Assessing Trump’s Experiment With Protectionist Trade Policies

“Early on in his administration, Trump raised tariffs. The Cato Institute’s Scott Lincicome describes the president’s trade war as having “implemented five different tariff actions on almost $400 billion in annual U.S. imports (as of 2018) under three different laws with different rationales: ‘safeguards,’ ‘national security,’ and ‘unfair trade.'” We were promised ever-more jobs thanks to the tariffs. But as numerous academic studies have shown, the people who shouldered nearly all of the burden of these import taxes were not foreigners but, rather, Americans.

Protectionism reduces the overall wealth of the nation. Aside from a few favored and protected producers, Americans, in general, are made poorer. Consumers have to spend a higher share of their incomes to buy goods that they could otherwise get for less. As a result, ordinary Americans save less and have less to spend—even on nontariffed goods and services. The American producers of goods that use tariffed foreign inputs also see their production costs driven up, which drives their ability to compete down.

Unsurprisingly, the administration’s belligerent trade policies disturbed our trading partners. They retaliated with their own tariffs on American exports (to the detriment of their consumers). Adding insult to injury, the president’s erratic behavior, threats, and contradictory tweets about his trade policy likely spooked investors. The overall uncertainty and negative effects of the trade disputes surely dampened the beneficial effects of the president’s few good fiscal policies and regulatory reforms.

Take, for instance, the corporate income tax reduction as part of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. This reform should attract to the United States much foreign direct investment, or FDI. Yet, FDI flows into the United States were 10 percent lower in 2019 than during the two previous years. Simeon Djankov and Eva Zhang of the Peterson Institute for International Economics recently looked into the fall of FDI flows into the United States. “It is likely that the positive effect of the corporate tax cut in attracting FDI to the US,” they concluded, “was outweighed by trade disputes and threats of withdrawal, as well as actual withdrawals, from international treaties and organisations, which may have scared investors away.”

As for trade treaties, the Trump experiment is one that I hope we won’t repeat. First, he impulsively withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multilateral trade agreement designed to oblige China to behave better on trade while opening up a large free-market zone with other Asian nations.

Trump renegotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement with overall negative net impacts, thanks to an anti-growth minimum wage and increased domestic content requirements. And he moved to extend high tariffs on Korean trucks as part of the one-sided reform of the George W. Bush-era U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, to the detriment of U.S. consumers.

Finally, the president inflicted serious damage to the World Trade Organization—the great arbitrator of all international trade disputes—on the specious claim that the organization wasn’t sufficiently deferential to the United States. Here’s how Lincicome sums it up: The administration chose “to shut down the organization’s appellate body (basically the supreme court of trade dispute settlement) instead of negotiating new and necessary reforms in good faith (e.g., by teaming up with like-minded countries while offering actual concessions on longtime irritants like U.S. agricultural subsidies and ‘trade remedy’ rules).””

Biden’s Pick To Run the Commerce Department Is No Progressive

“Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, one of the few members of President Donald Trump’s cabinet to serve the full four years, memorably made a fool of himself by promising that tariffs on steel and aluminum imports would hardly be noticed by most businesses and consumers. It was an argument that undermined itself—the tariffs were intended to force businesses to make different purchasing decisions and thus would have to be noticed in order to work. Worse, Ross approved the vapid “national security” rationale for imposing those tariffs, then oversaw the development and operation of an opaque, confusing, and easily corrupted process to determine which American businesses could dodge those tariff costs.

Ross also led Trump’s unsuccessful effort to exclude undocumented immigrants from the 2020 census, which would shift the once-per-decade redrawing of congressional districts and politically disenfranchise parts of the country with high immigrant populations.

In short, the Commerce Department for four years has been a tool for expanding bureaucratic control of the economy under the false premise that federal officials know how to run businesses better than the people who actually do—and for politicizing the normally rote functions of the government.

And that was before Democrats took charge. Thankfully, Raimondo seems like an unlikely candidate to double down on the past four years of economic foolishness.”

Instead of Lifting Trump’s Tariffs, Biden Is Imposing More of Them

“President Joe Biden’s first major trade policy move will be disappointing for anyone who hoped his inauguration would put an end to the presidential practice of unilaterally imposing expensive, unnecessary tariffs for vacuous national security reasons.

