IT MUST seem to Donald Trump that reversing globalisation is easy-peasy. With a couple of weeks still to go before he is even inaugurated, contrite firms are queuing up to invest in America. This week Ford cancelled a $1.6 billion new plant for small cars in Mexico and pledged to create 700 new jobs building electric and hybrid cars at Flat Rock in Michigan—while praising Mr Trump for improving the business climate in America. Other manufacturers, such as Carrier, have changed their plans, too. All it has taken is some harsh words, the odd tax handout and a few casual threats.

Mr Trump has consistently argued that globalisation gives America a poor deal. He reportedly wants to impose a tariff of 5% or more on all imports. To help him, he has assembled advisers with experience in the steel industry, which has a rich history of trade battles. Robert Lighthizer, his proposed trade negotiator, has spent much of his career as a lawyer protecting American steelmakers from foreign competition. Wilbur Ross, would-be commerce secretary, bought loss-making American steel mills just before George W. Bush increased tariffs on imported steel. Daniel DiMicco, an adviser, used to run Nucor, America’s biggest steel firm. Peter Navarro, an economist, author of books such as “Death by China” and now an adviser on trade, sees the decline of America’s steel industry as emblematic of how unfair competition from China has hurt America.

But the steel business is not a model for trade policy in general and companies are capable of being tricksy, too. Mr Trump may simply be looking for good headlines, but if he wants more, his plans threaten to be an expensive failure.

The miller’s tale
One reason is that Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, said this week that Congress would not be raising tariffs. Executive orders are bad politics and can get Mr Trump only so far. Another is that Ford’s plans are not as simple as they look. It will still build its new small car in Mexico—at an existing plant. But above all, Mr Trump gravely underestimates the complexity of messing with tariffs.

The men of steel are right to complain about China. Its government has indeed subsidised its steelmakers, leading to a glut that was dumped on the world market. Successive American governments have put up tariffs to protect domestic producers (in 2016 the Obama administration placed a tariff of 522% on cold-rolled Chinese steel), as has the European Union.

Yet this way of thinking fails to deal with the question of whether an ample supply of cheap steel courtesy of a foreign government is really so terrible: it benefits American firms that consume steel—and they earn bigger profits and employ more people as a result. Moreover, trade in most goods and services is not like steel. America’s biggest import from China is electrical machinery.

China’s government does not subsidise the overproduction of iPhones which are then dumped on the market, causing iPhone-makers in America to be laid-off. Instead, a smartphone might be designed and engineered in California and assembled in China, using components made or designed in half a dozen Asian and European countries, using metals from Africa. Likewise, every dollar of Mexican exports contains around 40 cents of American output embedded within it. For producers of such goods, tariffs would be a costly disaster. American steelmakers might seek out government protection. Apple and its kind will not.