It’s like the Washington Post, and especially the folks who run its op-ed page, will do anything to slam President Trump’s tariff-centric trade policies. Example number 4,369,589? A piece not from an Offshoring Lobby mainstay, or one of this pressure group’s hired gun think tank hacks, or an academic economist with his or her head stuck in the clouds – but from two of America’s leading chefs and restaurateurs.
I’ll give Post editors and the authors – Kwame Onwuachi and Alice Waters – style points for creativity at least. The article contends that a great way for apparent President-elect Joe Biden to provide some desperately needed help for a national restaurant sector decimated by the CCP Virus would be to lift a set of tariffs imposed by Mr. Trump on European food products. The tariffs, they contend, are adding 25 percent to the costs of restaurants that use these products exactly at a time when few establishments in this usually low-margin sector can afford such burdens.
Unfortunately, all the piece makes clear is that chefs and restaurateurs should stick to cooking and serving and running their own businesses rather than advising the nation on trade, and that the folks at the Post should try requiring their authors to meet some minimal standards of credible argumentation.
After all, as Onwuachi and Waters themselves point out, these Trump tariffs were imposed last October 19. And the nation’s restaurants seemed to be doing just fine until…the pandemic and the lockdowns came along. So blaming the trade curbs for any significant contribution to the restaurant crisis seems a major stretch.
No doubt dining establishments that rely heavily on sales of products stressed by the authors like “wine from France, Spain and Germany, whiskey from Ireland and Scotland, and Spanish olives and olive oil, along with cheeses from all over the continent, pork, and much more” are now seeing their remaining (post-lockdowns) earnings suffering.
But nowhere in the piece are readers given the bigger picture. For example, what share of the nation’s restaurants even serve any of these foods or beverages? And what share of their total costs do such imports from Europe represent? Further, what percentage of these restaurants have closed for good, meaning that tariff elimination won’t provide them with a speck of relief at all? As RealityChek regulars know, presenting economic data in isolation is the first refuge of an intellectual scoundrel.
The authors – and their editors – also seem unaware that lots of domestic substitutes are available for these European products. For instance, on the eve of the pandemic, U.S.-produced wine accounted for about two-thirds of all the wine sold in the country both by value and by volume. I’m no oenophile, but I keep hearing that many measure up quite well against their foreign counterparts – and often better. In addition, not all the imports, or even the choice imports, come from Europe, as connoisseurs of Australian, South American, and South African wines can attest.
It’s a shame that the Trump tariffs won’t enable the restaurants that do maintain an extensive European wine menu to offer their customers exactly what they want, at exactly the prices to which they’re accustomed. But I strongly suspect that diners today are in a pretty supportive, accomodating mood. And if restaurateurs are indeed desperate – which so many clearly are – they won’t gripe excessively about switching to non-tariffed wines.
Moreover, any restaurateur worth his or her salt should have the marketing chops to encourage customers to expand their palates. Heaven knows they’ve succeeded extraordinarily in persuading Americans to sample all sorts of new, exotic, and often downright weird dishes and drinks containing equally new, exotic, and often downright weird ingredients and combinations thereof.
Since wine and other spirits play an outsized role in restaurant sales and profits, it’s that alcohol trade picture that counts most, and it’s enough to refute in large measure the case for saving or even meaningfully boosting the dining industry by rescinding the tariffs. But as opposed to my indifference to wine, I am a cheese lover, and can personally attest that many outstanding domestic varieties are available, too, for gourmet chefs to place on appetizer or dessert plates.
Finally, both the authors and the Post editors ignore the economics maxim holding that businesses facing cost increases can absorb them without raising prices by boosting their productivity. And although cooking, serving, and dining probably don’t strike many as an activities where efficiency can be greatly raised, the industry itself admits that its productivity growth is unacceptably low and needs to get on the stick.
Just as important, unless Unwuachi, Waters, any other spokes folks for their sector, or Post editors can come up with more convincing evidence that U.S. trade policy has decisively impacted their fortunes, focusing on improving productivity would sure be a better use of their time than whining about Mr. Trump’s tariffs.