Biden’s decision last week to reimpose 10 percent tariffs on aluminum imports from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) contains all the major hallmarks of former President Donald Trump’s misguided trade policies. Biden even sounded downright Trumpian as he announced the renewed tariffs—which Trump had lifted during his final days in office. “The available evidence indicates that imports from the UAE may still displace domestic production, and thereby threaten to impair our national security,” says Biden’s executive order announcing the policy.

The idea that aluminum imports are a threat to national security was a bunch of nonsense when Trump did it, and it’s still bunk when Biden says it. It was, and is, nothing more than a cheap excuse for a trade barrier that ultimately inflates costs for businesses that buy and consume aluminum. Since 97 percent of American jobs in the aluminum industry are downstream of production, these tariffs create far more losers than winners.”

The Feds Have Doled Out Record Farm Subsidies To Save Trump’s Campaign

“With the presidential election now just over two weeks away, President Donald Trump has mounted a frantic effort to ensure America’s farmers, a key Trump voting bloc, will support his flagging re-election campaign. In short, he’s shoving piles of cash their way.

The New York Times details the “gush of funds” Trump has promised U.S. farmers—with more on the way. Some say total farm subsidies could top $40 billion this year. The Times says the figure may be as high as $46 billion. Either figure would be a record.”

“Non-partisan observers have also labeled them political handouts. “The Government Accountability Office found last month that $14.5 billion of farm aid in 2019 had been handed out with politics in mind,” The Week reports. The Times, citing the same GAO report, also highlighted by some Democrats, shows farm subsidies last year appeared to be directed to “big farms in the Midwest and southern states,” mirroring at least some segments of Trump’s farm base.

That same base has been hit hard by tariffs championed by Trump. In 2018, I predicted (as did many others) that Trump’s international trade tariffs would spur retaliatory tariffs and harm U.S. farmers and consumers in the process. They did just that.

But because Trump’s tariffs hurt U.S. farmers, and because he wants them to vote for him again, he’s sending them cash. That cash even has a name. Last year, one farmer NPR food-policy writer Dan Charles spoke with says he and his fellow farmers have taken to referring to the tariff-induced subsidies as “Trump money.””

Mike Pence Says Joe Biden Will Repeal Trump’s Tariffs. That’s a Good Idea!

“The case for repealing Trump’s tariffs is a strong one. The tariffs on Chinese imports have largely failed to bring about any of the benefits Trump promised, and both America and China seem to have already disregarded what little progress was made with the signing of a limited trade deal last year. The White House promised that tariffs would help rejuvenate American manufacturing, but the added costs from tariffs on industrial inputs were one of the chief reasons why the manufacturing sector had fallen into recession even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. America’s trade deficit with China, which Trump promised to reduce, is now larger than it has ever been.

When you add them all up, the tariffs are one of the biggest tax increases in recent American history, and the cost is borne—despite what Trump and his allies like to claim—entirely by American consumers and businesses. The administration has spent $28 billion just to fix some of the messes these policies have created for American farmers.

And while trade issues will probably never swing as many voters as culture war battles, people have noticed that the trade war isn’t going well. Nearly 70 percent of Americans say they are “concerned” about how tariffs are adding to the cost of household products—a cost that could be as high as $1,200 annually for an average household.”

“Meanwhile, Biden is pushing a dubious “Buy American” policy that would translate into a series of expensive and ineffective regulations in the name of economic nationalism. Over and over again, Biden and Harris have been happy to point out the many failures of Trump’s anti-trade policies, but they don’t seem willing to apply those lessons going forward.”

Trump’s New Tariffs on Canadian Aluminum Are Indefensible

“When President Donald Trump imposed 10 percent tariffs on imported aluminum in March 2018, it was (predictably) American aluminum-consuming companies that suffered the most.

Companies like Whirlpool Corp., for example. The appliance manufacturer—which had previously been a cheerleader for Trump’s tariffs on imported washing machines—saw its sales and stock prices tumble in the months after Trump’s aluminum tariffs took effect, as the import taxes added to the company’s input costs. It takes a lot of aluminum to build a washing machine, after all.”

