Trump trade tariffs are a wanton act of economic self-destruction

Trump trade tariffs are a wanton act of economic self-destruction
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Six months after reportedly thundering to senior White House staffers of his desire for tariffs, President TrumpDonald John TrumpWH aides intentionally compose Trump tweets with grammatical mistakes: report Holder: DOJ, FBI should reject Trump's requests Ex-Trump campaign adviser rips claims of spy in campaign: It's 'embarrassing' MORE may be about to finally get his wish. Although details remain scant, Trump says that next week he will approve the imposition of 10 percent duties on imported aluminum and 25 percent on foreign-made steel.

Making clear this was no passing fancy, the president also stressed that the protectionist measures would be in place “for a long period of time.”

Economists and trade watchers across the Twittersphere were equal parts amazed and aghast when the news broke — it’s not often that leaders of advanced economies vow to engage in such brazen and wanton acts of economic self-destruction.

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Evaluated from almost any angle, Trump’s move does not make the slightest bit of sense. Billed as a response to the alleged threat posed by cheap imports to national security, this justification’s paper-thin nature is exposed when subject to even cursory examination.

 

On the steel front, domestic production is little changed from that of 20 or 30 years ago, and the U.S. military requires a mere 3 percent of this to meet its needs. Of the top 10 foreign suppliers of steel, meanwhile, China does not feature and six are countries with whom the United States has mutual defense arrangements.

Regarding aluminum, the Commerce Department admits that “defense-related products” require only 10 percent of U.S. domestic production. The No. 1 source of imports in 2016, meanwhile, was NATO-ally Canada, which accounted for more aluminum imports than the next 11 biggest sources combined.

Little wonder that Secretary of Defense James MattisJames Norman MattisMattis receives honorary doctorate from international affairs school Overnight Defense: Over 500 amendments proposed for defense bill | Measures address transgender troops, Yemen war | Trump taps acting VA chief as permanent secretary Defense bill amendment would protect open transgender military service MORE is said to be among those in the administration opposed to these tariffs and recently authored a memo expressing concern about the impact of their broad use on key allies. 

The economic case is even more preposterous. While Trump argues that the steel and aluminum tariffs will produce employment gains in those sectors, he fails to recognize that these will be dwarfed by job losses among steel-consuming industries which account for a vastly greater number of workers.

This is no idle theorizing. When President George W. Bush imposed tariffs on imported steel ranging from eight to 30 percent in 2002, one study found that the result was a net loss of 200,000 jobs. That stock markets immediately dove on news of the tariffs is also indicative of the likely impact on the broader economy.

The bad news doesn’t end there. 

Beyond shooting the economy in the foot, Trump’s tariff move also poses a major threat to the international trading system. By invoking a national security justification, the president will take advantage of a little-used provision under World Trade Organization rules that allows for such measures if a genuine threat exists.

Should Trump proceed on such dubious grounds, however, it could open a Pandora’s box of tariffs by allowing WTO members to follow suit with tariffs based on the flimsiest of justifications. Talk of tariff retaliation is already in the air.

It’s time for Congress to step up to the plate. Should President Trump opt to pull the trigger on his tariff threats, leaders in Congress will need to act and reassert their authority over trade policy. If cooler heads are to prevail, it seems increasingly clear they won’t be found within the walls of the White House.

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Both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenators near deal on sexual harassment policy change Blankenship third-party bid worries Senate GOP Overnight Finance: Trump signs repeal of auto-loan policy | Justices uphold contracts that bar employee class-action suits | US, China trade war 'on hold' MORE (R-Ky.) and Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanHillicon Valley: Mnuchin urges antitrust review of tech | Progressives want to break up Facebook | Classified election security briefing set for Tuesday | Tech CEOs face pressure to appear before Congress Feehery: An opening to repair our broken immigration system GOP chairman in talks with 'big pharma' on moving drug pricing bill MORE (R-Wis.) should move to introduce legislation that would nullify Trump’s actions. 

Even if Trump indicates second thoughts and pulls back from his tariff threat — a distinct possibility at a time when policy preferences seem dictated by the president’s mood swings — a greater role for Congress is still appropriate.

One possible starting place would be a bill introduced by Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeSenate GOP urges Trump administration to work closely with Congress on NAFTA Senate panel advances Trump's CIA nominee Doug Jones to oppose Haspel as CIA chief MORE (R-Utah) last year. Called the Global Trade Accountability Act, the legislation would subject presidential trade actions, including tariff increases, to congressional approval.

Such a law would have been useful in the wake of Trump’s ill-advised decision to withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and would have helped calm the waters in the wake of his continued threats of withdrawal from NAFTA. 

With a minimum of three more years of the Trump administration in the White House, the United States cannot afford a rollercoaster ride in the realm of trade policy. It’s time for Congress to apply the brakes and apply some much-needed supervision. 

Colin Grabow is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute's Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies