Friday, March 09, 2018

Stumbling into tariffs and talks

Reymer Klüver comments in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on the Trump foreign policy and his new tariffs in particular, Trump greift die kooperative Weltordnung an 9. März 2018. It seems to be largely based on standard pundit wisdom about the value of free trade. But this was a striking section:
So wie seine Kampfparole "America first" ein Rückgriff auf einen Slogan ist, den amerikanische Faschisten in den 1930er Jahren benutzt haben, so ist seine Unterschrift unter die Stahlzölle ein Angriff auf die kooperative Weltordnung, wie sie erst nach dem Zweiten Weltkrieg auf Drängen und unter Führung der USA entstanden ist - und die Amerika und Europa beispiellosen Wohlstand verschafft hat.

Man könnte es fast eine Ironie der Geschichte nennen, dass ausgerechnet der Mann, der versprochen hat, Amerika wieder groß zu machen, daran geht, all das zu zerstören, was Amerika groß gemacht hat: den Glauben an die Überlegenheit demokratischer Institutionen und Strukturen. Das Vertrauen in die Vorzüge internationaler Kooperation. Die Überzeugung, ein Vorbild sein zu können für den Rest der Menschheit und damit verbunden die Einsicht, dass das ein besonderes Maß an Verantwortungsbewusstsein für die globale Gemeinschaft bedeutet. All das greift Trump mit seiner unüberlegten Unterschrift an.

[Just like his fighting slogan "America First" is reaches back to a slogan the American fascists in the 1930s used, so is his signature on the steel tariff an attack on the cooperative world order as it first took shape after the Second World War under the pressure and the leadership of the USA - and which has provided America and Europe unprecedented standard of living.

One could almost call an irony of history that precisely the man who promised to make America great again is on the way to destroying all that made America great: the faith in the survival of democratic institutions and structures. Trust in the merits of international cooperation. The conviction of being able to stand as a model for the rest of humanity and the insight that goes along with that it involves a certain amount of awareness of responsibility for the global community. Trump is attacking all that with his unreflective signature [on the tariffs].]
I haven't looked at enough material on the steel and aluminum tariffs to have a meaningful idea on what the effect may be. If it becomes the first of many new protectionist measures, then it will be one effect among others.

I'm not a member of the Church of Free Trade. Nor a devotee of Mont Pèlerin neoliberal economics. So I don't assume that protectionism is always and everywhere a bad thing, even for the United States and other developing countries. For developing countries like Argentina, protectionism is a necessary condition for healthy development and for protecting national independence.

I'm also not convinced that treaties like NAFTA facilitating free trade in goods is the primary reason for manufacturing jobs moving out of the US. And maybe not even a major one. My major concern about treaties like NAFTA and TTIP is that they are primarily corporate-deregulation treaties dressed up as trade treaties. Especially when they provide for business-controlled tribunals to litigate complaints about national laws protecting consumers and the environment. Deregulation of international financial trade has particularly dangerous effects by making financial crises more likely.

I would like to see a reindustrialization policy and strategy implemented in the US. But it's one things when manufacturing jobs are lost due to a temporary downturn. The physical facilities are still there, and the experienced labor that is idle at the moment. So if a downturn lasts a year, when the recovery begins companies have the ability to immediately expand production and have qualified workers available who can be put back to work or have their hours expanded.

It's a very different thing when large areas like the Rust Belt states have suffered massive losses of industry over decades. The factories that are still standing can be decades behind current standards for the industry. Experienced workers are scarce in a long-deindustrialized area. Once the existing factory infrastructure has become more valuable as nostalgic tourist attractions that as industrial facilities (Meet the latest tourist attractions: Abandoned factories Washington Post 03/09/2018), it requires large new investments to reindustrialize in that situation.

"Retraining" as a solution to deindustrialization may have sounded like a credible thing in 1993. But it's long since become the industrial-policy equivalent of "thoughts and prayers" in mass-shooting situations.

But a real industrial policy - even in the 1980s that was still a current term in the US political vocabulary - would have to involve a major increase in wages, especially minimum wages, in order to support new domestic markets for new industries. And there would have to be a major "retraining" component, although that word has become so discredited that a new label would need to be found. "Re-education" is probably not a good alternative. And even in the United States, a significant amount of protectionism might need to be involved. One thing is for sure. Reindustrialization would require some serious and sustained Keynesian/social-democratic economic policies.

Which brings me to Trump's first big stab at protectionism. Economic policy is complicated. By all appearances, this tariff decision was an impulsive (spastic?) decision by Trump. As impatient as I often am with lazy and bad assumptions of traditional diplomacy, these things still need to be done right. And a tariff like this will be regarded by most countries as a notable factor in a larger foreign policy context.

According to the Department of Commerce's December 2017 Global Steel Trade Monitor, the top five countries from which the US imports steel are, in order: Canada (16%), Brazil (13%), South Korea (10%), Mexico (9%), Russia (9%). That same report says, "In value terms, steel represented just 1 percent of the total goods imported into the United States in 2016." Trump exempted Canada and Mexico from this round of tariffs. And Trump said, "We're going to show great flexibility" in considering additional exemptions. So the immediate effects of the tariff on US prices could likely be limited, as the Trump Administration's flaks have been arguing. The Orange Clown is fixated on how things play on TV, not on the substance of such policies. (These figures are for steel imports only, not aluminum.)

But since Canada is exempt from the current round of tariffs, it means that South Korea is the country second most affected by the steel tariff. And, of course, another surprise announcement this past week was that Trump has agreed to meet with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un for nuclear talks. Though, true to form, his people were frantically modifying Trump's initial announcement the next day. So this whole thing may be even more ill-considered than the steel and aluminum tariffs. South Korea is obviously a critical player in US relations with North Korea. So does it really make sense to be retaliating against South Korean steel imports at this moment?

As the tariffs and the spastic decisions on policy toward North Korea illustrate, Klüver is right in observing that Trump is throwing away many of the factors that have been sources of American power and security. And doing so without much careful consideration.

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