Protectionism is worse when it’s erratic and unpredictable.
The “very stable genius” in the Oval Office is, in fact, extremely unstable, in word and deed. That’s not a psychological diagnosis, although you can make that case too. It’s just a straightforward description of his behavior. And his instability is starting to have serious economic consequences.
To see what I mean about Trump’s behavior, just consider his moves on China trade over the past month, which have been so erratic that even those of us who follow this stuff professionally have been having a hard time keeping track.
First, Trump unexpectedly announced plans to greatly expand the range of Chinese goods subject to tariffs. Then he had his officials declare China a currency manipulator — which happens to be one of the few economic sins of which the Chinese are innocent. Then, perhaps fearing the political fallout from the higher prices of many consumer goods from China during the holiday season, which would result from the tariff hikes, he postponed — but didn’t cancel — them.
Wait, there’s more. China, predictably, responded to the new United States tariffs with new tariffs on U.S. imports. Trump, apparently enraged, declared that he would raise his tariffs even higher, and declared that he was ordering U.S. companies to wind down their business in China (which is not something he has the legal authority to do). But at the Group of 7 summit in Biarritz he suggested that he was having “second thoughts,” only to have the White House declare that he actually wished he had raised tariffs even more.
And we’re not quite done. On Monday Trump said that the Chinese had called to indicate a desire to resume trade talks. But there was no confirmation from the Chinese, and Trump has been a notably unreliable narrator of what’s going on in international meetings. For example, he made the highly improbable claim that “World Leaders” (his capitalization) were asking him, “Why does the American media hate your Country so much?”
To repeat, all of this has happened just this month. Now imagine yourself as a business leader trying to make decisions amid this Trumpian chaos.
The truth is that protectionism gets something of an excessively bad rap. Tariffs are taxes on consumers, and they tend to make the economy poorer and less efficient. But even high tariffs don’t necessarily hurt employment, as long they’re stable and predictable: the jobs lost in industries that either rely on imported inputs or depend on access to foreign markets can be offset by job gains in industries that compete with imports.
History is, in fact, full of examples of economies that combined high tariffs with more or less full employment: America in the 1920s, Britain in the 1950s and more.
But unstable, unpredictable trade policy is very different. If your business depends on a smoothly functioning global economy, Trump’s tantrums suggest that you should postpone your investment plans; after all, you may be about to lose access to your export markets, your supply chain or both. It’s also, though, not a good time to invest in import-competing businesses; for all you know, Trump will eventually back down on his threats. So everything gets put on hold — and the economy suffers.
One question you might ask is why Trumpian trade uncertainty is looming so much larger now than it did during the administration’s first two years. Part of the answer, I think, is that until fairly recently most analysts expected the U.S.-China trade conflict to be resolved with minimal disruption. You may recall that after denouncing Nafta as the worst trade deal ever made, Trump essentially surrendered and declared victory, settling for a new deal almost indistinguishable from the old one. Most economic newsletters I get predicted a similar outcome for the U.S. and China.
At the same time, the U.S. economy is slowing as the brief sugar high from the 2017 tax cut wears off. Another leader might engage in some self-reflection. Trump being Trump, he’s blaming others and lashing out. He has declared both Jerome Powell, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, and Xi Jinping, China’s leader, enemies. As it turns out, however, there’s nothing much he can do to bully the Fed, but the quirks of U.S. trade law do allow him to slap new tariffs on China.
Of course, Trump’s trade belligerence is itself contributing to the economic slowdown. So there’s an obvious possibility for a vicious circle. The economy weakens; a flailing Trump lashes out at China, and possibly others (Europe may be next); this further weakens the economy; and so on.
At that point you might expect an intervention from the grown-ups in the room — but there aren’t any. In any other administration Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, a.k.a. the Lego Batman guy, would be considered a ridiculous figure; these days, however, he’s as close as we get to a voice of economic rationality. But whenever he tries to talk sense, as he apparently did over the issue of Chinese currency manipulation, he gets overruled.
Protectionism is bad; erratic protectionism, imposed by an unstable leader with an insecure ego, is worse. But that’s what we’ll have as long as Trump remains in office.
