‘Clashing over Commerce: A History of U.S. Trade Policy’

Douglas Irwin, University of Chicago Press, 832 pages, $35. Trade policy wonks are gluttons for punishment. In good times, their pet topic is dismissed as dull. In bad, they find trade being faulted for everything. As Donald Trump blames the United States’ economic woes on terrible trade deals, one geek is fighting back. In “Clashing over Commerce,” Douglas Irwin of Dartmouth College tells the history of U.S. trade policy, showing that trade is neither dull nor deserving of the attacks on it. Only twice has the broad direction of policy shifted, according to Irwin. Both reconfigurations were triggered by catastrophic events. The Civil War led to a new political balance, away from the southerners who favored free trade. And as federal spending soared after the war, more tax revenue was needed. Special interest groups organized to cheer their protections. The second shift came after the Great Depression. As the American economy collapsed, so did trade flows, and the world descended into disaster. From the rubble a rare consensus emerged, in favor of lowering tariffs at home in order to persuade other countries to lower theirs. As Irwin spins this grand narrative, he also debunks trade policy myths. Political dynamics would lead people to see a link between tariffs and the economic cycle that was not there. Irwin also methodically debunks the idea that protectionism made the United States a great industrial power, evaluating all the factors, a notion believed by some to offer lessons for developing countries today.