Living in downtown Minneapolis, I’m haunted by the sight of hapless throngs being led at gunpoint into the Target store on Nicollet Mall. Under the watch of scary brutes, these captives of commerce are forced to buy shirts from China, socks from Vietnam and toasters from Malaysia.
With little chance of escape, buyers-under-duress stoop under the weight of imported waffle irons, power drills and flat-screen TVs. Their lamentations go unheard. Every ka-ching of the cash registers murmurs “Death to America.”
“I was horrified,” said one victim. “My conscience won’t let me sleep on Egyptian cotton, woven on Japanese looms in Mexican textile mills.
“But I have to admit, those designer sheets were a bargain.”
Stop! I confess: I made up that stuff. (Except for the part about hordes of people hauling imported goods home from Target. Only not at gunpoint. Of their own free will. Imagine that.)
In Campaign 2016, international trade is a public menace.
The Chinese, Mexicans and South Koreans are the faces of a major threat to the U.S. economy. The warnings find a receptive audience — even among the hundreds of millions who shop at Target, Wal-Mart, Amazon, Best Buy and other retailers whose shelves are piled high with foreign-made goods.
“You have to bring in jobs; you have to take the jobs back from China; you have to take the jobs back from Mexico,” said Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator running for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Who is he kidding? A lot of people, apparently.
None of the presidential candidates can return the U.S. to unrivaled dominance in every industry — and would be fools to try.
But, in isolation, trade numbers can cause shivers.
Last year, the U.S. trade deficit with China hit $366 billion, up nearly 80 percent from a decade earlier. Makes you think, doesn’t it? Well, not if you’re Donald Trump.
In Trump’s eyes — and in the view of many of the followers who have made him the Republican front-runner — every dollar spent for products from abroad represents a wound to this nation’s economy.
Before exploring that misguided notion, imagine for one muddled moment that he’s right. That $366 billion sure looks like a big number. But is it?
It’s roughly 2 percent of the total output of the U.S. economy. Put another way, it represents a small fraction of all the goods and services made here.
So far, Trump has failed to burn in the public square the made-in-China ties, shirts and other menswear that bear the Trump brand.
But Trump did tell New York Times editorial writers that he would slap a 45 percent tariff on goods from China.
What does he think Chinese leaders would do in the face of new trade barriers? Take us off their Christmas card list? More likely, they’d impose barriers of their own — depriving U.S. exporters of billions in sales and jeopardizing hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of U.S. jobs.
Nuance need not apply to stump speeches, however.
“America doesn’t win any more,” Trump says, again and again. He wants everyone to remember Mexico also remains on his naughty-not-nice list.
The flamboyant billionaire has vowed never again to eat an Oreo cookie. Although what goes into his mouth seems less troubling than what comes out of it, an Oreo-free diet is his way of showing sympathy to the 600 Chicago workers about to lose their jobs.
A Mexican company that owns Nabisco is moving Oreo production to — of all places — Mexico.
“Mexico is the new China. … I love Oreos. I will never eat them again,” said Trump.
Other Republicans have fallen in line on trade.
Sen. Ted Cruz, who calls himself a “free-trader,” now says he’d rather wait until after Election Day to vote on whether to approve fast-track negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The proposed trade deal, which would lower trade barriers between the U.S. and 11 other countries, has become a litmus test on protectionist instincts.
The Republican presidential candidate who’s gotten the fewest votes — John Kasich — said he’d vote for the TPP. But Kasich feels the urge to disavow any visceral love for international commerce.
“My feeling about it is I’m pretty much for open [trade], but I think the American workers have been shafted. … I’m for open [trade], but I want to make sure that the workers in this country are protected. … I’ve never been a total free-trader, because I think that the rules ought to apply to other countries like they apply to us.”
Diagram those sentences.
Kasich said the TPP would give the U.S. and other partners in the pact — from Mexico to Japan and Australia to Singapore — the economic power to counter Chinese exports. How? Who knows?
Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton was for the TPP before she was against it. As secretary of state, Clinton helped get negotiations started. But last fall, after months of wavering, Clinton said she won’t push the TPP without more safeguards for U.S. workers.
“Any trade deal has to produce jobs and raise wages and increase prosperity and protect our security,” she has said.
Great. But are the 11 other countries party to the proposed pact supposed to wait for a new administration to say what it wants before dragging out talks for months and years? Doubtful.
Where is the mention of other forces that almost certainly together have cost more U.S. jobs than imports?
• Productivity: U.S. car plants make twice as many cars per worker today than in 1990. Is that bad? For displaced workers, yes. For consumers, absolutely not.
• Changing technology: ATMs have all but replaced bank tellers. Factory welders have been replaced by robots. The newspaper industry, unfazed by foreign competition, has been shedding jobs in the last 15 years as advertisers fled printing presses for the Internet.
• Mergers and acquisitions: In the U.S., they hit a record $2 trillion last year. They’ve swept across industries from airlines to health care and high-tech to entertainment. Companies merge, then set about cutting payrolls.
• The decline of organized labor: It has undermined high-paying jobs in manufacturing, services and government.
• Postponed repairs on public roads, bridges, ports, mass transit and other building blocks of a healthy economy: By one estimate, the nation’s crumbling infrastructure requires $3.6 trillion in taxpayer investment through 2020. Crave more middle-class jobs? Start building.
No, let’s ignore forces like those. Who wants to hear about stronger execution of antitrust laws? Boring. More aid for victims of a brutal job market? That costs money.
Forget plans to invest in education and job training or beef up the earned income tax credit to aid the working poor. How about a safety net for the permanently displaced? Like the 56-year-old unlikely ever to find work after a layoff.
No, it’s the Mexicans and Chinese we need to worry about.
The rule seems to be as simple as “trade is good if you benefit and bad if you don’t.” So let’s do the math.
What happened to places like Detroit with the decline of the U.S. auto industry was tragic. Millions lost high-paying jobs. But were tens of millions of American vehicle buyers better off before the invasion of Toyota, Honda, Hyundai or VW? Their buying choices suggest not.
In 1970, U.S. auto companies commanded 80 percent of the market. Quality was not job one.
Asked what Chrysler was up to before he became CEO in the late 1970s, Lee Iacocca said, “Shipping scrap.”
At last count, the Big Three U.S. automakers made only 45 percent of the new cars sold in America. But the other 55 percent — bearing foreign nameplates — did not sneak into the country past sleeping border guards.
No one gains political points by noting that U.S. companies that build plants abroad often are following their customers. Just as did Subaru, with its plant in Indiana; Honda, in Ohio; Toyota, in Kentucky; Volkswagen, in Tennessee; Mercedes, in Alabama. They are among a long list of domestic plants making vehicles with foreign nameplates — supporting hundreds of thousands of U.S. jobs.
Don’t tarry too long considering the hypocrisy and incoherence of the national debate on trade, however. Don your Chinese-made shoes, grab a couple of Oreos, hop in your Prius and enjoy the day. Where to go?
I hear Target has a good deal on sheets.
Mike Meyers, a former Star Tribune business reporter, is a Minneapolis writer.