Trump bays at moon with trade ob­ses­sion

The Recorder & Times (Brockville) - - OPINION - GWYNNE DYER

Half­way across the Pa­cific Ocean, U.S. Pres­i­dent Donald Trump heard the clos­ing state­ments from the G7 sum­mit in Que­bec (which he had left early to meet North Korean dic­ta­tor Kim Jong-un in Singapore).

All the G7 coun­tries had signed up to an an­o­dyne clos­ing com­mu­nique that pa­pered over the huge gap be­tween the United States and the other six on world trade — but Canada’s Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau then said once again he would an­swer Trump’s big new tar­iffs on steel and aluminum im­ports with new Cana­dian tar­iffs on U.S. ex­ports.

He had said it be­fore, in­clud­ing to Trump’s face just the pre­vi­ous day, as had the other na­tional lead­ers. But Trump flew into a rage.

No jumped-up leader of a rinky­dink coun­try like Canada was go­ing to get away with talk­ing to the pres­i­dent of the United States like that. Trump re­tracted his en­dorse­ment of the joint com­mu­nique, called Trudeau “very dis­hon­est and weak,” and hinted heav­ily his next tar­get would be Canada’s car-mak­ing in­dus­try.

The other coun­tries of what used to be called “the West” have grown used to Trump’s tweeted out­bursts, and French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron re­stricted him­self to say­ing that “international co-op­er­a­tion can­not be dic­tated by fits of anger and throw­away re­marks.”

True enough, but what also needs to be said is that the whole con­fronta­tion over trade is ir­rel­e­vant to Trump’s real po­lit­i­cal con­cern, which is van­ish­ing Amer­i­can jobs.

Trump’s line is that the very high un­em­ploy­ment rate in the United States (which he is al­most alone among Amer­i­can politi­cians in ac­knowl­edg­ing) has been caused by free trade. The evil for­eign­ers took ad­van­tage of gullible Amer­i­cans to make free trade deals, and then lured ruth­less Amer­i­can man­u­fac­tur­ers to re­lo­cate in their low-wage home­lands.

This made sense for Amer­i­can man­u­fac­tur­ers only if there were more or less free trade be­tween their new base and the United States, so that they could still sell their prod­ucts back home with­out tar­iffs.

But while more than a mil­lion Amer­i­can jobs did get sent abroad like that in the 1990s, very few have been ex­ported in the past 15 years.

In the first decade of the 21st cen­tury, the United States lost onethird of all its man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs, and the vast ma­jor­ity of them were killed by automation. They didn’t go any­where. They just van­ished.

Job de­struc­tion then slowed down un­til other new com­puter-driven tech­nolo­gies ma­tured: self-driv­ing ve­hi­cles, on­line shop­ping, “dark” fac­to­ries and ware­houses. But they are ready now, and the car­nage in re­tail jobs, driv­ing jobs and ware­house jobs is just get­ting un­der­way. To worry about free trade while this is go­ing on is pure folly.

Trump can do a lot of dam­age to em­ploy­ment both else­where and in the U.S. by launch­ing a trade war, but he can­not bring the jobs back. They are gone for good, and a lot more will fol­low. Automation may be slowed down here and there for a while, but even­tu­ally it will elim­i­nate at least half the ex­ist­ing jobs — and the no­tion that it will cre­ate equiv­a­lent num­bers of new good jobs is an ami­able myth.

So while the lead­ers of other rich coun­tries will have to di­vert some at­ten­tion and ef­fort to cop­ing with the im­pacts of Trump’s trade war, they must not let that be­come their ob­ses­sion. It’s a side is­sue, though po­ten­tially a very ex­pen­sive one.

In Canada, in France, in Ja­pan, in all the de­vel­oped coun­tries, the real prob­lem is the same as it is in the U.S.: the in­ex­orable ad­vance of automation and the re­sult­ing hem­or­rhage of jobs. So de­vote most of your at­ten­tion to that, and only re­spond to Trump’s dec­la­ra­tion of trade war to the ex­tent that is po­lit­i­cally un­avoid­able.

In the end, you’ll be glad you did. Gwynne Dyer’s new book is Grow­ing Pains: The Fu­ture of Democ­racy (and Work).

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