, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Whatever you think of him personally, Americans should be grateful to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign for at least one big reason: The longer the New York magnate runs for the Republican nomination, the more evidence emerges of how pitifully weak the case for maintaining current U.S. trade policies has become. Here are just two recent examples.

The first comes from last weekend’s Washington Post Outlook piece claiming that Trump’s arguments for using tariffs to boost American economic growth and employment rests on “five myths.” The piece is full of problems – like the insistence that Washington has never signed a free trade agreement with China debunks Trump’s contention that U.S. trade policy toward the PRC has been disastrously mismanaged. Talk about taking literalism to an absurd extreme!

But even stranger is the argument that better U.S. trade policies won’t bring back significant numbers of offshored manufacturing jobs because “Many economists doubt that companies would move much factory work back from China. They wouldn’t be certain how long tariffs might last, for example, and wouldn’t want to be stuck with higher U.S. production costs if trade flows picked up again under a future president.”

Translated into plain English, this contention essentially states that Trump-like tariffs wouldn’t work because before long…there might not be any Trump-like tariffs. On the one hand, it’s true that policy measures in countries with representative governments are rarely written in stone. On the other hand, if that’s the predominant framework, then maybe we should apply it to other issues as well – and logically conclude that almost nothing government does will produce benefits because none of the relevant private sector actors will assume that such actions last? Or should we instead examine the intrinsic strengths and weaknesses of proposals and not play the mug’s game of predicting the politics?

The second big problem is actually one that’s resurfaced – the media’s habit of touting endorsements of current trade policies (and condemnations of any alternatives) by citing the opinion of supposed experts with no track record of being right on trade. No more egregious an instance of this practice has appeared lately than a March 31 Reuters article featuring the anti-tariff perspectives of one of George W. Bush’s chief trade negotiators Susan Schwab, and Wendy Cutler, a multi-decade veteran of the U.S. Trade Representative’s office.

As Reuters made clear, among Schwab’s achievements was negotiating “major portions” of the new U.S. free trade deal with South Korea. Cutler was the chief American diplomat working on this agreement during the Obama years. What Reuters didn’t make clear was how disastrous the Korea deal has turned out for the American economy, as the U.S. merchandise trade deficit with Korea has more than quadrupled on a monthly basis since it went into effect in March, 2012.

More broadly, the trade deficit heavily shaped by trade policies – the non-oil goods deficit – stayed astronomical under Schwab’s tenure despite a slowing economy and surged throughout Cutler’s. Are Schwab and Cutler solely to blame? Of course not. Did Reuters present any evidence that anything they did helped stem the tide? Again, of course not.

The economists that seem to be most often showcased in articles attacking the Trump positions aren’t to blame for such American trade policy failures, either. But their credentials are dubious as well. In particular, Peter Petri of Brandeis University and the Peterson Institute for International Economics (featured, e.g., here) and Mark Zandi of Moody’s Analytics (featured, e.g., here) have been more than happy to insist that Trump-like tariffs would backfire big-time on the U.S. economy. They may be right. But is there any evidence of either one correctly predicting the outcomes of previous American trade measures, like admitting China into the World Trade Organization? None that shows up in exhaustive Google searches.

Scrutinizing the proposals and promises of office-seekers is definitely a major media duty. But judging from the debate so far, reporting how much opposition to Trump-like tariffs consists of inanities, and comes from critics with no special claim to credibility, should be a much bigger part of this story.