“Those tariffs had been lifted in 2019 as Trump sought to negotiate the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA), which officially took effect last month. But with the new trade deal in place, Trump has quickly returned to his old tricks. “Canada was taking advantage of us, as usual,” he said Thursday during a largely off-the-cuff speech at the plant. The new tariffs are slated to take effect on August 16.

Ostensibly, the justification for reimposing these tariffs is the claim that imports have increased dramatically in recent months. In reality, that’s a bunch of nonsense. The Aluminium Association says the claims of a surge in aluminum imports “are grossly exaggerated.” In fact, aluminum imports from Canada are below 2017 levels—the last year before Trump’s first round of tariffs took effect.

And even if aluminum imports were increasing, that’s not something to get upset about. The United States literally does not produce enough aluminum to meet its domestic needs, so imports are essential for supporting the 97 percent of American aluminum industry jobs that are in downstream production. And when more aluminum—or anything else—is traded back and forth between the United States and Canada, both countries benefit from the transaction. That’s how trade works.

It’s not exactly clear what Trump hopes the reinstated tariffs will accomplish, but the one thing that should be obvious is that American aluminum-consuming industries will once again be punished by the president’s trade policies.”

South America Won the U.S.-China Trade War

“The easiest way to win a trade war? Don’t be one of the countries involved.

When the United States slapped tariffs on steel, aluminum, and billions of dollars of Chinese imports in the summer of 2018, China and other U.S. trading partners retaliated by targeting American agricultural exports. By the time a series of tit for tat increases in tariffs by the U.S. and China came to a halt with a December 2019 partial trade agreement—one that left most of the higher tariffs in place on both sides—the average foreign tariff for American farm goods had jumped from 8.3 to 26.8 percent

As a result, U.S. farm exports suffered. Carter and Steinbach calculate that U.S. farmers lost more than $15.6 billion in trade with countries that hiked tariffs in response to the Trump administration’s trade war. Soybeans, pork products, and grains were the products most affected.

Some of those losses were offset by trade with other nations—for example, when China stopped purchasing U.S.-grown soybeans, growers had to find other buyers for their products. That was the goal of a July 2018 deal struck by President Donald Trump and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker that the White House touted as a vehicle for sending more American soybeans to Europe.

As Reason noted at the time, Europe’s annual consumption of soybeans was less than 25 percent of China’s (and it already had access to tariff-free imports of U.S. soybeans), so “unless Juncker and Trump plan to start jamming soybeans down European throats, foie gras-style, there’s simply no way that Europe can consume enough soybeans to make up for the loss of China as an American export market.”

“Nearly two years later, Carter and Steinbach calculate that so-called “deflected trade” in agricultural goods boosted U.S. exports by about $1.2 billion during the trade war—leaving American farms only $14 billion in the red.”

“countries that the two researchers identify as “non-retaliatory countries”—that is, places that did not hike tariffs in response to U.S. tariffs on steel, aluminum, and other goods—gained more than $13.5 billion by increasing trade to places, like China, that took steps to reduce imports of U.S. farm goods.”

“soybean farmers are worried about how the trade war might permanently reshape the global soybean trade, to the detriment of American growers.”

“In March 2018, after Trump announced his intention to hike tariffs on steel and aluminum, Peter Navarro, the director of the White House’s National Trade Council, was asked about the potential consequences of retaliation aimed at American farm exports.

“I don’t believe any country in the world is going to retaliate,” he said. “They know they’re cheating us, and we’re just trying to stand up for ourselves.”

Navarro and Trump were wrong. American farmers have lost $14 billion because of their mistake.”

The Trump Administration Is Still Charging 25 Percent Tariffs on Disinfectants Used To Combat COVID-19

“President Donald Trump’s tariffs are crimping supply chains for chemicals used to manufacture disinfectants and cleaning products—items that are needed to combat COVID-19 and that will be in even higher demand as the economy reopens.

In a letter sent last week to U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, the American Chemistry Council, an industry group, highlighted dozens of items that are subject to the Trump administration’s tariffs. The list sent to Lighthizer includes various chemical building blocks used to manufacture everything from soap to detergent, and surface cleaners to bleach.”