Mark Blyth’s best seller Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea https://amzn.to/2Lcw556 Mark Blyth is a British political scientist from Scotland and a professor of international political economy at Brown University.37:43here’s a story when they did the Podestaemail Hawks when they got the Democratsemails somebody took the data fromWikiLeaks and decided it was called geolocate the data in other words what werethe place names that the leadingDemocrats who are the last part of hermentor represent all of us rememberright not the elite Republicans whatwere the police names that he talkedabout and their private communicationsand their selection what was the numberone most frequently named place in theircommunications can you guess have aguess Martha Martha’s Vineyard yeahnumber two Eastern Southampton then NewYork then San Francisco then I think itwas Ellie in DC and the rest of thecountry two standard deviations out sowhat’s the imaginary of a party thisseeks to represent all if that’s all theplaces did they talk about becausethat’s where the money is and it’s notjust to castigate the Democrats theBritish Labour Party was like this underblare of the German SPD under shorterit’s done that’s the left issystematically failed the people that itsupposedly represents so why should webe in the least surprised that theydefect and then go to any one at allthat actually says here I know thateveryone’s ignored you for 25 years I atleast hear the fact that you’re cryingand I understand why people’s everydayexperience is very different from anational average walking out and tellingpeople that the price of iPods hasfallen which means that really they’vegot more money than they think at a timewhen they can’t afford to send theirkids to college or their kids would beinsane to take on that much debt becauseit’s like having a house with no ASSAit’s just parts on izing and the exampleof immigration occupied to that one it’svery different depending on where youliveimmigration to me is another person fromanother interesting country who has aphd but that’s what it means where Ilive right but that’s because I’m in thetop 20% if you’re living in publichousing in France right and thoseresources are been finite and thoseresources are being cut and you’re theones are confronted with incrediblydifferent cultures coming and notintegrating with you taking theresources from you at least as youperceive it and that’s what’s beennarrated by the National Front don’texpect them not to make end roadsbecause it gels with everybody’s commonsense regardless of whether we can saywell on average and migrants benefit theeconomy no one lives in an average nowthe problem here now close with us is.. prompted the following response I thinkthe election of Trump has been good forclimate change because it stops the restof the world waiting around for Americato solve the problemso if the gentleman’s and the Chinesenow get together and do technologgreentech bring it to scale China forexample has installed more solar in thepast few years in the United States hasright if they end up doing that we’rethe suckers because we should have beenleading the investment we’ll be buyingit from thembut in a way if that forces them to dothat and that’s good in a global sensego for it so does that mean Trump was agood leader in that regard well that’s adifferent question right but it can havea positive effect so the mark like let’snot summit all up to you know the oneleader the genius the charisma whateverthe doesn’t that’s not good we arethinking about it they can’t make adifference but the key thing is whenthey’ve actually got the trust ofeverybody who’s who wants them to leadthat’s when societies work better butwhen you have leaders who are divisivewho pet people against each other Inever walk so for anybody that’s thetype of populism you want to avoid all
In return for having the tariff “indefinitely suspended,” Mexico has agreed to militarize the country using Mr. López Obrador’s newly created National Guard, which is under military command. The effort will start at the southern border, though where it will end is anybody’s guess.
Mr. Trump has claimed victory in his tariff gambit. But it’s unclear how effective the promised troops will be at stopping migrants. The main causes of the crisis are liberal U.S. laws and procedures for claiming asylum, which attract migrants from Central America and other places. Congress has refused to pass reform. But markets work, as more than a half-century of a failed war on drugs proves, and the wild Guatemalan border will not be easily sealed.
.. Meanwhile, AMLO, as the Mexican president is popularly known, also won, though insidiously. The career politician with an authoritarian bent is a backer of Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro. Since taking office in December, he has been cozying up to the military. Now he pockets more power, and with the blessing of Washington. This is a setback for the rule of law.
President López Obrador initially had very high approval ratings. But they began falling when Mexico’s economy slumped in the first quarter, and his attacks on the press alienated even some of his most ideologically sympathetic constituents. Mexicans who were worried about the strongman instincts of their socialist president gained hope that the slowdown would force him to exercise greater restraint.
Then came Mr. Trump’s May 30 threat, and Mexicans rallied behind their president. A poll by the Mexican daily El Financiero last week found that “84% of Mexicans believe that, faced with pressure” from Mr. Trump, “the country should remain united and support” AMLO.
Mr. López Obrador knows how to play politics. In the earliest months of his presidency he encouraged the migrants before taking a more practical stance. In the face of standard Trump hyperbole about Mexico, he calmly sent a delegation to Washington to negotiate. His base is praising the deal, though had it been sealed by an AMLO opponent they would have vigorously denounced it. His opposition is happy because free trade is saved.
An AMLO rally Saturday in Tijuana was originally billed as “an act of unity to defend the dignity of Mexico and in favor of the friendship with the people of the United States.” After the two sides came to agreement, it was changed to a “celebration” of the deal—and of the new life that Mr. Trump breathed into AMLO’s presidency.
U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer argued plan could jeopardize North American trade accord
President Trump’s top trade adviser opposed the White House’s threat to impose escalating tariffs on Mexico, arguing that the plan could jeopardize a pending North American trade accord, people familiar with the situation said.
U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer has argued that tariffs on Mexico further cloud prospects for ratification of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, the proposed successor to Nafta that is already facing significant hurdles in the Democrat-controlled House, these people said.
“Lighthizer is not happy,” one of the people, an administration official, said. A spokesman for Mr. Lighthizer declined to comment.
The White House didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Mr. Trump decided to threaten tariffs as he became increasingly frustrated with the numbers of undocumented immigrants crossing into the U.S. through the Mexican border, the people said.
“This is something he’s talked about for a long time but people always talked him out of it,” said one of the people, a former administration official.
In recent days the president lost his patience, according to one of the people who spoke about Mr. Lighthizer’s concerns and a senior administration official. He had listened to his advisers for months, who told him not to take action against President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s new administration while it was forming its government, they said.
“He got tired of waiting for the new government to settle in,” one of the people familiar with the situation said.
“The last time he did tariffs on Mexico, Mexico responded, so he wanted to try again in the context of border security,” the senior administration official said.
There was a meeting with the president’s trade team on Wednesday and again on Thursday, when the president phoned in from Air Force One, according to one of the people.
“In both meetings, the president made very clear that he wants to do this,” one of the people said.
U.S. officials, including Mr. Lighthizer, have stressed to Congress the importance of enacting USMCA, meant to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement, in part to show other trading partners that high-pressure talks with Mr. Trump can lead to a win for all sides.
One of the officials noted that Mr. Lighthizer has a particularly good working relationship with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and behind closed doors, he has managed to leverage that relationship to make progress in advancing the USMCA through Congress. Some in the administration now fear that the president’s latest move may derail any progress Mr. Lighthizer has made, the people familiar with the situation said.
On Thursday, Mr. Trump threatened to impose 5% tariffs on nearly $360 billion in goods imported from Mexico starting June 10 unless Mexico takes steps to stem the flow of immigrants across the border. If no action is taken, tariffs would eventually go up to 25% by Oct. 1.