Why are tariffs a good idea? That’s the excellent question I keep hoping the mainstream media will ask. Instead, when President Donald Trump delivered on tariff promises he made again and again on the campaign trail to tumultuous cheers, the press reacted with shock and awe.
This was unheard of. Unacceptable. How could he do this? It was as if Trump has been found in bed with Putin’s mistress. And Putin, too. Gloom-and-doom pronouncements over a certain (and devastating) trade war with countries that have been benefiting for years from trade policies that have gutted America’s aluminum and steel industries were almost as over-the-top as the Cold War histrionics of earlier days (these rather more legitimate) when schoolchildren practiced hiding under their desks in the event that Khrushchev dropped the big one.
Trump is worse than Khrushchev. Not just immoral and sexist and greedy and so on, but craaaaaaazy. OK, we thought Khrushchev was crazy … but not this crazy. And as it turns out he was far more moderate than most in the Kremlin and many in our own State Department, which at that time was in a panic not over Russia so much as the spread of communism (that, too, was inevitable — just like the coming trade war) to countries we much preferred to see run by dictators who protected the interests of the foreign corporations (especially ours) that effectively ran their economies.
Talk of runaway inflation and rampant unemployment in industries that would have to pay more for raw materials, and of course that trade war (oh, boy, are the Chinese ever gonna be pissed) has lately had the pundits in a blithering frenzy. That the tariffs could have any redeeming features was simply out of the question as far as CNN and the New York Times were concerned.
What went unsaid was that the tariff hikes’ gravest flaw was the man who proposed them. Trump is worse than a lame-duck president. Every move he makes is regarded as just one more reason to impeach him. He may wriggle out of this or that imbroglio on some technicality, but his emotional shortcomings are so glaring and so embarrassing that he simply must go, so say his critics.
I agree, even though I am among the handful of people on the planet who actually think his tariff proposal has merit.
Trump’s America First campaign is clearly a conundrum and a probably a shibboleth. Who knows? The devil is in the details, and Trump is not a detail guy. I have my own version. My America First would take its inspiration from what I call China First. In China, global domination is the means to an end — improving the quality of life for all in China. The rest of the world must fend for itself against China’s brazen theft of markets and intellectual property (while closing off its own markets). The Chinese have us on the defensive, no doubt about that. Above all, they love manipulating our inability to call a spade a spade. They see it as a weakness and they are right.
Here’s what I mean: While China makes no bones about its indifference to the quality of life of other peoples, most Americans see globalization as a hallmark of their Christian values: Everyone’s welcome and everyone’s the same. This is a false equivalence, of course. Globalization is about money and power. Period. It has nothing to do with Black Lives Matter or the Dreamers, much as the neoliberal left would like to pretend it does.
For me, protecting the environment tops the list of pressing policy issues facing our nation and the world. Most people don’t see it that way. (Why should they when they have bills to pay and social media to distract them?) Moreover, as long as leadership is itself an endangered species, climate change and other urgent environmental crises will go on being treated as of nebulous consequence.
A protectionist visionary in the White House might help people connect the dots — might even persuade Americans to shift to a more sustainable world economy, one less dependent on China. This visionary president might show how an America First policy offers a pathway to independence and self-sufficiency, and why that isn’t just good but necessary. Voters might actually be convinced that the U.S. has a huge and vibrant domestic economy, that we-the-people don’t need foreign trade nearly as much as our multinational corporations and their shareholders do.
For me, the climate crisis (and related threats to our planet) represents a moral imperative because it involves defenseless species without which human society cannot function. I’m talking about microorganisms that, for no charge, keep our world safe and habitable. How that relates to Trump’s tariffs is this: Steel is one of thousands of products whose transport around the globe is irresponsible in light of the catastrophic long-term consequences of fossil-fuel consumption.
Modern shipping is highly efficient and cost-effective — until you factor in government actions of various kinds, from tax loopholes to subsidies to currency tampering to tariffs, that have kept oil prices artificially low so as to grow the global industrial economy. If you add to that the environmental costs, as Trump might say, this is a terribly bad — very, very bad — deal.
