US jobs: In China trade fight, does protectionism help, or hurt?
Congress is considering legislation that would punish China for devaluing its currency, a policy the Obama administration regards as hindering US jobs growth. But some say protectionism is even more costly.
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The trade issue also resonates with the White House, which is looking to create jobs at no cost to the US Treasury. When Mr. Obama was in New York recently he met for two hours with China's prime minister, Wen Jiabao. Reportedly, most of their time was spent arguing over the value of the yuan.Skip to next paragraph
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But, as the White House is learning, China is unhappy with the US, too.
"At the same time, in China there is a growing sense the Chinese are not receiving the respect they deserve given their economic might," says Mr. Prasad.
For example, in late September, China increased its tariffs on poultry imports from the US from 31.4 percent to 105.4 percent. The Chinese had started their investigation into US poultry prices almost immediately after the Obama administration a year ago had imposed heavy tariffs on Chinese tires.
"Clearly, protectionism does not go unanswered," writes Molly Castelazo, executive director of FutureofUSChinaTrade.com, an online forum, in an e-mail. "Earlier this year President Obama announced a plan to double exports in 5 years, yet he's not going to achieve that goal if China has imposed tariffs on US goods that make these goods prohibitively expensive."
Ms. Castelazo accepts that protectionism can "save" American jobs, but at a cost. Citing a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, she says the cost to the economy from protectionist policies runs to $100 billion a year in higher prices for goods.
For example, the bank found that tariffs saved 226 jobs in the luggage industry at a cost of $1,285,078 per job saved, some 605 jobs in softwood lumber at a cost of $1,044,271 per job, and 168,786 jobs in apparel and textiles at a cost of $199,241 per job.
Protecting one industry can also harm another, she notes: Higher prices may help companies making a product like steel but hurt the users of the product, such as the auto industry. That's one reason 36 groups ranging from the National Retail Federation to the American Soybean Association sent a letter to House leaders expressing opposition to the China currency legislation.
"A reason why there are so many longshoremen, truck drivers, warehouse workers, and others in the supply train working at good jobs is because of our trade with China," says Richard Steinke, executive director of the port.
These are not minimum-wage-type jobs, says Mr. Steinke. The average port worker makes more than $100,000 per year.
But some economists say far more jobs are lost because of current free-trade policies than gained. Robert Scott, a senior economist at the nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute in Washington, estimates that since China was admitted to the WTO in 2001, the US has shed 2.4 million jobs. Now that the US trade deficit with China is starting to rise again, Mr. Scott expects the US will lose another 400,000 jobs this year.
Michaud estimates that since 1993, when the North American Free Trade Agreement was ratified, Maine has lost 40 percent of its manufacturing base.
In Rumford, residents are concerned about the prospect of losing good-paying jobs. The average hourly pay at the mill is $26.36, not counting benefits.
"If the mill had to shut down it would be crippling," says town manager Carlo Puiia. "Not just for Rumford, but all the surrounding towns."