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.
In contrast to the Soviet Union, China’s leaders recognize that strong economic performance is essential to political legitimacy. Like the Soviet Union, however, they are paying through the nose for a few friends, gaining only limited benefits while becoming increasingly entrenched in an unsustainable arms race with the US.When the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, the Communist Party of China (CPC) became obsessed with understanding why. The government think tanks entrusted with this task heaped plenty of blame on Mikhail Gorbachev, the reformist leader who was simply not ruthless enough to hold the Soviet Union together. But Chinese leaders also highlighted other important factors, not all of which China’s leaders seem to be heeding today... But overseeing a faltering economy was hardly the only mistake Soviet leaders made. They were also drawn into a costly and unwinnable arms race with the United States, and fell victim to imperial overreach, throwing money and resources at regimes with little strategic value and long track records of chronic economic mismanagement. As China enters a new “cold war” with the US, the CPC seems to be at risk of repeating the same catastrophic blunders... China spent some $228 billion on its military last year, roughly 150% of the official figure of $151 billion... the issue is not the amount of money China spends on guns per se, but rather the consistent rise in military expenditure, which implies that the country is prepared to engage in a long-term war of attrition with the US. Yet China’s economy is not equipped to generate sufficient resources to support the level of spending that victory on this front would require.If China had a sustainable growth model underpinning a highly efficient economy, it might be able to afford a moderate arms race with the US. But it has neither... China’s growth is likely to continue to decelerate, owing to rapid population aging, high debt levels, maturity mismatches, and the escalating trade war that the US has initiated. All of this will drain the CPC’s limited resources. For example, as the old-age dependency ratio rises, so will health-care and pension costs... while the Chinese economy may be far more efficient than the Soviet economy was, it is nowhere near as efficient as that of the US. The main reason for this is the enduring clout of China’s state-owned enterprises (SOEs), which consume half of the country’s total bank credit, but contribute only 20% of value-added and employment... the CPC is that SOEs play a vital role in sustaining one-party rule, as they are used both to reward loyalists and to facilitate government intervention on behalf of official macroeconomic targets... Dismantling these bloated and inefficient firms would thus amount to political suicide. Yet protecting them may merely delay the inevitable, because the longer they are allowed to suck scarce resources out of the economy, the more unaffordable an arms race with the US will become – and the greater the challenge to the CPC’s authority will become... The second lesson that China’s leaders have failed to appreciate adequately is the need to avoid imperial overreach. About a decade ago, with massive trade surpluses bringing in a surfeit of hard currency, the Chinese government began to take on costly overseas commitments and subsidize deadbeat “allies.”.. Exhibit A is the much-touted Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a $1 trillion program focused on the debt-financed construction of infrastructure in developing countries... An even more egregious example of imperial overreach is China’s generous aid to countries – from Cambodia to Venezuela to Russia – that offer little in return... from 2000 to 2014, Cambodia, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Cuba, Ethiopia, and Zimbabwe together received $24.4 billion in Chinese grants or heavily subsidized loans. Over the same period, Angola, Laos, Pakistan, Russia, Turkmenistan, and Venezuela received $98.2 billion... Like the Soviet Union, China is paying through the nose for a few friends, gaining only limited benefits while becoming increasingly entrenched in an unsustainable arms race. The Sino-American Cold War has barely started, yet China is already on track to lose.