The novice pro­tec­tion­ist

The Oklahoman (Sunday) - - OPINION - Ge­orge Will georgewill@ wash­ WASH­ING­TON POST WRIT­ERS GROUP

WSooner or later, the pres­i­dent’s wan­der­ing at­ten­tion will flit, how­ever briefly, to the sub­ject of trade. So, let us try to think about the prob­lem as he seems to: Wily cos­mopoli­tans beyond our bor­ders are in­sin­u­at­ing across our bor­ders goods that Amer­i­cans, per­haps mis­led by Bri­tish econ­o­mist David Ri­cardo, per­sist in pur­chas­ing.

Ex­actly 200 years ago, Ri­cardo pub­lished “On the Prin­ci­ples of Po­lit­i­cal Econ­omy and Tax­a­tion,” ex­plain­ing the doc­trine of com­par­a­tive ad­van­tage. It ex­plains why free trade ben­e­fits every coun­try, even rel­a­tively ad­vanced

Eng­land trad­ing cloth for wine from rel­a­tively un­de­vel­oped Por­tu­gal, which has a com­par­a­tive ad­van­tage mak­ing that prod­uct.

Seven years after

Ri­cardo’s book ap­peared, Thomas Babing­ton Ma­caulay wrote, “Free trade, one of the great­est bless­ings which a gov­ern­ment can con­fer on a peo­ple, is in al­most every coun­try un­pop­u­lar.” It cer­tainly is with the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, which bris­tles with chest-thump­ing anti-cos­mopoli­tans who are too flinty to be bam­boo­zled by for­eign­ers like Ri­cardo and oth­ers who deny that trade is a ze­ro­sum game.

For­eign­ers, how­ever, have their uses. After the pres­i­dent trum­peted that the Dow sur­pass­ing the 22,000 mark was ev­i­dence of Amer­ica’s resur­gent great­ness, The Wall Street Jour­nal rather im­per­ti­nently noted this: Boe­ing, whose shares have gained 50 per­cent this year and which ac­counted for 563 of the more than 2,000 points the Dow had gained this year en route to 22,000, makes about 60 per­cent of its sales over­seas.

For Ap­ple, the second-big­gest con­trib­u­tor (283 points) to this year’s Dow gain at that point, for­eign sales are two-thirds of its to­tal sales. For­eign sales are also two-thirds of the sales of Mc­Don­ald’s, the third-big­gest con­trib­u­tor (239 points).

Mark Perry of the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute says that in the last 20 years the in­fla­tion­ad­justed value of U.S. man­u­fac­tur­ing out­put has in­creased 40 per­cent even though — ac­tu­ally, partly be­cause — U.S. fac­tory em­ploy­ment de­creased 5.1 mil­lion jobs (29 per­cent). Man­u­fac­tur­ing’s share of GDP is al­most un­changed since 1960. In­creased pro­duc­tiv­ity is the rea­son there can be quadru­pled out­put from the same num­ber of work­ers. Ac­cord­ing to one study, 88 per­cent of man­u­fac­tur­ing job losses are the re­sult of im­proved pro­duc­tiv­ity, not ra­pa­cious Chi­nese.

It was be­guil­ingly trans­ac­tional when West Vir­ginia Gov. Jim Jus­tice re­cently had his road-to-Da­m­as­cus mo­ment. Elected as a Demo­crat nine months ago, Jus­tice, a bil­lion­aire from the coal in­dus­try, an­nounced at a Don­ald Trump rally that he had dis­cov­ered that he is a Repub­li­can. Al­most si­mul­ta­ne­ously, he asked for a $4.5 bil­lion sub­sidy for the coal in­dus­try: Tax­pay­ers ev­ery­where should pay Eastern util­i­ties $15 for every ton of Cen­tral or North­ern Ap­palachian coal they burn. Nat­u­rally, Jus­tice said this is nec­es­sary for “na­tional se­cu­rity,” the hith­erto ne­glected me­nace be­ing this:

Com­pe­ti­tion from more pro­duc­tive Amer­i­can mines and, even worse, from Amer­i­can frack­ing (too much in­ex­pen­sive oil and nat­u­ral gas) is en­dan­ger­ing Amer­ica by threat­en­ing the “sur­viv­abil­ity” of Amer­ica’s Eastern coal­fields, po­ten­tially putting Amer­ica “at risk beyond be­lief.” Sup­pose, Jus­tice says, ter­ror­ists dis­rupted the Eastern power grid and there were no abun­dant sup­plies of Eastern coal? (He did not ex­plain how the coal would fix the grid.)

Trump surely will make a sim­i­lar claim when he pro­poses to tax Amer­i­cans (they will pay all tar­iffs) who jeop­ar­dize Amer­ica’s se­cu­rity by buy­ing Amer­i­can re­frig­er­a­tors made with steel im­ports that de­light Amer­ica’s circling en­e­mies by putting do­mes­tic steel mills “at risk.” Any­one who can­not make a sim­i­lar ar­gu­ment against im­ports of Greek yo­gurt — “food se­cu­rity equals na­tional se­cu­rity” — is a novice pro­tec­tion­ist.

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