Death By China. That’s the arresting title of a book by Peter Navarro, the director of the National Trade Council, a new White House body created to advise President Donald Trump on trade negotiations.
If you are wondering what kind of advice Navarro will offer Trump, he has made his position clear saying: “One of the goals of the Trump administration is to reclaim all of the supply chain and manufacturing capability that would otherwise exist if the playing field were level.”
Death By China is not the kind of title you would expect from an academic with a PhD in economics from Harvard University who has served as a policy analyst in the Department of Energy and spent more than 20 years as professor of economics and public policy of the University of California. But then Navarro is no ordinary economist.
Now 67, Navarro is officially a Democrat – between 1992 and 2001, he unsuccessfully ran for five offices in San Diego, California. Last year, Navarro was a combative presence on cable news demonising Hillary Clinton as a “sociopath who does not know right from wrong.” He was more generous in 1996 when she visited him while he was running for Congress as a Newt Gingrich-baiting Democrat, writing: “I found her to be one of the most gracious, intelligent, perceptive and, yes, classy women I have ever met.”
By the time Navarro gave up on elective office, he had become interested – obsessed, say critics – by China’s impact on the US economy. The titles of his books are telling: The Coming China Wars; Crouching Tiger: What China’s Militarism Means For The World and Death By China: Confronting the Dragon – A Global Call to Action. He also wrote a series of get-rich investing books, the most famous being If It’s Raining In Brazil, Buy Starbucks: The Investor’s Guide To Profiting From News And Other Market Moving Events.
Calling China “the planet’s most efficient assassin”, Navarro has accused it of currency manipulation, protectionism, counterfeiting, abusing global trade, polluting the planet and incubating diseases. Navarro insisted that China’s accession to the World Trade Organisation had caused 57,000 American factories to be closed. To be fair, many of his charges against China have substance, it’s the apocalyptic tone of his critique that troubles some economists.
As compiled by Navarro, China’s rap sheet caught the eye of Trump who said the documentary of Death By China: How America Lost its Manufacturing Base “depicts our problem with China with facts, figures and insight.” Another reviewer was less impressed, calling it the “documentary equivalent of a raving street-corner derelict.”
Describing himself now as a “Reagan-Trump Democrat” who has been abandoned by the party of his youth, Navarro has been dubbed a “one man brains trust” for Trump and the new president’s “attack dog on trade”. He endorsed Trump relatively early – in March 2016, when it was far from certain that the tycoon would win the Republican nomination – and, even though the two men had not then met, was recruited as an adviser.
Navarro developed Trump’s economic platform with Wilbur Ross, the corporate restructurer and billionaire who is now Secretary of Commerce. Their plan provoked a letter of rebuke signed by more than 300 economists, a reaction Navarro dismissed as politically motivated.
It’s easy to see why Navarro and Trump get on. Economists can be an indecisive bunch – president Harry Truman once cried out for a “one-handed economist” because he was fed up with advisers who said: “On the one hand ... on the other hand,” Navarro is seldom troubled by doubt. Even when faced with a complex business such as the performance of public utilities, a subject on which he has some expertise, he issued a clarion call for “radical deregulation”.
Like his new boss, Navarro is a great simplifier – he is convinced that America’s threat of a 43% tariff on Chinese imports would resolve what he regards as the world’s central problem – yet such simplicity can distort as well as illuminate.
After polling respected China experts, Foreign Policy magazine asked: “What happens if the White House’s top China expert is not really a China expert?” noting that Trump’s trade chief can’t actually speak Chinese. One professor of Chinese history told the journal: “My recollection is that he generally avoided people who actually knew something about the country”. Navarro dismissed this as “malicious spin”.
Reclaiming the supply chain for America might take longer than the four years of Trump’s presidential term. And it might, many economists say, never happen. The idea of a manufacturing renaissance in America that generates millions of new jobs is dismissed by critics as a nostalgic fantasy. Many jobs have not been lost to China but to automation.
It’s not clear how tough Trump's trade policies will be. Some globalists in the White House who favour free trade will try to counter Navarro’s influence. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, who has a roving brief may also have a say. Yet the appointment of such an outspoken critic of China could be a useful pre-negotiating ploy for Trump.
An experienced economist, Navarro is something of an apprentice when it comes to the Byzantine milieu of Washington DC’s inside the Beltway politics. He will be hoping that, unlike most candidates on his boss’s former reality TV show, he will never hear those two iconic words; “You’re fired.”