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Certainly since Donald Trump has been elected president, there’s been a tension even among his most supposedly hawkish trade policy advisers over basic objectives: Should the United States seek to solve its major trade-related problems mainly by promoting exports, or mainly by curbing imports? Of course, the two goals aren’t mutually exclusive. But the first suggests that the nation’s approach to trade will essentially be more of the same (albeit executed more competently), while the latter suggests a significant shift and is vigorously put into effect.

That’s one trade-related reason why Mr. Trump’s new budget proposal is so interesting and potentially important. If you believe that “money talks,” or “deeds count more than words” or any homilies to that effect, then it looks like that the tension has been resolved in favor of import limits – which would be good news indeed if it remains intact.

The reasons, as I’ve long written, are pretty simple, and should be much more obvious than they’ve been. First, for all its problems, the U.S. economy has been growing faster recently than most major world economies. And unlike the faster growers (mainly in the developing world), America’s growth isn’t export-led or -heavy. For that reason alone, its domestic market continues to be the world’s paramount emerging market.

Second, that relatively fast growth, combined with the ongoing export-heavy nature of most foreign economies means, and the huge and chronic American trade deficit, means that the size of the U.S. domestic market into which domestic producers can sell is enormous in absolute terms and indeed much bigger relative to foreign markets than widely realized. After all, this American market includes not only whatever growth the United States can generate going forward, but the large chunks of its market currently controlled by foreign competition.

Third, however much leverage the United States enjoys in global trade, and over foreign countries, its influence over its own market will always be much greater. And that goes double for countries with long records of sweeping protectionism.

Fourth, the domestic market is the market that domestic American producers should know best. Therefore, despite its undeniably impressive dynamism, these domestic producers have less to learn about customer preferences than is the case with foreign market.

For examples of the administration’s apparent ambivalence, simply check out statements made in the confirmation hearings of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and U.S. Trade Representative-designate Robert Lighthizer. Indeed, it’s easy to conclude that their stated bottom line endorses the export-focused approach.

But the new Trump budget document is sending the opposite message – and its declared spending priorities arguably matter more than even sworn testimony. Specifically, according to the Commerce Department section, the final budget

Strengthens the International Trade Administration’s trade enforcement and compliance functions, including the anti-dumping and countervailing duty investigations, while rescaling the agency’s export promotion and trade analysis activities.”

Not that this text is the end of the story, or even close. As widely recognized, the new budget statement is the first step in a lengthy process in which Congress will be heavily involved. Moreover, because so much of it is so controversial, and because the nation is so far from a consensus on official spending priorities, it’s entirely likely that the current budget priorities will simply wind up being carried over for the time being.

And as for trade policy specifically, Commerce Department funding will be far from the only determinant as to where the administration will put most of its energies. Just one example: the structure of whatever new or revised trade agreements it seeks will matter greatly as well. So will the fate of the border adjustability feature of the House Republican leadership’s tax reform proposals – which would both in effect penalize imports and subsidize exports. Moreover, because the U.S. trade law system is so (inevitably) slow-moving, episodic and reactive, relying exclusively or even mainly on this traditional trade enforcement tool will become a recipe for trade policy failure.    

But the Commerce budget priorities appear to be a straw in the wind that’s unmistakable – and because realistic, unmistakably welcome.

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