Americans are deeply divided on politics, but there are a few issues where former President Donald Trump pushed us closer together.
International trade has never been more popular, thanks to an unpopular president leading a unilateral trade war against all three of the nation’s biggest foreign partners. Americans in the last few years became directly aware of the costs of government trade barriers.
Trump promised that trade wars are good and easy to win, and then proceeded to prove otherwise.
Despite this, a whirlwind of executive actions in the early days of the Biden administration has not included any significant efforts to bring Trump’s trade wars to an end. To the contrary, President Joe Biden intends to preserve and promote some of the same protectionist policies Trump championed.
In Iowa, the bipartisan consensus over free trade has been one item on a brief list of unifying issues. It was one of the only topics over which Iowa GOP politicians criticized Trump, but it often was Democrats leading the charge.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne won a close race in 2018 in part by linking her Republican opponent to Trump’s trade policies. In Congress, she “grilled” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in a hearing, trying to get him to admit that tariffs are taxes.
Iowa Democratic Party organizers repeatedly hammered Republicans about trade policy, warning Trump tariffs would “cripple Iowa’s economy, potentially setting off a new farm crisis.” Former party chairman Troy Price went on TV to say people are “really hurting” under the Republican trade policies.
Free trade is good policy and good politics. The portion of Americans who view foreign trade as an economic benefit has grown for the past 20 years, spiking to 79 percent in Gallup Poll figures released last year. That’s up from less than 50 percent as recently as 2012, and the increase is reflected across members of both major political parties.
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Tariffs, in effect, are taxes paid by U.S. consumers. Trump’s tariffs cost Americans an estimated $80 million so far, according to a Tax Foundation analysis last year, equivalent to “one of the largest tax increases in decades.” That number doesn’t account for the economic impact of foreseeable retaliatory tariffs from other countries, which have been especially harmful to agriculture exporting states such as Iowa.
In addition to tariffs, Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement with Asian nations, ended talks for a major European trade deal and weakened the World Trade Organization. He replaced the North American Free Trade Agreement with the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, although it’s not clear it was a huge improvement.
All this makes it harder for Americans to buy foreign products, and harder for Americans to sell their products to foreigners. All players in the global exchange are poorer for it.
Biden has a mixed record on trade. He voted for NAFTA in 1993, but voted against some smaller free trade agreements. As president, he’s likely to seek more multilateral action on trade — an improvement over Trump, to be sure — but he will not dismantle most of the trade barriers erected by his predecessors. After a few decades of steady progress toward a freer world, the Trump and Biden administrations deliver a stark shift.
Biden last week borrowed a move from Trump world by signing a “buy American” order, strengthening the requirement that federal offices purchase domestic goods even if foreign ones are cheaper or better.
The Biden administration also is offering support for maintaining the Jones Act, one of the nation’s greatest monuments to misguided economic protectionism. The century-old law is meant to bolster U.S. maritime capacity by restricting domestic shipping to vessels built, owned and staffed by Americans, but it ends up imposing higher costs on consumers.
The Biden platform is a far cry from the ardent free trade agenda Iowa Republicans and Democrats pitched to voters over the past four years. It’s one of the worst deals ever made.
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