A trade war would not only make the United States less productive. It would also make monetary policy more difficult.
The legal uncertainties surrounding trade with China have sent people looking for historical precedent for this mess. One jumps out: the targeted trade embargo that the US imposed against Britain in 1807. Let’s look at the parallels and lessons.
The results of this war are as follows. US consumers get to pay more for imports from China. American companies lose markets as Chinese consumers and importers turn to other countries to provide wines, pork, and fruit. And this is only round one. The financial markets have suffered a terrible quarter one, just as all this interventionist rhetoric picked up steam. We are doing ourselves no favors here. This is not how a nation becomes great again.
In a political sense, Trump might be onto something, temporarily, in the most cynical way. It is very easy for the hoi polloi to think in terms of national collectives. It’s us vs them, our guys vs. their guys. The trouble is that the world is no longer organized primarily along these nationalistic lines. We all depend on the productivity of each other and therefore on trade with each other, regardless of the nation states that trap us in their borders. The other main problem with trade war: it is a ruse to distract citizens from their real oppressor which is their own government.
It’s been a beautiful thing to observe the wonderful effects of the tax cuts and deregulation of the last year. The tariffs take us off this clear path to the goal. The only question remains: is this a cul-de-sac or a u-turn? My own hope is that the political posturing is over in this one sector and we can move forward again with progress toward a world of peace, prosperity, and free trade, and that arbitrary rule will not permanently derail the rule of law in international economic relations.
And this isn’t only about the price of beer (you won’t say “dilly dilly” to $2 Bud Lights). It is about cars, computers, homes, offices, fixtures, and countless other items you use every day. The costs could very easily take away all the benefits accrued from income and corporate tax cuts. It also makes a joke of the Trump administration’s position against red tape and regulation. If my company can’t shop around for the best deal for my customers but instead must face a terrible trade bureaucracy to decline or permission in my every choice, we don’t have free enterprise.
Corporations and many households rightfully celebrated when the Trump administration led the way in cutting their taxes. Now, the administration is in effect clawing at least a little of that tax cut back in the name of increasing the profitability of two ailing American industries.
Economists tend to minimize those people who are hurt in the short run by free trade, but they're hard to ignore as a political voting bloc.
House Speaker Paul Ryan recently proposed a tax plan called A Better Way: A Vision for a Confident America. Ryan’s plan to make the United States more competitive includes a tax cut for businesses, a switch to a territorial tax system, and a border-adjustment tax. A tax cut and a switch to a territorial system would be positive for the economy. On the other hand, the border-adjustment tax would work like a tariff. It would encourage inefficient domestic production, which would raise prices and reduce real output. Over the long run the BAT would not even reduce the trade deficit.
Few areas of life are as poorly understood as trade. This is remarkable because each of us engages in trade every day. We buy our groceries, clothing, electronics, etc. from other people rather than making them ourselves. If we didn’t think trade was worthwhile, we wouldn’t do it. But we do—because we know how poor we would be if each of tried to make all the things we want.