George F. Will: Tariffs, swagger & Trump
Is it too much to ask that the government not insult our intelligence while it lightens our wallets? Before his predictable announcement of 25-percent steel and 10-percent aluminum tariffs, the president held a “listening session;” executives of steel and aluminum companies urged him to do what he intended. He ended this charade of deliberation by announcing the tax increases.
Tariffs are taxes collected at the border, paid by U.S. consumers. But steel-using industries' 6.5 million employees (46 times the number of steelmaking jobs) and hundreds of millions of consumers of steel- and aluminum-content products should salute, not complain: The president says the tariffs are national-security necessities.
Never mind that the Cato Institute's Colin Grabow notes that defense-related products require only 3 percent and 10 percent of domestic steel and aluminum production, respectively. Or that six of the top 10 nations that export steel to the U.S. (military competitor and potential adversary China is not among the top 10) have mutual defense agreements with the U.S. Or that aluminum and steel for military uses will be more expensive — so, effectively, the administration is cutting the defense budget. Cato's Dan Ikenson says its argument seems to be “that an abundance of low-priced raw materials from a diversity of sources somehow threatens national security.”
Electrolux, Europe's largest manufacturer of household appliances, responded to the U.S. tariffs by suspending plans to invest $250 million in a Tennessee factory. Before the tariffs' announcement, Whirlpool's CEO — who had just successfully sought tariffs and import quotas on foreign washing machines that will punish American purchasers of appliances — lamented that rising prices of steel and other materials might knock $250 million off profits. As Lily Tomlin says, “No matter how cynical you become, it's never enough to keep up.”
Congress has given presidents vast trade discretion. Now, this capacity for mischief is in the hands of someone who knows next to nothing about the one thing — business — he is supposed to know something about.
Protectionism slices through core conservative principles, including opposition to government industrial policy, government picking winners and losers, and crony capitalism elevated to an ethic (“A Few Americans First”). Government does not get bigger or bossier than when it embraces protectionism. Down the decades, Trump has shown an impressive versatility of conviction, but the one constant has been hostility to free trade. It perfectly expresses his adolescent delight in executive swagger, the objectives of which are of negligible importance to him; all that is important is that the spotlight follows where his impulses propel him.
For more than a century, enlarged executive power has been the sun at the center of progressives' solar system of aspirations. Hence protectionism. So, if the Democrats capture either house of Congress on Nov. 6, on Nov. 7 there will be, effectively, an accommodating Democrat in the presidency.
George F. Will is a columnist for Newsweek and The Washington Post.