Biden moves to ease trade turmoil threatening his solar energy ambitions

“President Joe Biden won’t impose new tariffs on imports of solar power equipment for two years to help ease the fears that have slowed the growth in the renewable energy sector, and will invoke the Defense Production Act to spur domestic manufacturing of critical clean energy technologies, including solar panel parts.

The moves come as the solar energy industry has been roiled by a Commerce Department probe into whether companies in four Southeast Asian countries have circumvented the tariffs on Chinese shipments of solar equipment to the U.S. Those fears have slowed the development of large projects that are crucial to meeting the Biden administration’s goal of eliminating carbon emissions from the power sector by 2035.”

How a Tiny Solar Company in California Might Convince Biden To Sabotage America’s Whole Solar Industry

“A tiny solar panel manufacturing firm with outsized political clout is poised to wreak havoc on the entire American solar energy industry.

And the White House, which at least theoretically supports expanding America’s green energy industries, might just go along with the madness. It’s a tricky situation for President Joe Biden to navigate, one that requires choosing between two of his top policy priorities: industrial protectionism and combatting climate change.

In February, the California-based company Auxin Solar submitted a petition to the U.S. Department of Commerce asking for a more expansive set of tariffs targeting imported solar panels and their component parts. The company alleges that American solar panel manufacturers are avoiding tariffs on Chinese-made solar panels and components—tariffs originally imposed in 2018 by the Trump administration but renewed earlier this year by Biden—by buying parts made in Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam that are sometimes made with Chinese parts.

That is, of course, pretty much exactly what you’d expect any company to do. But Auxin argues that the federal government now has a responsibility to stop what it calls attempts to “circumvent” those tariffs on Chinese imports by imposing new tariffs on imports from those four other countries as well. In March, the Commerce Department launched an investigation to determine whether those tariffs are to be added.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), those prospective tariffs would target the source of about 80 percent of America’s supply of crystalline silicon photovoltaic cells, the fundamental building blocks of solar panels. In a letter to Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo in March, dozens of the SEIA’s member companies warned that the tariffs would “stall both ongoing and planned U.S. solar projects and lead to the loss of over 45,000 American jobs, including 15,000 domestic solar manufacturing jobs.” It would also mean losing about 14 gigawatts of planned solar deployment—about two-thirds of the Energy Information Administration’s target for solar deployment this year

All that, the SEIA warned, “because a single company is seeking to inappropriately exploit the law for market advantage.”

It sounds like a typical story of big business using its political clout to shut smaller competitors out of the market. But the bizarre thing about this fight is that relatively unsuccessful businesses are holding the rest of the market hostage. Because they have friends in Washington”

“this offers a lesson about how protectionism creates perverse incentives in markets and politics. Trump’s decision to impose tariffs on Chinese solar parts and Biden’s decision to extend those tariffs have created a bizarre situation where a bankrupt solar manufacturer and an “artisanal solar boutique” might get to dictate the future of an entire industry.”

Biden’s Baby Formula Airlift Stunt Should Never Have Been Necessary

“America’s current shortage of baby formula is a crisis created, in significant part, by the failures of government policy aimed at protecting domestic companies from foreign competition.

But rather than sweep aside the rules and regulations that have contributed to this mess, the Biden administration and Congress are gearing up to address a problem created by industrial policy with…more industrial policy. We’re now weeks into the crisis, but the best response that our political leaders have been able to muster is an attempt to use public resources to duplicate the market response that would have solved (or at least eased) the mess if it had merely been allowed to operate. The entire saga is a sad and infuriating commentary about the entirely predictable failures of central planning.

Take the White House’s latest idea for addressing the shortage as a perfect example. On Wednesday, President Joe Biden announced plans to send military aircraft to Europe—”Operation Fly Formula,” as the White House is calling it—to bring back formula for American parents.”

“The baby formula shortage isn’t the result of there not being enough planes to transport baby formula from Europe to the U.S.; it’s the result of the federal government making it nearly impossible to transport baby formula from Europe to the U.S.

As Reason’s Elizabeth Nolan Brown explained earlier this week, the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) rules that prohibit many baby formulas made in Europe from being imported to the U.S. have nothing to do with health or nutritional safety issues. Often, those brands are banned because they fail to meet the FDA’s labeling requirements.

