Summary: Trump has brought us to the brink of a trade war. Before we take the plunge, let’s remember what we are risking – and why. These seldom end well for anybody.
“If the tension is not managed intelligently and creatively, the danger is that the domestic consensus in favor of open markets will ultimately erode to the point where a generalized resurgence of protectionism becomes a serious possibility.”
— Dani Rodrik (professor of economics at Harvard) in Has Globalization Gone Too Far? (1997).
Trade wars have much in common with real wars. They are born in hubris and ruled by the unexpected. Trade wars between great powers are MAD – mutual assured destruction. The only way to win is not to play. There are other and better methods to resolve conflicts.
Anyone clearly seeing Trump knows that he is a clown. Starting a trade war with China would be reckless, showing deep ignorance of how the world works. It would be the defining point of his administration.
Wars and trade conflicts are creatures of a President’s will. Sometimes Congress rubber-stamps his decision, often on the basis of lies. Sometimes Congress grants the President broad and vague authority that allows him to start wars at will. Trade wars are the latter. Either way, they show the bizarrely massive discretionary power we grant our presidents. Unfortunately, we often elect presidents unworthy of great power.
We have been lucky. Our bad choices have not sunk us. Of course, there is always tomorrow. Trump appears determined to start a trade war with China, ignorant of the risks – encouraged by his belligerent advisers.
Hail to the Chief.
The far right hates the treaties that protect us
Despite Trump’s faux populism during the election – arousing hope for change – he has governed as a bog standard far-right republican. The far-right hates the network of treaties that has helped keep America safe and prosperous. America pushed through these treaties to build a better world after WWII, and are among its greatest contributions to humanity. Past Republican presidents resisted pressure from their extremists. Trump has embraced them. See the list of treaties and agreements he has cancelled or withdrawn us from. Add to that the UN Arms Trade treaty he withdrew us from in April.
For generations the Right has sought to return us to the pre-WWII world. Nineteen of them voted against the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty which stopped the above ground nuclear testing that was blanketing the world with radioactive fallout. On 8 December 1987 Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. This marked the beginning of the end to the cold war – and a large step towards lifting the threat of global annihilation. Conservatives went berserk.
- Howard Phillips (Chairman of The Conservative Caucus) wrote a NYT op-ed: “The Treaty: Another Sellout.“
- In his 1988 book The New Season: A Spectator’s Guide to the 1988 Election, George Will wrote: “Historians may conclude that it was during this administration that the United States conclusively lost the Cold War.” The Berlin Wall fell the next year.
- Reagan biographer Richard Reeves noted stated the obvious: “In fact it was the day we won the Cold War.”
They hate the treaties that kept us safe. They hate the trade treaties that produced much of our post-WWII prosperity. Eventually they will destroy both our safety and prosperity.
But the stock market isn’t scared!
Ignore the myths. Financial markets are just mirrors of investors’ thinking. They show no special prescience. For example, investors ignored the evidence of WWI’s approach until the armies moved (see the amazing details).
Watch the clouds gather over the global economy
“Do I disapprove of Trump’s trade methods? I don’t see any method.”
— Tweet by Paul Krugman.
Slowly the clouds gather. Nobody panics because few can imagine that Trump would be so stupid.
- The timeline of the US-China trade war: Historians will read this as evidence of our stupidity, if not insanity.
- The Hill: “The longer the trade war, the sooner the recession“.
- WaPo: “GOP senators raise alarms, criticize Trump as U.S.-China trade war heats up.“
- LAT: “As trade war escalates, Chinese remember ‘national humiliation’.“
- Vox: “Why China’s new tariffs could make the US trade war even worse” – “A crumbling global economy, job losses, and a spooked market — just to start.”
Especially see the articles by economist Brad Setser at the CFR.
- Best briefing paper: “U.S.-China Trade War: How We Got Here.”
- “China Never Stopped Managing its Trade.“
- See his other articles about global trade, especially China’s.
I continue to suffer cognitive dissonance re the widely accepted view that China’s state subsidies are one of the grounds for trade war. Don’t we believe in markets? If so, shouldn’t such subsidies hurt them? Seems like an implicit vote for state intervention over markets.
— Jared Bernstein (@econjared) May 17, 2019
We can do better.
For More Information
Ideas! For shopping ideas, see my recommended books and films at Amazon.
- Globalization and free trade: wonders of a past era, now enemies of America?
- Why does the US government seek a hotter conflict with China?
- Cheap Imports Backfire on America’s Retailers & What’s Left of Our Economy.
- The real reason for America’s hostility to China.
- Stratfor: Manufacturing Is A Campaign Promise That Trump Cannot Keep.
- Stratfor: Trump risks a trade war with China that cannot be won.
- A powerful defense of free trade by Ed Dolan, before Trump attacks it.
- Stratfor: will Trump end free trade in food, & wreck US farmers?
- The forgotten secrets of free trade justify Trump’s tariffs.
Two books with radical ideas about the global economy
Has Globalization Gone Too Far? (1997).
Straight Talk on Trade: Ideas for a Sane World Economy (2017). See a review at the NY Review of Book.