September 20, 2019
By Alan Tonelson
Specifically, as reported by CNBC,com, top officials of a major lobbying campaign aimed at forcing President Trump to overturn his tariff-heavy trade policies, and in particular, to make nice with China, have openly admitted that the ace-in-the-hole they thought they held turned out to be joker. According to a CNBC posting yesterday, the political network funded partly by billionaire libertarian Charles Koch has concluded that their efforts to restore the pre-Trump, offshoring-happy, U.S. trade policy status quo have failed because it completely misread the American public’s willingness to pay an economic price for combating China’s trade predation.
This news comes on the heels of ongoing evidence that, contrary to widespread predictions from economists, think tank hacks, globalist politicians, and the Mainstream Media reporters who keep taking their cues from all these trade zealots, raging American inflation has not been ignited, business investment has not been paralyzed, domestic manufacturing has not suffered a death blow (though it’s been in a shallow recession for a year), and the economy has not plunged into recession (though growth has slowed).
The advertising-focused Koch drive sought to convince President Trump to back off his strategy of trade pressure by exploiting the selfishness of U.S. consumers in particular and the supposed vulnerabilities of the U.S. political system. The apparent central assumptions (and they’ll be familiar to anyone who’s been following Mainstream Media coverage of trade issues): Affluent, and indeed spoiled, Americans have much less tolerance for economic pain than their long impoverished Chinese counterparts; and China’s dictators will find it much easier to resist any public pressure that did develop than American leaders. Therefore, the Koch operatives reasoned, stoking fears that Mr. Trump’s tariffs would supercharge retail prices in particular and kill jobs by prompting retaliatory Chinese measures and slumping American capital spending would set off a political firestorm that the President would need to extinguish if he hoped to win reelection.
But at a briefing it held in New York City yesterday, a Koch official told reporters that “The argument that, you know, the tariffs are adding a couple thousand dollars to the pickup truck that you’re buying is not persuasive. It doesn’t penetrate with the people that are willing to go along with the argument that you have to punish China.”
Nor did the Koch campaign make this decision lightly. The CNBC.com piece noted that “the network came to this conclusion after conducting weekly focus groups on trade policies.” Also cited in the post was a recent national poll showing that “63% of registered voters believe tariffs will ultimately hurt the United States more than China, but 67% of the electorate is convinced it’s necessary to confront China over its trade practices.”
In other words, the American public is wiser and more farsighted than the U.S-owned businesses that have worked overtime to help strengthen the Chinese economy – including by voluntarily transferring to the Chinese the technology they need to upgrade their mechanisms of repression and modernize their military. And everyday Americans are much smarter than those companies that China has begun victimizing once Beijing concluded they’d outlived their usefulness, but that keep hoping against hope that enough boot-licking will save their corporate skins in the Chinese market. Because the American public evidently understands that U.S. prosperity and national security alike require reversing these China-enabling policies, and that slightly more expensive imports from China are a small price to pay for preserving and achieving these goals.
Ironically, the poll indicates that the Koch campaign (along with similar efforts) has succeeded in one respect: It represents some evidence that Americans believe that their country is more vulnerable to a trade war than China – even though the Chinese economy is much more trade dependent, and even though, as noted above, the United States keeps growing (albeit more slowly), and its overall inflation remains subdued by any reasonable standard.
Maybe that’s why the Koch network says it’s far from giving up, and is considering delivering the same message with different tactics. Two seem especially promising to these Friends of China:
>“putting together a team of almost 100 business leaders to call on the Trump administration and lawmakers to end the trade war with China”; and
>educating “100,000 activists in at least 35 states about the potential negative impact of using tariffs to battle China. Those volunteers will then be expected to start reaching out to their congressional leaders. The network hopes these activists can convince lawmakers on Capitol Hill to stand up against the administration’s current trade policy. The latest phase of the Koch campaign is expected to cost the network millions of dollars.”
Of course, short of a major economic downturn, if the Koch network has already established that the public is rejecting its advertising-carried China fear-mongering, it’s unclear why President Trump would be more responsive to the 100 business leaders than he’s been to date? And why would most Members of Congress not already backing China coddling pay more much attention to the 100,000 activists?
That’s a question that also needs to be asked by some other major actors in the U.S.-China trade war: the majority of current Democratic presidential candidates, who clearly believe that there’s lots of voter China-related trade whining that they can turn into votes, and ultimately into victory over Mr. Trump; and Chinese dictator Xi Jinping himself, who just as clearly believes that if the President is defeated, he’ll be back to dealing with Uncle Sucker on trade – and so many other fronts.
Alan Tonelson, a columnist for IndustryToday, is founder of the RealityChek blog (alantonelson.wordpress.com), which covers manufacturing, trade, the economy, and national security. He has written for many leading publications on these subjects and is the author of The Race to the Bottom (Westview Press, 2000).