The art of the imaginary deal
Are we going to have a full-blown trade war with China, and maybe the rest of the world? Nobody knows — because it all depends on the whims of one man. And Tariff Man is ignorant, volatile and delusional.
Why do I say that it’s all about one man? After all, after the 2016 U.S. election and the Brexit vote in Britain, there was a lot of talk about a broad popular backlash against globalization. Over the past two years, however, it has become clear that this backlash was both smaller and shallower than advertised.
Where, after all, is the major constituency supporting Donald Trump’s tariffs and threats to exit international agreements? Big business hates the prospect of a trade war, and stocks plunge whenever that prospect becomes more likely. Labor hasn’t rallied behind Trumpist protectionism either.
Meanwhile, the percentage of Americans believing that foreign trade is good for the economy is near a record high. Even those who criticize trade seem to be motivated by loyalty to Trump, not by deep policy convictions: During the 2016 campaign self-identified Republicans swung wildly from the view that trade agreements are good to the view that they’re bad, then swung back again once Trump seemed to be negotiating agreements of his own. (We have always been in a trade war with Eastasia.)
But if there’s no strong constituency for protectionism, why are we teetering on the brink of a trade war? Blame U.S. trade law.
Once upon a time, Congress used to write detailed tariff bills that were stuffed full of giveaways to special interests, with destructive effects on both the economy and American diplomacy. So in the 1930s FDR established a new system in which the executive branch negotiates trade deals with other countries, and Congress simply votes these deals up or down. The U.S. system then became the template for global negotiations that culminated in the creation of the World Trade Organization.
The creators of the U.S. trade policy system realized, however, that it couldn’t be too rigid or it would shatter in times of stress; there had to be ways to relieve pressure when necessary. So trade law gives the executive the right to impose tariffs without new legislation under certain circumstances, mainly to protect national security, to retaliate against unfair foreign practices, or to give industries facing sudden surges in foreign competition time to adjust.
In other words, U.S. trade law gives the president a lot of discretionary power over trade, as part of a system that curbs the destructive influence of corrupt, irresponsible members of Congress. And that setup worked very well for more than 80 years.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t intended to handle the problem of a corrupt, irresponsible president. Trump is pretty much all alone in lusting for a trade war, but he has virtually dictatorial authority over trade.
What’s he doing with that power? He’s trying to negotiate deals. Unfortunately, he really, really doesn’t know what he’s doing. On trade, he’s a rebel without a clue.
Even as he declared himself Tariff Man, Trump revealed that he doesn’t understand how tariffs work. No, they aren’t taxes on foreigners, they’re taxes on our own consumers.
When trying to make deals, he seems to care only about whether he can claim a “win,” not about substance. He has been touting the “U.S. Mexico Canada Trade Agreement” as a repudiation of NAFTA, when it’s actually just a fairly minor modification. (Nancy Pelosi calls it “the trade agreement formerly known as Prince.”)
Most important, his inability to do international diplomacy, which we’ve seen on many fronts, carries over to trade talks. Remember, he claimed to have “solved” the North Korean nuclear crisis, but Kim Jong Un is still expanding his ballistic missile capacity. Well, last weekend he claimed to have reached a major trade understanding with China; but as J.P. Morgan soon reported in a note to its clients, his claims “seem if not completely fabricated then grossly exaggerated.”
Let’s be clear: China is not a good actor in the world economy. It engages in real misbehavior, especially with regard to intellectual property: The Chinese essentially rip off technology. So there is a case for toughening our stance on trade.
But that toughening should be undertaken in concert with other nations that also suffer from Chinese misbehavior, and it should have clear objectives. The last person you want to play hardball here is someone who doesn’t grasp the basics of trade policy, who directs his aggressiveness at everyone — tariffs on Canadian aluminum to protect our national security? Really? — and who can’t even give an honest account of what went down in a meeting.
Unfortunately, that’s the person who’s now in charge, and it’s hard to see how he can be restrained. So the future of world trade, with all it implies for the world economy, now hinges largely on Donald Trump’s mental processes. That is not a comforting thought.
PAUL KRUGMAN is a columnist with The New York Times.