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Two related items of interest. First, Financial Times trade reporter Shawn Donnan writes an excellent piece on the role of American technology fears in the now-ignited US trade war with China. (Donnan: “While the headlines about the Trump administration’s trade war with Beijing often focus on raw materials such as steel, aluminium and soyabeans, the underlying motivation of the new protectionist mood is American anxiety about China’s rapidly growing technological prowess.”)
Second, Axios technology report Steve LeVine writes up a new study that finds greater Trump support in the 2016 presidential election in local job markets that were more exposed to automation in previous years. (LeVine: “At a 10% lower robot exposure, Michigan would have swung in favor of Clinton. If robots barely increased in the years leading up to 2016, Clinton would also have won Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.”)
Now I frequently read items such as those two and continue to be amazed at how little attention President Trump pays to the tech aspect of trade, defense, labor, and other issues. Take the president’s recent speech in Great Falls, Montana. Not surprisingly, he spoke about trade. Also not surprisingly, at least to me, he failed to mention issues such as Chinese theft of intellectual property or forced tech transfer, although he has in the past and clearly it’s a key aspect of the trade issue for some of his trade team such as Peter Navarro. (It reminded me of that curious Trump tribute to truckers last year that failed to acknowledge the threat from autonomous vehicles.) Rather, Trump focused on the large US-China trade gap, which is clearly and unfortunately how he mainly mentally frames the issue and typically discusses it.
Then there’s the ZTE issue. From the FT:
When the US commerce department earlier this year banned ZTE, the Chinese handset and telecoms network equipment maker, from buying US chips and other components over the violation of US sanctions on Iran and North Korea, it in effect put the company out of business. However, Mr Trump subsequently bowed to a request from Mr Xi to become involved in the ZTE case, tweeting that the ban meant “too many jobs in China lost”. His intervention led to a lifting of the ban and the adoption of a plea deal that was not only seen as a major concession but also left allies — being targeted at the same time with tariffs — bemused. “We’re treating the Chinese better than we are treating our friends,” says Derek Scissors, a China expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, who sees the tariffs Mr Trump is threatening against European car imports as a similar bit of malpractice. “We’ve now got this threat looming in the distance over our allies that is far worse than anything we are doing to the Chinese. We really have lost the plot on who is causing our trade problems.”
A search of Trump speeches over the past year finds little mention of technology issues. (I am setting aside the president’s Twitter war against Amazon.) No mention of “artificial intelligence,” for instance, and just one of “robotics.” This is odd, especially given that our chief economic/military/diplomatic/ideological rival is positively tech obsessed. Even stranger, there certainly are folks in the Trump administration who are focusing on tech, including his Council of Economic Advisers. (The 2018 Economic Report of the President, for example, has a nice section on AVs.) And there was an AI conference at the White House in May.
Yet none of that seems to be breaking though to the president, at least in his public pronouncements. Seems like a missed opportunity. As one tech exec says in the FT piece: “The Trump administration should focus on making our economy and tech industry stronger. If everyone is so worried about Made in China 2025 [China’s plan to lead in key technologies], why don’t we do Made in USA 2025 to compete?” A good idea, especially if such a plan reinforced the American way of innovation, including entrepreneurship, immigration, and investment. And along with it, a plan to rethink education, training, and the safety net so Americans are more likely to embrace tech change rather than fear it.
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