“The Trump administration took action in March to exempt medical equipment—including face masks and personal protective equipment (PPE)—from its tariff regime. But those exclusions did not apply to chemicals, like isopropyl alcohol and the dozens of other items on the council’s list that are not strictly defined as medical equipment but remain crucial to many products used by health care workers.

Trump’s tariffs are also affecting companies that need to purchase disinfectant wipes and other cleaning products. “According to the CDC guidelines…to prevent the spread of COVID-19 it recommends the use of EPA approved disinfectant wipes,” wrote Daniel Marquardt, principal owner of Hilo Industries LLC, a Virginia-based construction contractor, in a tariff exemption request filed last month. Hilo, like many other businesses across the country, needs to import tubs of disinfectant wipes that will be “used by our customers, employees, and their customers to enable them to work and patronize safely to help combat and control COVID-19,” Marquardt wrote.

But the tariff exemption process is opaque and slow—far from the ideal way to relieve the stress tariffs are causing. Sens. Tom Carper (D–Del.) and Pat Toomey (R–Pa.) have urged the Trump administration to move more quickly and issue more tariff exemptions in order to speed the response to the pandemic, but White House trade adviser Peter Navarro has laughed off those concerns as “fake news.””

“the tariffs are making it more expensive for American businesses to make those purchases, and therefore leaving them unable to purchase as much as they might otherwise choose. Much of the Trump administration’s trade war has been a real-life lesson in what economists call a “deadweight loss”—that is, a market inefficiency that creates losses for some participants but no gains for anyone else—but rarely does it appear this obvious.”

“The Trump administration has delayed tariff payments for three months as a way to boost liquidy for American importers, but that’s little help over the long term. Tariffs on products that are necessary components of disinfectants will only make it more difficult to achieve the reopening that Trump desperately seeks.”

Trump signed a “phase one” trade deal with China. Here’s what’s in it — and what’s not.

“This “phase one” deal, which the US and China reached in December, will cool trade tensions between two economic superpowers that have rattled the globe.

But it stops short of the comprehensive trade and reform agreement the Trump administration wanted when it launched its trade war with China in 2018.

Instead, China has agreed to make purchases of about $200 billion worth of US goods over a two-year period, including almost doubling its agricultural purchases to $40 billion.

China also made concessions on intellectual property, currency, and access to financial services, and it’s promised to halt the practice of forcing companies to turn over their technology, according to the United States Trade Representative.

The US, in exchange, will call off and reduce some tariffs, though taxes on $360 billion in Chinese goods will stay in place.

President Donald Trump is selling this deal as an enormous win, but the administration did not get the structural changes to China’s economy that it wanted, including tackling things like Beijing’s huge subsidies to Chinese companies. It’s still not clear if China can or will totally fulfill this obligation to buy US products, and even if it does, the guarantee is only for two years.

Given all that, this partial trade deal might not be able to make up for the pain the trade war caused.”

“few experts think such a phase two is possible. It’s much more likely the US settled because this is all it could get out of China — and for Trump, it was worth it to have something he could brag about ahead of the 2020 election.”

Steel Company CEO Says Everyone Else Should Have To Pay for Trump’s Tariffs, but Not Him

“Allegheny Technologies, which employs about 100 people, is the type of company that is especially vulnerable to Trump’s tariffs. It imports stainless steel slab from Indonesia and turns it into sheet metal, which it then sells to other manufacturers who incorporate it into car parts, kitchen appliances, and more.

Being in the middle of the supply chain is rough when you’re also in the middle of a trade war. Companies like Allegheny Technologies have to pay for Trump’s 25 percent tariffs on imported steel, and then have little choice but to pass on that cost increase to their customers. But, as Wetherbee laments, that makes it difficult for a company like his to compete against foreign manufacturers who can make and sell sheet metal without having to account for an extra 25 percent import tax.

Buying American doesn’t work, either, since U.S. steel is more expensive. One domestic supplier, Wetherbee writes, “quoted us a price for 60-inch slabs that was so high, the raw materials would have cost us more than we charge for the finished product.””