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Something There Is That Doesn’t Love A Tariff Wall (Forbes.com) March 8, 2018

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds, Politics.

Donald Trump is enamored of walls.  First he wants to build a physical wall on the border between the U.S. and Mexico.  Now he wants to erect tariff walls, imposing a 25% tax on steel and 10% on aluminum coming into the country from abroad in order to protect higher priced American products and jobs.

But as Robert Frost wrote in his poem Mending Wall:  “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”  Frost added this further word of caution:  “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out, and to whom I was likely to give offence.”  These are important questions that President Trump would do well to consider.

Trump’s philosophy seems to be that globalization is the problem and building walls is the solution.  If globalization has robbed Americans of jobs—and his strong showing in key rust belt and industrial states helped elect Trump—then we will prevent products from coming into America at a lesser cost and competing with American manufacturing.  His answer to Frost’s first question is that cheap products are what we want to keep out.  But to whom will he give offense?  Key allies and world powers that manufacture these products, but also American consumers who like to buy them and save money.  Building walls can be complicated.

History is not on the side of walls.  In one of the great speeches of the 20th century, President Ronald Reagan stood near the Berlin Wall, a key part of the Iron Curtain surrounding communist Eastern Europe, and famously said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”  Gorbachev did and the result was the beginning of the end of the Cold War and the reign of communism.  Other walls around the world, including the Great Wall of China or Hadrian’s Wall in England, are relics of history.  They no longer function to keep people in or out.

Nor has history judged economic walls kindly.  In fact, you would think Republicans might remember their own troubled history building trade walls during the Great Depression.  Senator Reed Smoot and Congressman Willis C. Hawley decided that adopting protectionist trade policies—placing tariffs on over 20,000 imported goods—would help protect the vulnerable American economy, and President Herbert Hoover agreed.  The net result:  other nations retaliated, more banks closed, and both the U.S. and global economies suffered further losses, exacerbating the Great Depression.

Today the global economy is highly interdependent, making trade walls even less likely to succeed.  People used to say that when the U.S. sneezes, the world economy catches a cold, but now with the hyperspeed of technology and communication, an economic event almost anywhere may trigger waves around the globe.  Already China and the European Union have said they will respond in kind to any trade war Mr. Trump chooses to launch.  The days of building an economic wall around any country are long past.

Not only are history and economics not on the side of Trump’s protectionist tariffs, but the U.S. Constitution is not either.  Article I of the Constitution gives Congress the “Power to lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises,” which includes the power to establish tariffs.  In this case, President Trump is relying on a highly suspect delegation to the president from a 1962 Cold War law in cases of “national security.”  Clearly, President Trump’s assertion of this power is over something less than national security, as he wheels and deals with countries over tariffs and trade agreements.  This is yet one more case of the president overreaching through executive orders and powers to assert his will over Congress, several of whose leaders (even from his own party) have spoken out against the tariffs.

From time to time over its history, the U.S. has shown tendencies toward isolationism and Trump’s tariff wall is one more example of this.  As a commercial republic in a complex world economy, however, such tariffs no longer make sense, if they ever did.


To read the column at Forbes.com:



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