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

I could spend all day today rebutting ignorant, biased, and simply inane commentary on President Trump’s Thursday announcement that stiff tariffs will be imposed on U.S. imports of steel and aluminum (along with watching the plethora of college hoops on TV today!). Instead, I’ll offer some follow-on thoughts to the tariff talking points I posted yesterday.

>The European Union in particular seems outraged by the Trump decision, and has threatened to retaliate with tariffs on its own on a wide range of products, including some from Wisconsin and Kentucky. These of course happen to be the home states of House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. It’s an understandable, and certainly clever, impulse, and in 2003, something like it succeeded in convincing former President George W. Bush to lift steel tariffs he had imposed 18 months earlier.

Of course, Bush 43 was no Trump. He was a committed free trader and globalist, and/or agent of of America’s powerful corporate offshoring lobby. But here’s something that needs to be considered by Messrs Ryan, McConnell, and other lawmakers at whom the Europeans or other powers may take aim: What if, shortly after September 11, Osama Bin Laden had threatened to destroy major targets in their home states or districts unless the United States withdrew militarily from Afghanistan and left him alone. Would the affected legislators have run to the White House to plead for an abandonment in the war on terror? Not likely.

I know that war and economics are different (although given the importance of economic strength as a source of military strength and overall national success, the similarities and overlap are widely overlooked). But don’t doubt for a minute that American politicians’ reactions to these European threats will be watched closely in all the world’s capitals, and that signs of weakness will be factored into foreign decisions to abide by or violate current trade agreements at the U.S.’ expense, or take other measures to gain advantage in their own, American, or third-country markets that clash with free market and free trade norms.

So here’s hoping that American Members of Congress and Senators will show some backbone, and make clear to the nation’s trade partners that they won’t permit themselves and the country at large to be hanged separately.

>Speaking of hanging separately, quite naturally, U.S. steel- and aluminum-consuming industries are concerned that their global competitiveness will be harmed if they’re forced to use more domestic metal in their products. They need to keep two considerations in mind. First, if foreign governments are permitted by Washington’s inaction to dump major American industries like aluminum and steel out of existence, consuming sectors would be next in line. 

Second, there is indeed no inherent reason to make the consuming industries pay any penalty at all. When I was at the U.S. Business and Industry Council, which represented many steel-consuming companies and industry groups, we persuaded them that the best solution would be tariff protection for them as well. The tariff complaints coming from such sectors today reveals that the Trump administration hasn’t put this possibility on the table. That’s a major missed opportunity, and the President should realize that such offers not only can build support for the steel and aluminum tariffs. They can also expand the constituency for broader America First trade policies. (New Trump statements on possible auto tariffs make clear exactly the types of steps needed, although as is usually the case, they work best when applied across-the-board.)   

>Speaking of missed opportunities, here’s another (big) one – the handling of some allied countries’ indignation about being treated as threats to America’s national security because of their steel and/or aluminum shipments. In several major cases, these complaints could have been prevented had the administration recognized that Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom are defined by American law as part of the nation’s defense “technology and industrial base.”

I’m not necessarily a supporter of this policy, but since it exists, these countries have an entirely legitimate point regarding their possible inclusion in the metals’ tariff regime. And the Trump administration should have explained to them that they were of course being exempted. Moreover, the Defense Department should have told the rest of the administration about the legal and legislative situation. Yet Pentagon chief James Mattis’ memo to his administration colleagues outlining his department’s position on the tariffs never mentioned it.

Not that these allied countries are entirely blameless for the row. They could have raised the issue when the prospect of sweeping U.S. tariffs was first raised. But all indications are that they preferred to grandstand.

>As should now be expected, the media coverage of the tariff controversy has often veered off into economics and policy La-La Land. Two of the funniest examples I’ve seen so far (and they’re nearly identical): criticizing the announced tariffs because they only boast the potential of bringing back high-value manufacturing to the United States instead of lots of industrial jobs.

Think I’m kidding? Here’s Washington Post correspondent David J. Lynch: “If tariffs prompt companies to move production back to the United States, they would likely opt for highly automated plants that require fewer workers. Trump’s tariffs ‘would bring back 21st-century factories where we lost 20th-century factories,” [economist Gordon] Hanson said this week at the National Association for Business Economics conference in Washington.”

Here’s no less than Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul M. Krugman: “[T]he tariffs now being proposed would boost capital-intensive industries that employ relatively few workers per dollar of sales; these tariffs would, if anything, further tilt the distribution of income against labor.”

What both authors are somehow missing is how manufacturing is valuable for much more than high wage employment. It’s long been the nation’s leader in productivity growth. It generates nearly 69 percent of private sector American spending on research and development. And don’t forget its high employment and output multipliers – which mean that each dollar of manufacturing output punches far above its weight in generation production and jobs elsewhere in the economy.

That last point is particularly relevant to Krugman’s claim about labor’s low share of national incomes. The manufacturing employment multiplier tells us that adding to industry in America – including capital-intensive industry – will promote employment in related sectors like logistics, plus revitalize the retail and other service sectors of the towns and cities and counties where the new factories are built. Those jobs may not pay as well as the manufacturing jobs lost. But they’re sure better than the economic death that often results when communities lose their factories.