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One of the strangest aspects of the debate over the new Trump tariffs is the way analysts and reporters and pundits are now handling the issue of productivity in the American steel industry, which along with aluminum will receive the benefit of these levies.

Usually, industries like steel that win trade protection are described as economic losers – they supposedly need this government crutch because they’ve grown fat and lazy, or technologically obsolete, and as a result have lost whatever ability they’ve had to meet the challenge of global competition. Here’s a typical allegation along these lines made in 2002 by the globalization and free trade cheering Economist magazine – when President George W. Bush imposed tariffs on U.S. steel imports. The charge has been echoed much more recently by economist Michael Mandel.

Nowadays, though, tariff opponents have come up with a new twist: American steel-makers in particular don’t need protection precisely because they’ve become highly competitive. According to this perspective, the steel protectionists inside the outside the White House are overlooking how the major steel job losses they’re obsessing about have resulted overwhelmingly not from predatory foreign competition, but because steel companies have become so efficient that they can produce much more of the metal with a much smaller workforce.

There’s no doubt that the U.S. steel industry has dramatically boosted its competitiveness by introducing new technology and other forms of knowhow into its factories. The authors of the above Economist editorial clearly didn’t know about findings, published in the prestigious American Economic Review, that over the roughly 30 years preceding their leader, the sector’s “output per worker grew by a factor of five, while total factor productivity (TFP) increased by 38 percent. This [made] the steel sector one of the fastest growing of the manufacturing industries over the last three decades, behind only the computer software and equipment industries.”

Moreover, because virtually no American steel firms supply the domestic market with offshored production, virtually none of the labor productivity increase cited above has stemmed from the misleading upward bias to recorded labor productivity figures created by this practice.

But 2002 was then. What about now? Is Mandel right about steel as a latter day productivity growth laggard? Not according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which compiles and publishes the productivity data for the government. Its figures show that the American primary metals sector, which includes steel and aluminum, increased its multi-factor productivity by 5.52 percent between 2008 (when the last recession took hold) and 2015 (the latest figures).

Manufacturing overall, by comparison, saw its productivity actually worsen by this measure – considered the most accurate gauge of an admittedly elusive performance indicator – by five percent during this period. Moreover, durable goods manufacturing – the industrial super-sector containing primary metals – saw its multi-factor productivity shrink by 1.28 percent between 2008 and 2015.

So The Economist and Mandel plainly have given steel a wholly unjustified bad productivity rap. But does that mean that those who have recognized steel’s outstanding recent productivity growth are right to argue that the resulting job loss in no way warrants tariffs? Not exactly.

For even though steel and other primary metals have been productivity growth leaders, they’ve been laggards not only in job creation, but in output. Indeed, during that 2008-15 period, primary metals’ inflation-adjusted production sank by more than three times faster (15.98 percent) as overall manufacturing output (5.22 percent). The output gap was even wider between steel and durable goods in toto (-1.28 percent).

A highly productive industry facing a vast import tide that’s been shrinking in constant dollar terms doesn’t prove definitively that trade is central to steel’s problems. But it’s awfully suggestive – indicating in the process that, despite its good productivity deed, the U.S. steel industry is nonetheless being punished.