On trade, President Trump is playing one-dimensional chess. Credit where due: At least Trump, unlike his predecessors, recognizes that a game is on and that America has opponents whose moves must be countered. But sliding a jumble of pieces forward and backward into collisions and retreats is no way to make progress.
If automation were rendering workers obsolete, we would see evidence in rising productivity, major capital investments, and a shift in the ratio of production workers to managerial workers. None of these things has occurred. If technology could render workers obsolete, the radical advancements of past generations should have done it. They did not. If this time is different, we should find evidence that a large share of current workers are uniquely vulnerable to the particular set of technologies on the horizon. We do not.
My goal was to explain the flaws in that view, so it is disappointing that the response is simply to have it shouted back louder. At times I thought I was reading a defense of NAFTA. To understand just how narrow and incomplete their response is, it might be helpful to break the debate down into three discrete questions: First, what policies is China pursuing? Second, what is the impact of these policies on the United States? Third, to the extent that the impact is negative, what should the United States do?
The United States need not allow itself to be taken advantage of forever, or assume that China and its followers are irrevocably committed to their course. To the contrary, America and her allies have the opportunity to make clear that they will no longer play on these terms, that they would rather take their ball and go home than continue to compete on a tilted playing field, and that it is the cheaters who must decide whether they will finally comply with the rules or be ejected from the game. Forcing such a decision is not 'starting a trade war' any more than committing to the defense of one's borders constitutes an invasion. Indeed, far from being protectionist, threatening nations like China with severe trade sanctions is critical to ensuring a prosperous future for the global economy.