Julie Doll: Farmers losing ground competing globally

Julie Doll
Special to Gannett Kansas
A native of Garden City, Julie Doll is a former journalist who has worked at newspapers across Kansas.

Kansas is losing ground under current trade policy, as farmers nationwide see longtime trade surpluses turn into deficits.

Through the first four months of 2020, the nation’s agriculture-related trade balance is running at a deficit, a rare if not unprecedented event.

U.S. ag imports exceeded exports in three of the first four months of the year. The cumulative trade deficit stood at about $730 million at the end of April, the most recent figure available.

The numbers are what America has to show for President Donald Trump’s attacks on trade pacts and foreign alliances. COVID-19 has played a small but temporary role, as evidenced by the annual numbers since 2016.

That year, the United States exported $20.2 billion more in agricultural goods than it imported. The surplus has shrunk every year since, and in 2019, it was $5.6 billion. Exports of grains, meat and other farm commodities have been flat or falling, while imports of farm goods have increased.

Trump’s policies aren’t the only reason, but his destructive decisions and half-baked deals have damaged overseas markets, not only for farmers and ranchers, but for almost everyone who depends on international trade. That includes Kansas manufacturers that build aircraft, farm equipment and navigation systems, and thousands of other companies that do business internationally.

The pandemic does skew the picture somewhat. For example, a huge drop in all U.S. exports of goods and services in April is certainly connected to COVID-19.

But nothing in the longer-term trends suggests that Trump’s trade policies are helping U.S. farmers and companies grow international markets.

That’s because they are more of a political device than an economic strategy.

One need look no further than the president’s approach to China to understand the difference. When he ran for president, Trump promised that he would get tough with China on trade. Once elected, he raised taxes — aka tariffs — on goods imported from China and many other nations. Those tariffs cost U.S. consumers and businesses billions of dollars.

The stated goal was to compel manufacturers to move jobs back to the United States, but mostly, Trump’s tariffs hurt U.S. farmers, who saw most exports to China drop. Meanwhile, rather than move jobs to the United States, U.S. businesses tended to shift their international purchases to countries not targeted by Trump, or to countries and companies the president had granted tariff exemptions.

The result? The overall trade deficit in goods in 2019 was more than $850 billion, compared to a little more than $735 billion in 2016.

Lots of rhetoric, but little benefit — that’s the hallmark of this administration.

The president’s focus on politics also explains why Trump repeatedly praised China’s leaders until recently. Even as his intelligence agencies told him that China was providing misleading information about the pandemic, Trump continued to laud the country’s communist leaders.

Only after his administration seriously botched the response to the pandemic did Trump decide China was a bad actor. With the economy tanking and an election only a few months away, he needed scapegoats. So, as they have so many times before, short-term political ambitions superseded other considerations.

The president continues to hail his trade deals as the best deals ever made. But boasts and brags don’t change the numbers. And the numbers show farmers are losing ground as they try to compete globally.

A native of Garden City, Julie Doll is a former journalist who has worked at newspapers across Kansas.