we can all abide by.
  4. If we’re worried that the Chinese are going to take over anyway, then the best thing to do is to recognize and play to our strengths. Overall the odds are well in our favor.   The fact is that we’ve been here before.  Not so many years ago the perceived technology threat was Japan.  In China, Xi’s thirst for control makes him an enemy of what made for China’s success.

History is full of disastrous, inconclusive wars that no one wins.  Trade wars too.  We’re not so weak that we have to blunder our way into this one.

Software

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This note is a follow-on the previous item about prosperity.  Software was mentioned there, but it deserves its own focus.

There isn’t enough discussion of software businesses.   That’s an important gap, because it lets people fantasize away the changes that are taking place in employment.  Without that discussion we can blame just about anything on globalization, and then believe tariffs will fix it.  Or we can talk about automation, and still think about unions and incremental retraining as the answer.  But that’s wishful thinking.

Software businesses are different.  There is essentially nobody doing production, so there is essentially no incremental cost of production.  Product cost is research and development.  As we noted before that tends toward monopoly businesses that are hard to tax and regulate.

We also mentioned the effect on employment.  It’s not that these companies don’t hire people.  Apple and Google are getting up toward 100,000 people.  But the vast majority of the jobs, well beyond development, require a high degree of technical sophistication.   Even sales and low-level support must deal with the technical sophistication of the products.  In a company like Amazon, with close to 600,000 people, there is a rigid distinction between the sophistication of the good jobs in headquarters versus the hordes of people filling boxes.  Our current technology leaders are all software companies, with all that entails.

But they’re not the only ones.  Globalization and automation are essentially equivalent ways of dealing with non-core functions.  More and more companies can think of themselves as software companies, designing products that can be produced either by machines or some arms-length operation that might just as well be.  In this it is important to recognize that outsourcing is itself a technology area.  Growth in outsourcing reflects how much easier and more reliable it has become. Production becomes machine-like.  That trend is not going away.

There are several types of conclusions to be drawn here.

–  For businesses, the real money is to be made in staying on top of the heap.  That’s the software model.  It will continue to be the direction of business focus, and with it profit margins have proved substantial.

– For employment it means that we have to be realistic about where good jobs are going to be.  There are two types:

  1. There will be technically sophisticated jobs of many sorts. But all will require a sophisticated educational background. We cannot stint on education.
  2. There will be jobs that can’t be easily outsourced or automated. These can be significant in number, but not necessarily in traditional areas. Example areas are human interactions, such as healthcare, daycare, or personal services.  There is also infrastructure, which is largely outside of controlled, automatable environments and not easily moved offsite.  Much of this work will require government intervention to get done.

– We can’t expect things to just work out.   Full employment is not going to produce good jobs for everyone.   We are supposedly living in economic heaven—lowest unemployment in years—but wages still have grown only barely beyond inflation.  And in that, things are far worse at the bottom than at the top of the income scale.  Unions should be strengthened, but they can only do so much about technology (both automation and outsourcing).  And tariffs always sound good, but they are extremely expensive ways to create jobs and historically do more harm than good.

 

In this world, if we want to avoid a declining two-tiered society of haves and have-nots, we have to recognize the role of government—not just to protect people but for national success.

– We have to do better than the current hodge-podge support of education and infrastructure.  Both are critical to the good jobs of the future.  Both require government commitment.

– We have to produce a system of taxation and corporate governance that supports business success without starving that environment that feeds it.  As Apple (among many others) has shown, software profits can be moved anywhere to avoid taxes.  The latest tax changes have actually that easier.

– There are serious problems that are simply outside the scope of the private sector to fix.  The most obvious example is climate change, where we are not only ignoring not only the threat but also the business opportunities it presents.

– We have to understand roles for people in making it happen.

This isn’t actually radical.  It’s closer to the economy we had in the 1950’s and 60’s, when government supported education and research, and businesses reinvested earnings.  We just have to stop believing in good fairies.  There are no miracles solutions delivered by the private sector or anyone else.  We collectively have to provide the environment for both business success and the well-being of the population.

That is a big job, and we’d better start planning for it.  Heaven only helps those who help themselves.

Let’s Just Do Immigration

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Now that Trump has decided that the target for the total number of immigrants is unchanged, why don’t we just fix immigration:

  • Family unification is a good thing, but it has taken too much of the total, now 70%.
  • It’s sensible that some fraction of immigrants should get in based on special capabilities or other demonstrable merit.  (It’s worth noting that the current system is actually not so bad in that respect.)
  • It’s also sensible to have some fraction of immigration that is not so constrained.  You never know who’s going to be a hero, and diversity has value.  Moreover past immigrants mostly came from places where they were denied opportunities for such merit.  So a lottery system has value too.

As a default, divide it up 1/3 for each and call it even.  Otherwise negotiate the limits for a while and then call it done.  (As an interesting variant, Canada handles family unification with relationship points in the merit index.)