In addition, the U.S. imposes huge tariffs—technically tariff-rate quotas, which are designed to make it completely unprofitable to import more than a small amount of a certain product—on imported formula. Those tariffs exist for no reason other than to protect domestic formula manufacturers and the American dairy industry that supplies them. As a result, about 98 percent of the formula sold in the United States is produced here as well.”

“Rather than moving to ease those regulations, however, the House of Representatives approved a bill on Wednesday that throws $28 million at the FDA to “boost the part of the workforce focused on formula, as well as FDA inspection staff,” according to CBS News. As if the FDA deserves to be rewarded for its incompetence and over-regulation of baby formula. This crisis demands less from the FDA, not more.”

By Refusing To End Trump’s Tariffs, Biden Is Making Inflation Worse

“there is one thing Biden could do to immediately provide consumers with relief. He could eliminate the tariffs imposed by former President Donald Trump.

Those tariffs, which Biden has been stubbornly unwilling to reverse during his first year in office, are adding roughly 0.5 percent to annual inflation across the economy. That’s the conclusion drawn by Ed Gresser, a former assistant U.S. Trade Representative who is currently the vice president and director for trade and global markets at the Progressive Policy Institute, a center-left think tank. Trump’s tariffs on washing machines, solar panels, steel, aluminum, and a host of Chinese-made goods are a “secondary but noticeable contribution” to overall inflation right now, Gresser writes.”

“Biden could cut tariffs without having to wait for Congress or the Federal Reserve to act. Similarly, cutting tariffs would not come with some of the negative tradeoffs that other actions might. Raising interest rates will harm the economy in other ways (for example, by making it more expensive to borrow). Lifting tariffs will ease inflation and provide a tax cut to many American businesses. It is quite literally a win-win.”

“Politicians might want to deploy tariffs (to raise prices) for a number of reasons: to protect domestic industries, to influence where in the world individuals choose to invest, to retaliate against what they perceive as unfair trade practices from other countries, and so on. But all those goals—and tariffs are poor ways of accomplishing most of them—are second-order functions. To the extent that any of those things occur, they happen because tariffs raise prices.”

Josh Hawley Wants to Make the Supply Chain Crisis Permanent

“In an op-ed for The New York Times published Friday, Hawley uses the temporary supply chain problems as an excuse to push for a permanent expansion of federal power over the affairs of private businesses. We must “fundamentally restructure our country’s trade policy,” Hawley demands, and that means injecting both the Pentagon and Commerce Department bureaucrats into companies’ purchasing decisions. Under the terms of a bill that Hawley is proposing, any product determined to be “critical for our national security and essential for the protection of our industrial base” would have to have at least 50 percent of its value made in the United States.

Why is it necessary for the government to get significantly more involved in the system of global trade that’s allowed Americans to enjoy unparalleled prosperity in recent years? Because “the global pandemic has exposed this system for what it is—a failure,” Hawley writes.

One must assume that if the lights in his home went out due to a storm, Hawley would respond by declaring electricity to be a mistake and demanding that the government require homes to be lit with candles and gas lamps. After all, what is the electrical grid but a complicated supply chain that leaves Americans woefully dependent on production and distribution systems (power plants, substations, and lines) that they do not fully control? Better to produce your own lighting, right? If that means you have to live without television or the internet, well, those are just the trade-offs required to achieve self-sufficiency.

A storm—or a pandemic—can create temporary problems in the highly complex systems that run so much of the modern world. That’s hardly a reason to abandon them. If Hawley is imagining a world in which the United States is wholly self-sufficient, then he’s asking you to accept a scenario in which the United States is significantly poorer than it is today.”

“Hawley says the supply chain crisis is the result of “a crisis of production.” Wrong again. American manufacturing is stronger than it has ever been, in part because outsourcing low-level production has allowed companies here to focus on higher-value goods (which means higher wages for the people who make and sell them). The true cause of the current mess is a disconnect between supply and demand—supplies have been constrained by a number of pandemic-related issues like temporarily closed factories and worker shortages, while demand has shifted in unexpected ways.”

“If his thesis is correct, then items that are already mostly produced domestically should be exempt from the problems with foreign supply chains, right? Except, no, that’s not true. As Scott Lincicome, a senior fellow with the Cato Institute, points out, the vast majority of food consumed in the United States is grown, raised, and otherwise produced here. And yet Americans are seeing higher prices and supply issues at the grocery store too.

