[Bob Davis| November 22, 2016 |The Wall Street Journal]
Give China big credit for Donald Trump’s electoral victory, say prominent economists who study the impact of China on the U.S. economy. Rising imports from the Asian powerhouse made parts of the Midwest and Southeast more receptive to Mr. Trump’s anti-China, anti-free trade message, they found.
A team of four economists looked at the voting patterns in counties where Chinese imports have risen markedly since 2002, to the detriment of local industries. Overall, the team found, for every 1 percentage point increase in Chinese imports in local markets between 2002 and 2014, the countywide vote for Mr. Trump increased by 2 percentage points compared with the share of the vote garnered by George W. Bush in 2000.
In areas where Chinese imports don’t play much of a role in the local economy, such as big swaths of the Great Plains, the political impact from China was marginal. But in areas where Chinese imports are a significant drag on local economies, like the swing states of North Carolina, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Michigan, the China effect was substantial.
Chinese imports jumped by 2.4 percentage points in Chippewa County, Wis., for instance, which led to a 8.7 percentage point increase in the share of the votes Mr. Trump received compared with Mr Bush in 2000. In Branch County, Mich., a 3 percentage point increase in Chinese imports helped produce a 13.3 percentage point bump for the Republican presidential candidate.
Counties in many swing states rely on industries such as furniture, electronics, toys, shoes and apparel, which have been hit by Chinese import competition. Many of those counties also tipped the balance in the November election for Mr. Trump.
“You don’t need that many votes to make some states flip,” said David Dorn, a University of Zurich economist who worked on the study with David Autor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Gordon Hanson of the University of California at San Diego, andKaveh Majlesi of Lund University in Sweden.
Given the closeness of the presidential race in many states, Mr. Dorn said, other factors also could have made a difference, including turnout and the statements of Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey about Hillary Clinton’s emails. He said the team of economists looked solely at the China impact.
Messrs. Dorn, Autor and Hanson have produced a series of papers in the past few years detailing how Chinese imports have damaged communities across the nation by undermining local industries. On Tuesday, a paper by Federal Reserve economist Justin Pierce and Yale University’s Peter Schott found that the surge in Chinese imports produced higher rates of suicide, especially among white men, in the counties most affected by the increased trade.
Those studies estimate that Chinese competition was responsible for 2.4 million jobs lost in the U.S. between 1999 and 2011. During that time, total U.S. employment rose 2.1 million to 132.9 million. Their work has been widely cited by economists and policy makers, and has led to a re-evaluation of the gains and losses from liberalized trade.
In the work published on Tuesday, the economists found that if the China imports had been half as steep between 2002 and 2014, Mrs. Clinton would have won the election because the local backlash against trade wouldn’t have been so severe.
Specifically, had Chinese import growth been 25% smaller, they calculated, Mrs. Clinton would have won Wisconsin and Michigan. A 50% reduction in the growth of imports would have delivered Pennsylvania and North Carolina for Mrs. Clinton. Under that scenario, the former secretary of state would have won 293 electoral votes, compared with 245 for Mr. Trump.
Spokesmen for Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Other work by Messrs. Dorn, Autor and Hanson has found that greater Chinese competition led to a rise in political polarization in Congress. Lawmakers on the left and right won election, while those in the middle lost ground.
“Our research shows that there were very real economic and social consequences of import competition from China,” said Mr. Dorn. “Places reacted to it by embracing the promise of Donald Trump to bring back jobs.”
In an August article, The Wall Street Journal found that in Republican primaries, Mr. Trump won 89 of the 100 counties most affected by competition from China.
The electoral research is part of a growing body of work on the effect of China’s rise on the U.S.
Different groups of economists have linked surging Chinese imports to an increase in household debt that contributed to the Great Recession; a reduction in public services by local governments looking to cope with that recession; and deteriorating individual health.
The reasoning in the papers is similar: import competition from China damaged local economies and undermined employment and wages. That made it harder for workers to pay their bills and keep their families together. It also reduced tax receipts to strapped local governments.
Messrs. Dorn, Autor and Hanson remain committed to liberalized trade and wrote a Washington Post opinion piece in March 2015 backing the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, a sweeping Pacific trade deal that Mr. Trump said Monday he plans to pull out of on his first day in office.
Mr. Hanson said free-trade supporters must do a much better job of helping those harmed by trade. Providing money for retraining isn’t sufficient, he said, because it encourages those laid off to remain out of the workforce for a year or two. Instead, laid-off workers should be given a lump-sum payment, which encourages them to find other jobs quickly, so they can save the money. It can also help finance a move to a location with better job prospects.
He said Mr. Trump’s campaign pledge to impose 45% tariffs on Chinese imports was wrongheaded even if it did force some manufacturing back to the U.S. Factories now are so automated, they employ far fewer than they once did. “You’d help capital owners and factory owners,” said Mr. Hanson. “But it’s much less of a help for workers.”