George Will: Trump's trade wars would avenge only mythical casualties
America's government declares “war” promiscuously — on poverty, on drugs, on cancer, etc. — except when actually going to war. But the incipient war du jour — the trade war with China — is being postponed.
That's good news for farmers, who could use some. USA Today reports that the net income of U.S. farmers has fallen by more than half since 2013, the steepest decline since the Depression. For this, blame productive farming around the world, rotten weather in America and perverse government in Washington. China and Mexico, responding to uncertainties caused by U.S. indignation (about China selling too much to consenting American adults and about NAFTA enabling mighty Mexico to exploit America), are finding alternative sources of soybeans, pork and beef.
Anti-immigration Republicans have another affliction for American farmers. The Wall Street Journal reports that about half of agriculture workers are undocumented immigrants. Because more Mexicans have left than entered the United States between 2009 and 2014, the immigrant agriculture labor force is aging — and moving to higher-paying construction jobs. The Journal: “As farmers struggle to find workers, more production has moved abroad. Avocado imports have doubled over the last eight years while U.S. production (measured by acreage) has declined by about a quarter. Since 1999, domestic production has fallen for oranges (by 36 percent), grapefruits (61 percent) and asparagus (69 percent). Imports of fresh fruits and vegetables have swelled. ... This hurts workers in related industries like transportation and food processing.”
Mortgage rates have risen to the highest level since 2011. A National Association of Realtors economist says that every percentage-point increase can reduce home sales up to 8 percent. Simultaneously, the administration's protectionism is increasing the cost of home ownership with tariffs on imported Canadian lumber. Bloomberg Businessweek says this adds an average of $1,360 to the cost of building a single-family home.
Not content with bossing around Americans, the administration's protectionists have demanded Mexico, as part of a renegotiated NAFTA, institute a $16 minimum wage for Mexican factory workers. So, a GOP administration purports to know more than Mexico's labor market knows about the proper price of Mexican labor.
All this dictating and renegotiating is supposed to protect American jobs from the menace of NAFTA, which according to one of its ardent critics destroyed 1 million U.S. jobs in its first 20 years (1994-2014). An academic study argues that trade with China destroyed 2.4 million jobs between 1999 and 2011.
But Don Boudreaux of George Mason University's Mercatus Center says this means it took NAFTA two decades to destroy as many jobs as are erased by the normal churning of the American job market on average every 18 days . And the so-called “China shock” eliminated in 13 years as many jobs as are eliminated by the U.S. economy's process of creative destruction, on average, every 41 days .
So, if there are to be trade “wars” with China and Mexico, they will be launched to avenge job “casualties” that are far fewer than those routinely inflicted by the domestic processes that produce American prosperity.
George F. Will is a columnist for The Washington Post. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.