Steeling Ourselves for a Trade War

The smart money on Wall Street didn’t much like President Donald Trump’s announcement he would be imposing steep tariffs on imports of steel and aluminum, with the Dow dropping 500 points before recovering to end the day with a mere 400 point plunge.  Our own dumb money here on Perry Street in Wichita, Kansas, also didn’t much like it.
Neither did we like it when Trump was running for the Republican nomination for the presidency of the United States on an aggressively protectionist platform, but you know how that turned out. The protectionist racket is always tempting to the populist demagogues of both parties, and although we always prided our Republican selves on the the historical fact that our Grand Old Party has usually been less susceptible to such nonsense we must admit it does succumb from time to time. This time around we think that Trump triumphed in the primaries despite his protectionist policies, not because of them, which makes for some damned complicated politics, and as always we think it’s bad policy.
Which is damned complicated to explain, which makes it all the easier for a populist demagogue from either party to exploit. One can easily see how a 25 percent tariff on foreign steel and a 10 percent tariff on aluminum will bolster the fortunes of American steel and aluminum companies, not to mention their employees, and such a prodigiously glib populist demagogue as Trump can rightly note to his xenophobic followers that all that foreign steel and aluminum is made by foreigners, and that all that domestic steel and aluminum is made is made by Americans. Aluminum-makers don’t have quite the iconic status in American mythology as as those square-jawed and hard-hatted steelmakers in countless folk songs and Works Progress Administration murals, but you throw in wily foreigners and the feckless government negotiators who allowed them steal America’s wealth, and it’s a pretty compelling argument.
For now it’s harder to convince someone of the objective fact that to whatever extent the proposed tariffs benefit the steel-and-aluminum-selling industries they’re going to be just as costly to all the steel-and-aluminum-buying industries. All the official statistics show that domestic steel-and-aluminum-buying industries employ more Americans and make up a bigger share of the economy than steel-and-aluminum-selling ones, as one might expect, and eventually all the final consumers of the suddenly more expensive steel-and-aluminum products will also figure that out, as the smart money on Wall Street seems to have already done.
Not to mention that the rest of the world isn’t going to take Trump’s blustery threats lying down, as all his supine Republican primary opponents eventually did, so of course this mean trade war. All of the countries that Trump is slapping tariffs on can and have already announced that they will impose retaliatory tariffs on the stuff we sell them, as one might expect, and that’s also a bigger chunk of the American economy than steelmaking and aluminum-making. Trump is simultaneously threatening withdrawal from the North American Free Trade agreement, demanding a severe renegotiation our trade treaties with the European Union, has already withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership without offering any alternative but “America First,” and Wall Street isn’t the only stock-exchanging avenue in the world where they’re feeling jitters about the end of the post-World War II global economic order.
The post-World War II global economic order has worked out pretty good from our Republican perspective here on Perry Street, and even the smart money seems to agree. The global economy has expanded at an unprecedented rate,  all the predicted mass famines and global conflicts and nuclear holocaust have been largely averted, life expectancy rates have soared, and technological and cultural revolutions have provided plenty to do with the spare time. The Yankee dollar is still the word’s reserve currency, which sustains the otherwise unsustainable debt the Republicans are currently racking up, and America retains an economic might that Trump likes to boast about. Countless countries have joined the modern economic and Democratic and middle class world, and it’s hard to see a downside unless you think those wily foreigners stole all that money from us, and are the reason you don’t own a bigger boat of broader-screened television.
A lot of Republicans and Democrats apparently believe that, as they always have, but in the end bad policy is always bad politics. The self-described socialist Vermont Sen. Bernie Sander’s leftward wing of the Democratic fully agrees with Trump’s protectionist policies, but probably by the mid-terms and certainly the next presidential election they’ll be moving toward the center. For now those hated establishment types who crafted the post-World War II economic are reviled by the Trumpian Republican Party, but that also might not last long.
The protectionist racket is only popular so long as  it works, after all, and isn’t really a matter of political ideology or party affiliation. If you’re in an industry that’s vulnerable to foreign competition, you’re for it, and if you do a lot of export business with those wily foreigners you’re against it. Here in the reliably Republican state of Kansas the two biggest chunks of the economy are agriculture and aviation, respectively, which happen to be America’s biggest export industries, respectfully, and although Trump beat the likes of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton handily in the general election he came in a distant third in the state’s Republican caucus.
Despite his popular vote thumping Trump’s protectionist promises put him over the Electoral College top in such rust-belt states as Michigan and Pennsylvania, which are saddled with industries more in need of protection from foreign competition, but in the end that won’t do him much good. Even in the protectionist states there are more steel-and-aluminum-buyers than steel-and-aluminum sellers, however, and the Democrats there aren’t going to vote for Trump even if he defies the National Rifle Association and brings about a single-payer national health insurance policy. With the smart money on Wall Street abandoning him, and the rest of the post-World War II global economic order retaliating, and economic logic holdings its usual sway, we think he’s already lost this fight.
At least he fights, as we’re sure the die-hard Trump defenders will say.

— Bud Norman

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