Brookings - Thursday, June 30, 2016
Trade with China has led to the loss of manufacturing jobs in the United States and put downward pressure on wages for blue-collar jobs here. This is a real problem and campaigns in both political parties are grappling with how to address it. In a speech this week, Donald Trump proposed high tariffs on imports of Chinese goods, labeling the country a “currency manipulator,” and ripping up the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). These measures are not likely to reverse the damage that trade has done to blue-collar workers in the United States. First, on high tariffs: There is a long-term trend for manufacturing employment in the United States to decline as a share of employment. This reflects the fact that automation and productivity growth are easier in manufacturing than in services. The United States is still a manufacturing powerhouse from the point of view of production, but it simply does not take that many workers to produce the output. Trade with China accelerated that trend, and that was bad for the United States because slow adjustment is easier than the rapid adjustment that occurred. But imposing tariffs on Chinese imports now is truly closing the barn door after the horse has left. Jobs in apparel and footwear or the low end of electronics are not coming back to the United States. Tariffs aimed at China will divert that production to other developing countries. If we try to keep out imports from all of the low-wage countries then we are contemplating an end to the open trading system that has been a source of political and economic stability in the world. Economic results for the United States are not likely to be good even if there is no retaliation. But there is almost certain to be retaliation, especially from China which is a powerful and nationalistic country.