It’s all about the power — and the cronyism.
Almost exactly one year has passed since Donald Trump declared, “I am a Tariff Man.” Uncharacteristically, he was telling the truth.
At this point I’ve lost count of how many times markets have rallied in the belief that Trump was winding down his trade war, only to face announcements that a much-anticipated deal wasn’t happening or that tariffs were being slapped on a new set of products or countries. Over the past week it happened again: Markets bet on an outbreak of trade peace between the U.S. and China, only to get body slammed by Trump’s declaration that there might be no deal before the election and by his new tariffs on Brazil and Argentina.
So Trump really is a Tariff Man. But why? After all, the results of his trade war have been consistently bad, both economically and politically.
I’ll offer an answer shortly. First, however, let’s talk about what the Trump trade war has actually accomplished.
A peculiar aspect of the Trump economy is that while overall growth has been solid, the areas of weakness have come precisely in those things Trump tried to stimulate.
Remember, Trump’s only major legislative accomplishment was a huge tax cut for corporations that was supposed to lead to a surge in investment. Instead, corporations pocketed the money, and business investment has been falling.
The truth is that even economists who opposed Trump’s tax cuts and tariffs are surprised by how badly they’re working out. The most commonly given explanation for these bad results is that Trumpian tariff policy is creating a lot of uncertainty, which is giving businesses a strong incentive to postpone any plans they might have for building new factories and adding jobs.
It’s important to realize that Trumpian protectionism wasn’t a response to a groundswell of public opinion. As best as I can tell from the endless series of interviews with white guys in diners — who are, we all know, the only Americans who matter — these voters are driven more by animosity toward immigrants and the sense that snooty liberals look down on them than by trade policy.
And public opinion seems to have become far less protectionist even as Trump has raised tariffs, with the percentage of Americans saying that free trade agreements are a good thing as high as it’s ever been.
So Trump’s trade war is losing, not gaining, support. And one recent analysis finds that it was a factor hurting Republicans in the 2018 midterm elections, accounting for a significant number of lost congressional seats.
Nevertheless, Trump persists. Why?
One answer is that Trump has long had a fixation on the idea that tariffs are the answer to America’s problems, and he’s not the kind of man who reconsiders his prejudices in the light of evidence. But there’s also something else: U.S. trade law offers Trump more freedom of action — more ability to do whatever he wants — than any other policy area.
The basic story is that long ago — in fact, in the aftermath of the disastrous Smoot-Hawley tariff of 1930 — Congress deliberately limited its own role in trade policy. Instead, it gave the president the power to negotiate trade deals with other countries, which would then face up-or-down votes without amendments.
It was always clear, however, that this system needed some flexibility to respond to events. So the executive branch was given the power to impose temporary tariffs under certain conditions: import surges, threats to national security, unfair practices by foreign governments. The idea was that nonpartisan experts would determine whether and when these conditions existed, and the president would then decide whether to act.
This system worked well for many years. It turned out, however, to be extremely vulnerable to someone like Trump, for whom everything is partisan and expertise is a four-letter word. Trump’s tariff justifications have often been self-evidently absurd — seriously, who imagines that imports of Canadian steel threaten U.S. national security? But there’s no obvious way to stop him from imposing tariffs whenever he feels like it.
And there’s also no obvious way to stop his officials from granting individual businesses tariff exemptions, supposedly based on economic criteria but in fact as a reward for political support. Tariff policy isn’t the only arena in which Trump can practice crony capitalism — federal contracting is looking increasingly scandalous — but tariffs are especially ripe for exploitation.
So that’s why Trump is a Tariff Man: Tariffs let him exercise unconstrained power, rewarding his friends and punishing his enemies. Anyone imagining that he’s going to change his ways and start behaving responsibly is living in a fantasy world.
Two months ago, when Zooming In did a story on Huawei and global 5G deployment, Huawei was poised to take control of much of the world’s cyber domain. We talked about the national security implications of that prospect. And we observed the U.S. efforts to raise awareness of that risk. Two months later, when we did another story on this topic, we realized the world knows Huawei a lot better through these efforts, but Huawei’s momentum has not stopped. In fact, Huawei and China are playing a grander game. They have a brilliant strategy that is working well with the very nature of a crony capitalism. Can this battle still be won by the free world? And what does it take to win? Let’s find out in this edition of Zooming In.
