You can get away with lousy policy by calling it a “negotiating tactic” for only so long. But that dubious ploy is one of the rationales offered last week by the Trump Administration for imposing a 25% tariff on imported steel and a 10% tariff on imported aluminum. Sure, the tariffs are like gifts rendered onto American steel and aluminum producers, their shareholders, and their unionized workers. The tariffs allow them to compete more effectively, without any effort, with foreign steel and aluminum in the domestic market, and the tariffs may also give them leeway to raise prices. The tariffs are also forgiving of degraded performance by domestic producers, since reduced competition relieves pressure for efficiency, a primary social cost of monopoly power.
So who pays for these gifts to the domestic steel and aluminum industries? A tariff, of course, is a tax, and a significant portion of it will be passed along into higher prices of both imported and domestically-produced steel and aluminum. Therefore, the burden of that tax will be borne to a large extent by domestics users, including every domestic industry that uses steel or aluminum as an input, and by consumers who purchase those products. That erodes the job security of many domestic workers outside of the steel and aluminum industries. In fact, the tariffs are unlikely to create more jobs even in the steel and aluminum industries given the negative impact of higher prices on the quantities of those metals demanded.
The desperate story line in support of tariffs also includes the assertion that the U.S. steel and aluminum industries are in such dire straits that they are in danger of vanishing. Statistics on U.S. production hardly suggest that is the case, however. Steel output in the U.S. has been reasonably steady since recovering from the last recession, though it has not achieved its pre-recession level. While aluminum output has been declining, it is hardly in a free fall. The stock prices of major steel and aluminum producers, which are forward-looking, have not demonstrated a particular need for government aid (as if that could ever justify a too-big or too-important-to-fail mentality).
Defenders of the tariffs claim that one effect will include additional direct investment in the U.S. by foreign producers of steel and aluminum, because they can avoid the tariffs by setting up production within our borders. Perhaps a few will, but capital is mobile in other sectors as well. Producers in other industries requiring intensive use of steel or aluminum inputs will now have an incentive to shift production overseas, where the tariffs won’t apply. Attempting to prevent such shifts via import tariffs on final products would quickly become a nightmare of central planning.
Apologists for the tariffs go even further, noting that our new regulatory and tax environment will bring foreign producers to the U.S., essentially making the tariffs irrelevant. If that’s the case, why bother imposing the tariffs at all? And why penalize consumers and industries requiring intensive use of steel or aluminum?
The argument that tariffs provide a stronger position from which to negotiate with foreign “trading partners” (or rather, their governments) is tenuous at best. More likely, the tariffs will prompt retaliation by foreign governments against a range of American products. The very notion that “trade wars are good”, tweeted by President Trump on Friday morning, is as nonsensical as a suggestion that voluntary exchange is destructive. Already, the EU has announced plans to retaliate by imposing tariffs on bourbon and motorcycles produced in the U.S.
Negotiations are unlikely to be successful. Perhaps some foreign governments who subsidize their steel and aluminum producers could be persuaded to enter talks. Our own domestic producers are penalized by various tariffs and quotas in place abroad, and those might be used by foreign interests as a lever in negotiations. However, the most fundamental foreign trade advantages, when they exist, have to do with low wages, less regulation, more efficient production facilities, and sometimes a more favorable tax environment. Wage levels reflect labor productivity, but those wage levels are valued more highly in their home countries than in the U.S, and penalizing these countries with trade sanctions merely penalizes their workers. Not all dimensions of a cost advantage can be negotiated, and in any case, healthy competition in any industry is always in the interests of a nation’s consumers.
National security is another standard argument in favor of protectionist measures. We’re told, for example, that we cannot allow China to produce all of the steel, but China provides only a small fraction of U.S. steel imports. Canada, Brazil and Mexico provide far more. In fact, China was in 11th place on that list in 2017. So our sources of steel are fairly well diversified. A domestic shortage of steel or aluminum caused by a breakdown in relations with one or more steel-exporting countries would lead to higher prices, but it would bring forth greater supplies from other countries and even from high-cost domestic sources. That is not a national emergency.
It’s possible that the Trump Administration will create “carve-outs”, exempting goods from certain countries from the tariffs. Presumably, those would be based on an assessment of each country’s trade policies and whether they are consistent with “fair” trade, in the judgement of U.S. trade authorities. However, all nations play the protectionist game in one form or another, including the U.S. Any carve outs would be better than none at all, but the remaining tariffs imposed by the administration will be a net burden to the U.S. economy.
Up till now, I have been pleasantly surprised by the Trump Administration’s efforts to de-tax and deregulate the U.S. economy. However, the threat that Donald Trump would adopt protectionist trade policies was one of my major trepidations about his candidacy. And here it is, as he promised. The dilemma often expressed by protectionists is that foreign producers can put elements of the domestic economy out of business by selling below cost. That drain on a country’s resources cannot span all industries — the U.S. has a comparative advantage in many areas. Such an effort cannot last forever or else these nations would cannibalize their own industrial base. Foreign governments quite simply cannot afford it economically and politically. On our end, the best advice is to accept the gift of low-cost goods. With access to ultra-cheap goods, whether steel, sorghum, or some finished product, American consumers and producers who use those imports gain unambiguously, and the purchasing power released can be spent on other goods and services.