IN HIS 2010 BOOK No Apology, Mitt Romney has a lot to say about China, much of it unfavorable. He writes of Beijing's "brutal repression and incarceration of dissidents." He decries the brazenness of Chinese enterprise, with its "rampant theft of intellectual property from Western businesses." He warns that China's "aggressive pursuit" of cyber-warfare capabilities has made it "the most active cyber-combatant in the world." He details the ominous Chinese military buildup in combat aircraft, submarines, and ballistic missiles. He laments the communist government's willingness to shield the odious regimes in Iran and Sudan from international sanction.
Nevertheless, Romney's criticism of China has its limits. Nowhere in his book does he characterize China as a hostile trade foe, or condemn its currency policies as "cheating," or call for the imposition of protectionist tariffs.
Yet on the presidential campaign trail these days, the former Massachusetts governor routinely slams the Chinese government, vowing that on "Day One" as president he'll designate China a "currency manipulator" and impose tariffs on Chinese exports to the United States. "We've allowed China to just walk all over us," Romney fumed during an interview with Sean Hannity the other day. He dismisses concerns about starting a trade war with America's largest foreign creditor. The only "alternative to confronting China," he wrote this month, "is allowing the Chinese to take by trade surrender what we fear to lose in a trade war."
Whipping up resentment against foreign trading partners is a time-honored way for candidates of both parties to score cheap political points. Romney's China-bashing today is reminiscent of the Japan-bashing that candidates like Pat Buchanan and Dick Gephardt sought to ride to the White House a generation ago. What makes this candidate's protectionist rabble-rousing so disappointing is that he knows perfectly well how superficial and spurious it is.
The vehement line of attack Romney keeps up against China today is absent from the manifesto he published last year. In No Apology, Romney emphasized protectionism's self-destructiveness. "US companies faced with … less costly products from overseas have to make one of two choices," he wrote. One is to improve their own technology and productivity; the other is to "argue for protection, hold on as long as possible, and slowly watch their market share wane." Far from endorsing vigorous presidential action against foreign competitors, he faulted George W. Bush and Barack Obama for yielding to protectionist special pleading. The Obama administration's punitive tariffs on Chinese tires may have been "good politics," Romney declared, "but it is decidedly bad for the nation and our workers. Protectionism stifles productivity."
It may be true, as Romney and others claim, that China artificially undervalues its currency, thereby making Chinese goods less expensive to import than they otherwise would be. It's easy to understand why some manufacturers might not happy about that, but for US consumers generally China's policy is a blessing. "By keeping the value of its currency low, Beijing enables Americans to stretch our dollars farther," economist Donald Boudreaux remarks. "This results in significant improvements in living standards" -- especially for poor and working-class Americans. Does Romney really think that's a bad thing?
And does he really believe it's in the US interest to hold the threat of new tariffs over the heads of Chinese manufacturers? Romney's "Day One" threat to slap higher duties on Chinese imports is just another way of saying that if China doesn't force Americans to pay more for made-in-China products, Washington will. Tariffs are taxes, and they will do more than hurt millions of American shoppers for no good reason. They will also penalize innumerable businesses that rely on imported goods and materials, and the myriad of employees, managers, and shareholders whose economic welfare is linked to those businesses' success.
As it happens, the value of China's currency has appreciated by around 30 percent in recent years and is likely to keep climbing. But from an American perspective, it shouldn't matter whether imports from China cost less because Beijing manipulates the yuan, because Chinese manufacturers have access to abundant raw materials, or because of a new technology that turbocharges Chinese productivity. Whatever the reason, the bottom line is the same: lower prices for US consumers. And lower prices aren't something from which Americans need to be rescued by politicians.
"When I see an American company challenged by a foreign competitor," Romney wrote in his book, "I don't look for protectionist policies as an answer to the company's problems." If only that Romney were the one running for president.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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