welcome back to cheddar business
everyone on Monday saw the Dow suffer
its worst one-day drop since January 3rd
while the SP and the Nasdaq hadn’t seen
a day like it since early December
joining us now is David Stockman he’s
the former director of the Office of
Management and Budget under President
Ronald Reagan he’s also the author of
peak Trump the under a noble swamp and
the fantasy of manga David it’s great to
have you on chatter happy to be here
look a huge sell-off yesterday right
what do you make of the escalation of
the trade war between the US and China
well I think yesterday was a wake-up
call I don’t think this trade war is
going to end anytime soon
you got two fundamentally incompatible
economies you have a policy being driven
by you know a guy who’s you know lost
his lunch I think Trump has no clue what
he’s doing he’s sliding by the seat of
his pants he’s a hopeless protectionist
he doesn’t really know what he wants and
he has no clue how this is going to
unfold so I think we have big trouble
so why do Republicans the party of
Reagan right why do they seem to be
going along with Trump I think they’re
going along with Trump because the GDP
was had a three in it last quarter and
because we’re at the end of a business
cycle where the whole economy looks good
my point in peak Trump is the peak is
behind us the market peaked last
September at 29 41 we’re now triple peak
I don’t think we’re going back the
economy’s in month 118 of the longest
weakest expansion in history we got
headwinds everywhere we got a federal
debt that’s out of control we have a Fed
that waited way too long to tighten and
now doesn’t know what to do
we have Europe which i think is rolling
over into another recession we have what
I call the red ponzi and China’s
struggling with 40 trillion of debt none
of these things suggest there’s smooth
sailing ahead I think they all suggest
that there’s a huge risk that some kind
of Black Swan or orange Swan is the case
maybe is likely to upset the whole apple
cart you have to assume that recessions
haven’t been outlawed
and what’s going to happen when we get a
recession and the markets way up in the
stratosphere and the federal budget is
already running 1.2 trillion of red ink
and then revenue falls and expenditures
soar we’re gonna have the biggest mess
you can ever imagine so given all these
headwinds that you listed out you said
recessions haven’t been outlawed do you
think this is do you think Trump is
aware of these factors do you think he
feels the pressure to get a trade deal
done with China do you think he’s
capable of getting a deal done that will
be beneficial for US markets no I think
he’s delusional he thinks he has far
more power that he’s far more skilled at
the art of the deal in negotiation that
than he really is and so I don’t think
any deal is going to get done at all and
I think he believes the economy is far
stronger than it actually is because
we’ve had some aberration in the numbers
which aren’t sustainable in other words
we’ve had some inventory build-up and
we’ve had all this turmoil and trade
that pulled imports forward if you
strain that out the economy is growing
at less than 2% a year it’s not a boom
if you actually look at Trump’s first 28
report cards on jobs 200 2,000 per month
Obama‘s last 28 report cards before the
220,000 per month there’s been no
acceleration there’s no boom what we
have is an aging business cycle this
company to the end of the road and we’ve
done nothing to get prepared for the
trouble that’s ahead what is the Fed
going to do the interest rate is only
two point four percent and Trump is
complaining its balance sheet is still
almost four trillion what is the fiscal
policy going to do when we’re already
locked in to a borrowing rate at the end
the tippy-top of a business cycle of 1.2
trillion a year we’ve never been in
these circumstances before and so
therefore I think we have to get over
this recency bias which says well last
couple quarters look pretty good so
what’s to worry there’s everything to
worry because the last 30 years have
been taking us to a point of
much speculation in so much debt now
remember we had the financial crisis
people don’t even remember that anymore
but we did have it in 208 and they said
it was a wake-up call we got too much
debt we need to deleverage right well
there was 53 trillion of debt on the US
economy then this is mid 208 public
private business households government
today it’s 72 trillion all right we went
from 53 trillion which was too high to
73 trillion we’ve added 20 trillion debt
that did give us the kind of you know
appearance of a recovery in prosperity
but really we only doubled down and now
we’re gonna face the music in a far
weaker position with a madman in the
Oval Office who’s home alone and what I
mean by that is who are his advisers
nowadays okay I mean Steve minuchin is
an 80-pound political weakling who gives
yes-men a bad name okay Larry Kudlow has
been snorting bullish ethers down on
Wall Street for so long that he’s not
even in the economist Peter Navarro
would rather have a real war with China
rather than a trade war and you know
Wilbur Ross may have a heartbeat or not
I don’t know but he’s he’s as bad in
terms of trade policy as Trump so it’s
all being run by Bob light Howser who I
know from way back when I was on Capitol
Hill and in the Reagan White House in
the early 80s he’s a lifelong swamp
creature who wants to make government
bigger and better and more intrusive and
that’s the kind of trade deal he wants
it’s really for a big business it’s not
for jobs in the economy what do you
think Reagan would think of President
Trump he would be horrified he would be
horrified because Ronald Reagan was a
small government guy he was a free trade
guy he was a free-market guy he believed
you know rectitude and he was not for
hectoring the Fed for easy money when
Volker put on the brakes and interest
rates went into you know double digits
Ronald Reagan said we have to do it we
got to bite the bullet we got to get rid
of this inflation and let the Fed
restore sound money
so everything that Reagan stood for
Trump is really against okay
he is a hopeless mercantilist
protectionist he is the worst big
spender we’ve ever had in the Oval
Office on the Republican side and you
know he’s he’s a bombastic yes I guess I
go back to my earlier question I just
have a trouble understanding why
Republicans are buying into this and why
Republicans Senators and Representatives
don’t stand up for the party and stand
up for the legacy of the Republican
Party against Trump I could give you an
anecdote from my own history in January
1973 I was a young guy on Capitol Hill
Nixon was riding high he had won the
election 44 million – twenty-eight
million wasn’t a squeaker squeaker like
Trump but swept the whole electoral
college he told his whole cabinet you
got to resign I’m so strong I don’t need
you and within 18 months they had him on
the helicopter and sending him out of
town because the economy went down in
the interim in other words as long as
the economy was showing decent numbers
the Republicans kept quiet and when the
economy and the stock market went down
38 percent they were gone we only have
10 seconds for this answer but is there
a challenger to trump you’re behind
right now probably not okay well come
back when there is okay a former
director of the Office of Management and
Budget under President Ronald Reagan
he’s also the author of peak Trump he
under a noble swamp and the fantasy of
Nagas thank you so much for joining us
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.