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As the election approaches, both parties adopt a protectionist stance against China

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

President Biden says China's not on the level when it comes to steel. He complains that China has been dumping steel on the global market at prices so low it hurts steelworkers here in the United States.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: They're not competing. They're cheating. They're cheating. And we've seen the damage here in America.

RASCOE: That's the president speaking to unionized steelworkers in Pittsburgh this past week. If his message sounds familiar, that's because the last president, Donald Trump, also complained bitterly about China's trade practices. So has anything changed? We're going to put that question to NPR's chief economics correspondent, Scott Horsley. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Hi, Ayesha. Great to be with you.

RASCOE: So President Biden is highlighting a problem with overproduction of steel in China. What does he want to do about it?

HORSLEY: Biden has asked his U.S. trade representative to triple the import tariffs on both steel and aluminum from China. Now, the problem of overproduction there is real, but it's doubtful Biden's proposed solution would have much of an impact. That's because we already have stiff anti-dumping tariffs on China, and as a result, we actually buy very little steel from that country.

RASCOE: Didn't those anti-dumping tariffs start with former President Trump?

HORSLEY: No, they actually go back well before Trump was in the White House. During the Trump administration, he did take the additional step of taxing imported steel and aluminum from other countries, though, and that includes some U.S. allies. Now, some of those tariffs were later relaxed, but not before they did some real damage here in the United States. That's because companies that use steel far outnumber steel producers, and those downstream companies saw their costs go up because of the Trump tariffs. They lost tens of thousands of jobs. U.S. consumers had to pay higher prices. And what's more, our trading partners overseas retaliated with tariffs of their own, and that cut demand for U.S. exports. Nobody usually wins in a trade war. Now, President Biden insists his tariffs are more targeted and strategic than Trump's were. But Biden's actually left most of the Trump tariffs on Chinese products in place. And he's also pursued other protectionist policies of his own.

RASCOE: And what are those?

HORSLEY: Well, for example, Biden is requiring that electric cars be built in North America in order to qualify for certain tax credits. He's offering incentives for domestic solar producers. Talking to those unionized steelworkers in Pittsburgh this past week, Biden also renewed his promise to block a Japanese steelmaker's $15 billion purchase of U.S. Steel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: U.S. Steel has been an iconic American company for more than a century, and it should remain a totally American company.

(APPLAUSE)

BIDEN: American owned, American operated, by American union steelworkers, the best in the world. And that's going to happen, I promise you.

HORSLEY: Now, keep in mind, Japan is a staunch U.S. ally, and U.S. Steel could actually really use the investment that Nippon Steel has promised to make there. Biden's opposition, though, just goes to show how protectionism has become more entrenched on both sides of the political aisle.

RASCOE: And what about former President Trump, who called himself, you know, literally a tariff man with a capital T and a capital M?

HORSLEY: Yeah. Trump dramatically boosted tariffs on U.S. imports when he was in office and says he'd like to go further if he gets a second term. He told Fox Business he would like to impose import taxes on everything the U.S. buys from other countries.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: I think when companies come in and they dump their products in the United States, they should pay automatically, let's say a 10% tax.

HORSLEY: Now, that's a throwback to 1930s-style policies that actually contributed to the Great Depression. And the cost of those 10% tariffs would largely be borne by U.S. consumers.

RASCOE: Well, how do consumers feel about that?

HORSLEY: Yeah, public attitudes about trade and import tariffs are complex. The vast majority of Americans still think trade is good for the economy, good for their own standards of living. But they do want some assurances that more families and communities will share in those benefits. Matthew Slaughter, who's dean of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, says that's why some of the throwback policies both Trump and Biden are pursuing are shortsighted.

MATTHEW SLAUGHTER: Americans understand the benefits of being connected to the world economy. They actually don't prefer building walls to keep out the world. What people want is more bridges, more connectivity to the world, but with the supports to have a shot at thriving in that.

HORSLEY: Unfortunately, what we're hearing from both presidential candidates right now is not taller ladders, just higher walls.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Scott Horsley. Scott, thank you so much.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.