Anyone who says that President Trump is unable to learn on the job hasn’t been paying attention to how much his insight into a host of key problems has deepened over three years. But the president would do us a favor if he would clearly explain, above all, just how his thinking about China has changed since he took office. That intellectual evolution lies at the heart of what might make him a more consequential president than even those who voted for him ever imagined.
He started out as a mossbacked mercantilist, fuming about the trade imbalance between the world’s two biggest economies. Why was China selling us so many pots and pans, lightbulbs, TVs and computers, while buying a much smaller dollar amount of pork bellies, cars and tractors? Surely improper currency manipulation and state subsidies must account for so large a trade deficit, and surely, he imagined it was sucking the wealth right out of our nation.
Though sophisticated economists countered that it benefits rather than impoverishes us to have another country sell us goods we want for less than it would cost us to make them, Trump sensed the social costs of this imbalance with an acuity the economists lacked. It was killing our factory towns, weakening our social fabric and transferring abroad important skills and capabilities that we might someday regret having lost, especially if we needed to scale them up quickly. The gain in these transactions was easier to quantify than the loss.
But Trump came to realize that the problem was much larger. To enter its market, China for years has required high-tech companies to transfer proprietary technology to local partners, so that US corporate bosses, with their focus on quarterly results rather than long-term viability, promiscuously allowed Chinese firms to filch a storehouse of laboriously acquired Western knowledge that could vault so industrious a people to domination of the highest-value industries in short order.
Myron Magnet, City Journal’s editor-at-large and its editor from 1994 through 2006, is a recipient of the National Humanities Medal, and author of Clarence Thomas and the Lost Constitution. This piece was adapted from City Journal.
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