Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Navarro's snake oil will sicken the world

Edited version first posted on Asia Times.

Why would a Harvard PhD economist and tenured college professor make a public ass of himself with ridiculous assertions about China that no self-respecting economist would claim ownership?

I posed the question to Professor John Graham, Peter Navarro’s colleague at University of California at Irvine Merage School of Business. He joined the faculty in 1989, the same year as Navarro. Now that Navarro has left to join the Trump Administration, Graham has taken over the course Navarro started on China.

“I am not sure I know why,” Graham said, “In sum, the three books he’s written about China are xenophobic trash. They contain some truths, but Navarro cherry picks the data to prove his points.  Ultimately it’s nothing but yellow journalism.”

He goes on to say, “Navarro has no first hand familiarity of China, doesn’t show any understanding of China and doesn’t speak Chinese. When asked how many times he’s been to China, he evades and doesn’t answer.”

A former UCI professor and colleague confirmed saying, “He generally avoided people who actually knew something about the country.”

Needed help to teach a course on China

After publishing several China-related books, Navarro decided to create his own China relations course, named "China and the Global Order." When Benjamin Leffel, a China specialist and Sociology Ph.D. student at UC Irvine, became aware of Navarro's writings, he reached out to Navarro and questioned his views.

The meeting led to Navarro asking Leffel to act as the counterweight in his China class. Leffel created most of the syllabus using respected academic material in China studies, Navarro's contribution being his own book and documentary.

Leffel wanted to throw out Navarro's materials, but Navarro did not agree. (After Navarro joined the Trump Administration, Leffel and Graham discarded his material from the syllabus.) Despite such a frontal disagreement, Navarro kept Leffel as his instructor and teaching assistant, who in fact did most of the teaching--and who exhaustively corrected the falsehoods and exaggerations found in Navarro's material.  

How would he summarize his experience working with Navarro, I asked Leffel. He said, "it was a tense but successful exercise in working with someone with radically different views, something we need now more than ever.”

Graham speculated that perhaps Navarro was motivated by TV exposure; his books and video documentary were calculated to get him media attention. That was an insightful observation.

Navarro, a Gordon Chang wannabe?

Indeed, Navarro may have taken a page from Gordon Chang’s playbook. Chang published the “Coming Collapse of China” in 2001. In view of China quadrupling the size of its economy since that publication, Chang should have eggs all over his face.

Instead Navarro can see that his friend became a media darling and is frequently interviewed about his views on China. The so called fake news people, those we would otherwise consider as mainstream media, know that they can always count on Chang to give a colorful and negative point of view about China.

Navarro has taken China bashing as the road to success to another level. He writes better than Chang, is more telegenic and has resources to tap that are not available to Chang. Nucor Foundation gave him a $1 million to turn his book into a documentary, which he then premiered from coast to coast.

Chang attended those premiers and celebrated with selfies taken with Navarro. Sometime between Chang’s book in 2001 and Navarro’s “Death by China” in 2011, they have become fast friends.

To celebrate their friendship, Navarro even wrote an article in defense of Chang called, “Revenge of Gordon Chang and the Coming Collapse of China.” The piece also appeared in National Interest on May 7, 2016.

When it comes to China, Navarro is not driven by facts and has no desire to write with authenticity and scholarship. To my knowledge, none of his papers on China have been published in peer reviewed, prestigious academic or professional journals.

He coauthored with Wilbur Ross an economic plan for the incoming Trump Administration. A public letter from 370 economists, including 19 Nobel laureates, labeled the plan “as immediate and unmitigated disaster.”

Despite such condemnation, Navarro now stands as the key economic whisperer to President Trump.

A five times loser in politics

In his earlier life, Navarro ran unsuccessfully for political office. He came within a whisker of becoming the mayor of San Diego, the second largest city of California. That was his first attempt running for public office and led the primary field with 38.2% of the votes.

In the general election runoff, it was his election to lose, and lose he did. He was nasty and vicious in attacking his opponent, Susan Golding, reducing her to tears in the last televised debate. The voters turned against Navarro.

He was to run for various offices in San Diego four more times. Each time his campaign tactic was nastier than the previous. Mudslinging was his standard procedure. Even his campaign manager called him a scoundrel.

When Navarro was first announced as joining the Trump Administration, San Diego Union Tribune, the local newspaper published a pointedly hostile review of his past association with the city (12/21/16). The headline read, “How many elections did Navarro lose?”

Charlie Cook, a nationally recognized political analyst, met Navarro once and vividly remembers that Navarro is one of the most obnoxious political candidates he has ever met. (Politico, 3/11/17)

In one election post mortem, Navarro admitted, “I don’t have any concerns at all about making stuff up about my opponent that isn’t exactly true.”

When asked why he began to pay attention to China. His reply was that it was when he noticed some of his students were losing jobs to China. Factory workers might lose jobs when plants shut down but MBA students don’t lose jobs to China. Nice try, Peter.

The public media is in part responsible for enabling a 5 time political loser to join the inner sanctum of Trump’s White House. When Navarro spouts nonsense, it’s the responsibility of the media to challenge his assertions and not give him a pass.

Now Navarro will be part of the team steering the US economic policy. It’s too early to tell whether he will be a mere transitory blip in history or an unmitigated disaster feared by many. If Trump really listens to him, only the Almighty can save us. Trump has just announced $60 billion worth of tariff duty on goods from China. That’s not an encouraging development.

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