Additionally:

  • We need to settle DACA once and for all, because there is no value to anyone in not doing it.  Since we’re talking about merit, these are upstanding, fully-adapted, English-speaking contributors.  And their number, compared to Trump’s new annual totals, is on the order of 1%.
  • For the rest of currently undocumented immigrants, we had a bipartisan bill passed by the Senate in 2013.  That can still be a basis for work.  These people are almost all working and paying taxes.

This isn’t so hard.   It only takes the will to do it.

There remains the question of enforcement.  For that, the problem is that we’ve been postulating solutions without any serious analysis.   Politicians shouldn’t be arguing about this.  (Border control was never wild about the wall until they were told they”d better be.)  There needs to be an independent assessment of how money should be spent to enforce the law.

However one thing that is definite is that there is no excuse for mistreatment of desperate people looking to escape overwhelming problems for themselves or their families.  We can’t satisfy them all–immigration law is there to say who gets help–but that’s no excuse for treating them all as criminals or worse.

 

Losing by Bullying in China and Elsewhere

Most of us choose not to run our lives as bullies.  That’s not because we’re all so nice; it’s because being a bully is usually a bad option.  For one thing it’s precarious—the bully loses everything as soon as he’s not top dog.  And what’s worse is that it precludes other ways of getting things done.  The bully has nothing to offer but bluster.

The US has been the predominant world power since World War II, but we’ve generally chosen not to play the bully.  Instead we’ve used international institutions to enshrine our views as a kind of international rule of law.  That has been a very successful enterprise—no one wants to be odd man out.  And after 50 years we remain both the military and the economic powerhouse.  (How that filters down to the well-being of the population is another story.)

Recently however we’ve made the all-too-common mistake of believing our own propaganda.  We’re just too nice, and in our beneficence everyone is stealing from us.  For example NATO—which exists to make sure a Russian WW III is fought in Europe and not here—is now a case of wasting money to defend ungrateful allies.  The time has come to step out from behind the curtain and take all that we can get.

How have we been doing as a bully?  Let’s look at a few examples:

Iran

In Iran we’ve decided to take off the kid gloves and go for everything short of war.  The result thus far has been to strengthen the hard-liners in the government and to unite the population behind hatred of the US.  Initial steps have begun to resume nuclear weapons development—an effort that has strong support in the population as a whole.

Regime change remains unlikely, and even if it happens, it won’t be pro-US.  As for nuclear weapons, we’ve made North Korea a proof-positive of their value.

Venezuela

Trump administration high-handedness has intensified the ever-present fear of US domination—even among Maduro’s opponents.  That played a big part in the failure of the Guaidó uprising.

Arbitrary exercise of power makes us weaker.

China

This is currently the most consequential case.  We have legitimate grievances with China, but the situation is not so black and white, and it matters how we play it.

Our bullying approach began with tariffs before negotiation.  Then we chose to violate the our own trade agreements to go for an exclusive deal to benefit only us.  And we are unabashedly using the process to prevent China from challenging our dominance.  Finally we’re consumed with a feverish China bashing that has nothing with the reality of China’s effect on the US economywhich has many positives, and the negative effects don’t begin to compete with what we’ve done to ourselves.

There are two points worth emphasizing:

  1. The US represents 18% of Chinese exports, as does the EU. By making this an exclusive deal we lost half our leverage. That was a “get out of jail free” card for the Chinese. They didn’t have to worry about dividing the West, because we did it for them. (Not the only example of giving China exactly what they want.)
  2. We have dispensed with the idea that this is about international rules for fair trade. Instead this is strictly about what our national leverage can get us.  That’s not a great basis for compliance (particularly given history), and there are many ways that trade deals can fail to deliver.   Further, by setting arbitrary tariffs we’re striking a blow for protectionism, not open markets.  That’s the last thing we should be doing when a primary goal is access to a Chinese economy that is already larger than ours and growing faster.

The is another way to do this, and it was waiting to happen.  Within the WTO China is still classified as a developing country.  All parties recognize that needs to be renegotiated, which would have happened regardless of who was President.  The hand we were dealt was better leverage, better compliance, and no trade war.

There’s another way to look at this.  The following chart shows the kinds of items China exports to the US.

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It’s not just cheap widgets.  It’s the computer equipment that runs the software that is the basis for our economic strength.  The worst thing China could do to us is stop its exports.  So what do we really want?  In some order, we want access to the Chinese market, we want a say in how China competes in the rest of the world, and we want to address intellectual property theft.

We have good means of addressing all of these, but bullying China isn’t one of them.  A trade war is counterproductive for the first two, which is why we created the WTO.  For the third, we now have a common interest, and it’s worth noting that Chinese hacking has gone way up, since Trump declared economic war.

Bullying behavior may give a rush of power, but it’s no better for countries than for people.  It makes the world worsemost of all for US!