Trump’s Tax on America

J. Bradford DeLong

 Pedestrians pass in front of the NYSE


BERKELEY – Mitch McConnell, the US Senate’s Republican Majority Leader, recently proclaimed that “2017 was the best year for conservatives in the 30 years that I’ve been here,” not least because President Donald Trump’s administration “has turned out to be … very solid, conservative, right of center, pro-business.”

One would undoubtedly hear Republican donors express similar sentiments over their shrimp hors d’oeuvres. After all, the Trump administration has rolled back environmental regulations and cut taxes for the rich. What’s not to like?

Sure, Trump and his family are aspiring kleptocrats. But that means they are against the government taking “their” wealth. They are natural allies for those who think that America’s income and wealth gap could stand to be even wider than it already is.

And never mind that the Trump administration is utterly inept, or that last year’s tax legislation was the most poorly drafted bill in living memory. Trump’s cluelessness, if anything, affords congressional Republicans even more opportunities to create legislative loopholes and ensure preferential treatment for their donors. It would seem that for the Republican Party, an incompetent, erratic kleptocracy might just be the best form of government.

Or at least it was until March 1, 2018, the day Trump signaled his intention to impose across-the-board import tariffs of 25% on steel and 10% on aluminum. That decision, notes Pat Roberts, a Republican senator from Kansas, “is not going to go down well in farm country.”

As Roberts points out, Trump’s move toward protectionism this year is at odds with his earlier policy achievements. “We have a tax reform package that’s bringing a lot of benefits to the business community,” Roberts told the Kansas City Star, “and this is a policy move that is contrary to that.” His worry now is that Trump will pursue “a trade policy that will basically result in all the benefits of the tax reform being taken away by higher manufacturing costs being passed on to consumers.”

He’s right. In the end, American consumers will pay for Trump’s tariffs. Such broad protectionist measures will affect every sector of US manufacturing in one way or another, and manufacturers certainly will not eat the full costs of higher-priced steel and aluminum inputs.

At the same time, other countries will introduce tariffs of their own against US exports. The European Union, for example, is now planning to slap tariffs on such American staples as Harley-Davidson motorcycles, bourbon whiskey, and Levi’s jeans.

So, Trump has essentially proposed a new tax on US consumers and export industries, the costs of which will be borne largely by his own supporters in the American heartland and Rust Belt.

Moreover, Trump seems to have arrived at his decision almost out of the blue. Stock markets were caught off guard, and immediately fell by around 1.5%. And according to the Kansas City Star report, “[Roberts] and other Republican senators received no formal heads-up from the White House.”

And yet the Republicans have been so cowed by Trump that the best response Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House of Representatives, could muster was that he “is hoping the president will consider the unintended consequences of this idea and look at other approaches before moving forward.”

It turns out that Trump’s decision was taken against the advice – indeed, over the objections – of not just his chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn, but also his national security adviser, General H.R. McMaster, his treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, and his defense secretary, James Mattis.

On the other hand, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross apparently favors the tariffs. But it is not at all clear why. The Department of Commerce itself surely recognizes that more Americans benefit from lower steel and aluminum prices than from higher prices.

Another supporter of the tariffs is Peter Navarro, who was recently promoted to Director of Trade and Industrial Policy and Director of the White House National Trade Council. That comes as no surprise. Navarro has written a number of alarmist books about America’s trade relationship with China, including one titled Death by China. Nevertheless, Navarro has not yet been able to explain how creating a larger domestic steel industry through tariffs will yield a net benefit for the US economy.

A final key supporter of the tariffs is US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, who formerly worked as a lawyer for the steel industry. As with Ross, it is not entirely clear what Lighthizer is thinking. He has to know that Trump’s tariffs will have little to no chance of boosting the US steel and aluminum industries without also imposing substantial costs on the economy. Doesn’t he realize that his own reputation will ultimately depend on whether the administration has a successful trade policy or an obviously stupid one?

Now that Trump has set a match to the global trading system, one wonders if America’s plutocrats and their congressional lapdogs will soon realize that a bungling government chained to the unpredictable whim of a labile president is not, in fact, ideal for sustaining and creating wealth. In a kleptocracy, predators often discover that they are the prey.


J. Bradford DeLong is Professor of Economics at the University of California at Berkeley and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. He was Deputy Assistant US Treasury Secretary during the Clinton Administration, where he was heavily involved in budget and trade negotiations. His role in designing the bailout of Mexico during the 1994 peso crisis placed him at the forefront of Latin America’s transformation into a region of open economies, and cemented his stature as a leading voice in economic-policy debates.

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