In my view we should be remaking our domestic economy with the principles of ecosystem balance front of mind, just as the South had to remake itself after slavery was abolished. This 21st-century transition would be far less traumatic. Could be. It’s government’s job to manage change in a way that delivers a soft landing. In a democracy, the people (not just the elites) have to be fully informed and on board. They need something the Chinese lack, as least for now — the kind of original thinking that flourishes in a free society, the ability to find creative solutions to thorny problems and an attitude that says anything is possible if everybody pitches in.
A coherent America First program would use the tax code and other government incentives to create new products and markets. It would stimulate a paradigm shift from making things merely for money to making things that promote equity for all and freedom from fear. Automation is a big fear in Trump country. Anti-protectionists say the tariff issue is moot, as automation kills jobs anyway. I say that’s short-term thinking.
Why can’t taxes on an increasingly automated (and profitable) U.S. steel industry be used to pay for universal health care, quality public schools, better roads and highways, renewable energy, a shorter workweek, healthy organic food and conservation programs?
Anti-protectionists say planned economies are socialist. Yup. So what? And by the way, since when has government not governed? Isn’t government supposed to offset corporate short-term thinking? Isn’t it supposed to protect the greater good, and doesn’t that mean the long-term good of all citizens?
Sadly, Trump is no Lincoln. Moreover, we have dug ourselves a very deep hole. Big business has never been more powerful or more concentrated. It quashed the cap-and-trade system that might have given us a true accounting of our carbon footprint. It even quashed a tax on carbon. This adversarial behavior (with big business winning every time) has been the new normal since Detroit and Big Oil gutted the CAFE gas mileage standards by pushing (paying) politicians to create a loophole for gas-guzzling SUVs.
There, too, “jobs” and “American competitiveness overseas” were the excuse for kicking the problems facing the planet down the road. Big Steel wasn’t the victim that time but a co-conspirator. Japanese cars flooding the market may have been more efficient but they were so darned small.
Big business has mastered not the art of the deal but the art of the pre-emptive strike against anything that threatens its inexorable growth. This is how we became a knee-jerk nation. Linear thinking rules our political discourse. Protectionism smacks of populism. Populism smacks of nationalism. Nationalism smacks of fascism. Fascism smacks of Nazism. Nazism smacks of isolationism circa 1935. Isolationism smacks of nativism — anti-Islam, -black, -woman, -Jew … ergo, Trump is a white supremacist no different from those people who delayed our entry into World War II.
This is nonsense, of course, as ridiculous as the fake news that is decried in books like “Fantasyland” and “Bunk.” If we are so exceptionally prone to the poppy- cock spewed by con artists like Trump, how come populism (aka fascism, nativism, nationalism, protectionism, isolationism) is afflicting Europe as well?
Was Brexit caused by “something in the water” exported from the New World back to the old? Why is Steve Bannon playing to packed audiences in Italy and France?
The contempt being heaped on Trump’s proposed tariffs is just another distraction that will prevent ordinary Americans, who still have the right to vote, from arriving at the more logical and correct (in my view) conclusion: Protectionism is a way to address the glaring and growing divide between haves and have-nots. The majority of humans are fighting for their very survival (by that I mean for the right to live past, say, age 30) as the rich grow their power and wealth on every corner of our ever-more-polluted and overpopulated globe.
Everywhere but China.
The objectives of the Chinese government’s seamless interface with its corporations are clear. China’s president-for-life is fully aware of the consequences for the “haves” of government turning its back on the have-nots. He is unwilling to risk a populist uprising because in China, given its huge population, underrepresented citizens actually might throw the bastards out, or at any rate seriously destabilize that stressed-to-the-limits nation.
That is why China, because it is a nation on the brink and knows it, represents the planet’s last, best hope for a future that offers some semblance of protection for defenseless people and other species. Our own best hope is a response in kind. Instead of China stealing our intellectual property and messing with our markets, maybe it’s time we steal something from China.
America First, China-style, would put we the people ahead of transnational corporations that are American in name only. It would promote the growth of self-sufficient communities. There, business owners know their customers personally. They establish bonds of trust. We used to call this way of assimilating people of differing ethnicities “the melting pot.”
Statistics show that while global concentration of wealth and power has accelerated dramatically (along with the wealth gap) in recent years, the disparities are worse in the U.S. than other Western democracies. It would be tragic if the American dream turned out to be just that, a figment of our imaginations. A dream and nothing more.
Bonnie Blodgett, of St. Paul, is a writer who specializes in environmental topics (firstname.lastname@example.org).