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President Trump has been slow so far to launch the major trade policy transformation he promised during his campaign – in part because most of his trade policy team has taken so long to be confirmed by Congress, and in part because (especially in the case of Japan), he seems so far to be listening too closely to national security advisers who clearly prioritize alliance relationships over economics. But his election has already triggered major upheaval in America’s trade politics, and in the process fatally weakened one of the leading arguments advanced against curbing imports.

The trade politics earthquake has three major related sources. First, Republican Congressional leaders like House Speaker Paul Ryan and especially Ways and Means Committee Chair Kevin Brady, who have long strongly supported jobs-killing trade deals and related policies, have become major champions of a measure that would create one of the biggest trade barriers in American history – the so-called Border Adjustment Tax (BAT). Their proposal, which is part of the House Republicans’ larger tax reform package, would offset the discriminatory effects of foreign value-added taxes (VATs) by imposing levies on imports – as well as by supporting exports by exempting them from taxes.

Their change of heart in turn surely stems at least partly from the second big change in trade politics – a major shift among Republican voters on trade policy. As I’ve reported previously, whereas for decades, they tended to support freer trade, and the policies that have ostensibly sought to further liberalize global commerce, more recent polls show that the GOP base has turned against the idea. (Democrats, however, have become much more positive on trade’s impact on the American economy.) And the evidence goes far beyond polls – as made clear by Mr. Trump’s capture of the GOP presidential nomination over numerous free-trading rivals and his November triumph.

But it’s the final trade politics shift that has really floored me. Many of the big multinational manufacturing companies that have also strongly pushed for those same deficit-boosting trade deals – because they made it easier to source products from abroad and supply the U.S. market from foreign production sites – support the BAT, too. In fact, they’ve created a lobbying coalition to turn the idea into law.

And it’s their BAT stance that has weakened a longstanding pillar of free-trade thinking: the insistence that any sweeping tariff measures (like the BAT) would actually backfire on domestic U.S. manufacturers and other producers by raising the cost of imported inputs they use – like parts, components, and materials. Here’s the latest example of this claim – from a former bigwig at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, no less.

I’ve presented the evidence revealing that this argument completely ignores the immense existing scale of American inputs manufacturing – and the huge markets, new growth, and jobs gains that would result by replacing foreign-made goods with these U.S.-made products. But at least as important is how the multinational practitioners themselves are refuting the theorists by endorsing the BAT.

Incidentally, the multinationals’ BAT position could indicate that I’ve been wrong about their trade performance and about the principal rationale for their backing of offshoring-friendly trade agreements – data I’ve seen showing that they import much more than they export. For if they were indeed big contributors to America’s trade deficits (that is, big net importers), then you’d think they’d be much more concerned about potentially more expensive imports than about any export boost possible from the BAT. The companies themselves, as I’ve repeatedly stated, know the definitive answer – at least regarding their own trade performance. But as long as they’re not required to disclose their import and export figures – as opposed to releasing cherry-picked numbers – we can’t be sure.

But this business enthusiasm for the BAT could also stem from an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” mentality – as General Electric chief Jeffrey Immelt has signaled. In other words, perhaps they’ve decided that more localized production everywhere is an irresistible wave of the future – at least for the time being. Alternatively, the multinationals could believe that they themselves could enter the aforementioned new BAT-created domestic input manufacturing markets. If these businesses believe that the rest of that tax reform package along with the regulatory relief President Trump has promised will lower domestic American business costs further, domestic sourcing could become all the more attractive. Another possibility – precisely because America’s and their own export performance has been so relatively weak, they view foreign markets as an especially exciting growth opportunity that the BAT tax breaks could open wide. And the likeliest possibility? The answer for most of these companies is a mix of some or all of the above.

What is certain, however, is that we’re now hearing, “No thanks” from the companies that economists keep telling us are among the biggest beneficiaries of cheap imports furnished by wide open trade policies. Of course, the retailers – which relay so heavily for their profits on cheap consumer goods imports – are campaigning just as hard against the BAT. The plan’s verdict will speak volumes about whether Americans, and their political system, assign more value to making stuff or to buying it.

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