“That a mostly‐domestic U.S. food supply chain hasn’t protected American consumers from recent shortages and price increases is unsurprising,” Lincicome writes. “For starters, many of the same things that stress global supply chains—COVID-19 outbreaks; supply‐demand imbalances; labor shortages in the trucking and warehousing industries; misguided trade, transportation, and immigration policies; etc.—stress domestic ones too.””

Stop The Steel: Biden Is Replacing Trump’s Tariffs With Import Quotas

“The Biden administration has reached a deal with the European Union to withdraw tariffs imposed by President Donald Trump on European-made steel. Unfortunately, the agreement likely won’t translate into lower costs for American manufacturers and consumers.
That’s because the Biden administration is replacing Trump’s tariffs with a new form of protectionism that will continue to artificially inflate the cost of steel imported from Europe. Instead of charging 25 percent tariffs on all steel imports, as Trump did, Biden’s deal includes a so-called “tariff-rate quota” that will allow 3.3 million metric tons of steel to be imported annually without tariffs. Once that threshold is met, the 25 percent tariffs will apply to subsequent imports. For reference, the U.S. imported nearly 5 million metric tons of steel from Europe in 2017—the last full year before Trump’s tariffs caused imports to fall sharply.”

Americans Paid $7.6 Billion in Tariffs During August, a New Monthly Record

“Former President Donald Trump hiked tariffs on a wide range of imported goods, President Joe Biden has refused to cut them, and that bipartisan opposition to free trade means Americans are now paying higher import taxes than ever.

The federal government collected more than $7.6 billion in tariffs during the month of August, according to recently released figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, which tracks economic data. That’s an amount that exceeds even the highest single-month total during the Trump administration and one that dwarves monthly tariff revenue from earlier years.”

“It can be a mistake to make too much out of a single month’s economic data, but these numbers provide some small insight into the failures of the Trump administration’s trade policies. Higher tariffs did not reduce Americans’ desire to buy imported goods. They did not reduce the trade deficit (quite the opposite, in fact). They were not paid for by China or other foreign nations, but by American companies importing those goods (and the costs are passed along to other buyers and consumers down the supply chain).”

“Revenue extracted by the federal government is not the only cost imposed by tariffs, of course. They also warp supply chains, change investment decisions, and encourage more spending on lobbyists and lawyers.”

Tariffs on Chinese Imports Have Accomplished Approximately Nothing

“At the core of former President Donald Trump’s aggressive trade policies was a relatively simple—perhaps overly simplified—promise: Tariffs on Chinese-made products would drive manufacturers out of China.

“Many tariffed companies will be leaving China for Vietnam and other such countries in Asia,” Trump claimed in May 2019, about a year after his tariffs were first imposed. “China wants to make a deal so badly. Thousands of companies are leaving because of the Tariffs,” he tweeted a few months later, suggesting that the outflow was already underway. “If you want certainty, bring your plants back to America,” Robert Lighthizer, Trump’s U.S. trade representative, lightly threatened in a New York Times op-ed in May 2020, as the trade war’s second anniversary arrived.

But the tariffs failed to achieve that primary policy aim, according to a new paper published by researchers at the University of Kansas and the University of California, Irvine. Roughly 11 percent of multinational companies exited China in 2019, the first full year in which tariffs were in place—a significant increase from previous years. But the overall number of multinational firms operating in China actually increased during that same year, as foreign investment continued to flow into China even as the trade war ratcheted up costs.

In fact, the number of U.S.-based multinationals in China actually increased from 16,141 in 2017 to 16,536 in 2019. Non-U.S. companies were more likely to exit China during 2019 despite not being subjected to Trump’s tariffs.

“We estimate that less than 1 percent of the increase in U.S. firm exits during this period was due to U.S. tariffs. And U.S. firms were no more likely to divest than firms from Europe or Asia,” researchers Jiakun Jack Zhang and Samantha Vortherms wrote in The Washington Post this week.”

“Trump is no longer running U.S. trade policy, but his failed tariffs on Chinese imports are still in force. Lighthizer’s replacement in the Biden administration, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai, has said the tariffs provide “leverage” over China.

But that perspective is no more grounded in reality than Trump’s promises that his tariffs would cause companies to flee China. American consumers are bearing nearly 93 percent of the costs of the tariffs applied to Chinese goods, according to a recent report from Moody’s Investors Service. How is this giving the White House leverage over China?”