The Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce sponsored a panel discussion at the Battle House this morning with two nationally recognized guest speakers covering international trade policy in the age of Trump. Local elected city officials and many civic leaders were in attendance including a brief visit by Mayor Sandy Stimpson.
Mobile chamber President Bill Sisson introduced the speakers and moderator, throwing out several key points as to why this event had particular relevance locally. Cited was the fact that at eight out of ten manufacturing companies in the area are internationally based and that roughly 13,000 local jobs are directly tied to global trade.
The panel discussion was moderated by Ellyn Ferguson, a journalist with Washington D.C.-based publication CQ Roll Call.
Josh Meltzer with politically centrist brain trust Brookings Institution and Brian Rowley with conservative think tank Heritage Foundation, both also headquartered in Washington D.C., were guest speakers.
Meltzer led off the discussion addressing why conversations about international trade were relevant, stating that 95 percent of consumers are based outside of the United States.
Also mentioned was the trade imbalance with Germany and added political friction with Mexico. According to Meltzer, upcoming national elections for president in Mexico indicate that populist left wing candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has been rapidly rising in election poll popularity positioned as a Trump foil; apparently striking a chord with voters in the country responding to tough talk by the POTUS about building a border wall and making Mexico foot the bill.
One point illuminated by Meltzer was that 45 percent of finished imports from Mexico into the U.S. were originally domestic exports initially sent across the border as raw material.
Citing backward-looking statistics, it was mentioned that 6 million American jobs have been lost in the manufacturing sector since the 1950s with 25 percent directly attributable to international trade. Also mentioned was that 800,000 new high tech domestic manufacturing jobs have been added since 2010.
Meltzer question the relevancy of the number considering that, on average, the U.S. economy typically loses 200 million jobs, and adds 230 million new openings every year in due to a historically volatile marketplace.
Also brought up were Trump’s multiple Section 232 probes enacted so far this year as part of the trade expansion Act of 1962. Accusations of Chinese steel and aluminum “dumping” has been made by the Trump administration, stating that Chinese factories are producing far more raw materials than it uses, exporting the excess to potentially undercut pricing in other domestic markets. The act imposes limits on imports for reasons of national security.
Overall, Meltzer believes the U.S. is faring well in the international trade arena.
“Contrary to popular belief about international trade issues, the United States is a master of globalization and the system has always worked very well for the country.” he said.
Brian Riley with the Heritage Foundation opened up dialogue with an anecdotal observation from a recent road trip from Pensacola to Washington D.C., wryly observing how the Hyundai car plant in Alabama, the Kia automobile factory in Georgia and the sprawling Mercedes assembly complex in South Carolina seem to fly in the face of popular political arguments about how local, good paying jobs are leaving the country.
According to Riley, the benefits of staying in NAFTA far outweigh the pitfalls, and since the country joined the trade bloc in 1994, domestic GDP has steadily risen. He views Trump’s protectionist stance against international trade as geared more towards addressing unfair foreign trade practices as opposed to isolationist extremism.
Popular political campaign promises by Trump calling for 30 percent tariffs to be slapped on China and the U.S. withdrawal from NAFTA may have softened due to influence exerted by his cabinet. One example of this was recent reversal of opinion on China as a currency manipulator.
Both speakers agreed that job training has to be a major focus of the new administration, with Meltzer pointing out that there has been an exponential increase of technology training requirements in new manufacturing jobs. Riley called for more bipartisan leadership centered on international trade.
One of the questions asked that impacted the area locally was an update on trade relations with Cuba. Moderator Ellyn Ferguson said that Trump is looking at demanding additional concessions from Cuba since right now since it’s a one-way street with domestic monies flowing into the country from new tourism dollars while not many new political concessions have been made on Havana’s end to reciprocate wealth distribution.
One final takeaway by Meltzer was that health care has to be addressed effectively. “No other country in the industrialized world has a program where employers foot the entire bill on health care for employees, with worse outcomes,” Meltzer said.