America's Failed Mole-by-Mole Trade Policy

Although conservative candidates revel in ridiculing Western Europe, America could learn crucial economic lessons from Germany, which maintains trade surpluses, including one with China in auto parts.
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Last week several groups, including the United Steelworkers, petitioned the federal government to whack the latest trade mole -- illegally traded auto parts from China.

With President Obama announcing creation of a new trade enforcement unit in his State of the Union Address, the feds probably will investigate. But even if they whack down the auto parts mole, experience has shown a new mole will pop up.

Mole-by-mole trade enforcement isn't the solution to America's massive trade deficit. Although conservative candidates revel in ridiculing Western Europe, America could learn crucial economic lessons from Germany, which doesn't rely on Whack-a-Mole and maintains trade surpluses, including one with China in auto parts.

The Steelworkers -- along with the United Auto Workers, the Alliance for American Manufacturing and Campaign for America's Future -- explained why the federal government must smack down the latest trade problem that has raised its ugly head.

China and several other countries promote their auto parts manufacturers by providing subsidies and engaging in additional practices banned by the World Trade Organization (WTO). As a result, the United States imports more auto parts than it produces, a situation that kills manufacturers and manufacturing jobs here. For example, over the past 11 years, as the U.S. auto parts trade deficit increased by 867 percent, the Unites States lost 45 percent of its auto parts jobs -- a total of 419,000.

The reason the groups sought action against China specifically is that its exports of auto parts to the United States have increased faster in the past three years than any other country's and China supports its auto parts industry in ways that violate its commitments to the WTO.

For example, China provided $27.5 billion in subsidies to its auto parts industry between 2001 and 2010. It's fine with the WTO if countries subsidize industries that sell their products domestically. But it forbids subsidies for exported products because that distorts the free market, wrongly destroying jobs and industries in the countries that buy those artificially low priced goods.

China has prospered by breaking the rules. Electronics manufacturing is a good example. In a story about Apple's experience, The New York Times described how America lost these jobs to China. Worker wages, while achingly low in China, were not the lure. And they were not the issue for Apple, a company that makes $400,000 in profit for every worker. It was a combination of other factors including the Asian supply chain and Chinese subsidies.

An example is the Chinese company that bid on supplying glass for the iPhone. When Apple executives visited, they found the company already constructing a wing where the iPhone glass would be cut. The company built it with subsidies from Beijing, subsidies that never would be provided by the United States to American companies, subsidies that are of questionable legality under WTO rules because they were for exported goods. Apple gave the contract to the Chinese firm, of course. Here's how the Times described it:

"The Chinese government had agreed to underwrite costs for numerous industries, and those subsidies had trickled down to the glass-cutting factory. It had a warehouse filled with glass samples available to Apple, free of charge. The owners made engineers available at almost no cost. They had built on-site dormitories so employees would be available 24 hours a day."

Beijing is a serial trade rule violator. The USW has won trade cases against China for violations involving paper, steel pipe, tires and other products. The Steelworkers filed for protection of the U.S. green energy sector against Chinese encroachment abetted by WTO violations and already has won negotiated settlement of several aspects of that case.

The USW and others that file trade cases often win. But this is Whack-a-Mole trade enforcement. A union or industry wins a case, whacks down that individual annoyance, but immediately another surfaces. America is losing, and far more is at stake than in an arcade game.

America can win. But it's got to deal with trade differently. It needs a game changer, like Germany's manufacturing policies.

An analysis by the Economic Policy Institute notes that Germany actively enforces its industrial policy. This, EPI noted, stands in stark contrast to the United States, which doesn't even have an industrial policy.

Germany encourages a sector of banks that is devoted to financing small and medium firms -- the size that auto parts manufacturers are likely to be. In addition, Germany favors stakeholder capitalism, and corporate boards of directors there are populated by equal numbers of managers and workers. This changes the focus from profits benefitting only the 1 percent to company operation in the interest of the community, the country and the workers, as well as the executives and stockholders.

Republicans and Americans of the World War II generation might choke on the idea of learning something from Germany. But, frankly, this Western European country has prospered in manufacturing and trade with sophisticated state and corporate planning -- not with the arcade-economics of Whack-a-Mole.

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