Editorial April 13, 2018
When did tariffs become a dirty word?
In the early days of the Republic, tariffs were used liberally to allow the development of such mainstay domestic industries as coal, iron and textiles in the face of Great Britain’s overwhelming advantage.
When Henry “The Great Compromiser” Clay died in 1852, obelisks were raised in his honor: Not for saving the Union, but for championing the tariff.
Beginning with Mexico’s addition to NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, in 1994, manufacturing jobs began to stream out of the U.S. Predictably, since wages were so much lower south of the border. (In 1992, president candidate Ross Perot had famously predicted that “great sucking sound.”)
Further free-trade agreements in the quarter-century since completed the job on U.S. manufacturing, and the resulting disaffection arguably led to Donald Trump’s election as president in 2016.
You hear it said that jobs that were the mainstay of the American middle class – Shurkatch, making fishing tackle in Richfield Springs, and places like Oneonta Dress were steady providers of local employment forever – are gone forever.
No, they’re just gone forever from the U.S., unless trade policy changes.
•You may have read one of the recent reviews of “Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World,” by Joshua Freeman, or seen his C-Span appearance.
He discusses Fabconn, the Chinese company that produces Silicon Valley’s products. No one’s sure how big its factory is, but Freeman estimates it at 400,000 workers, “making sleek and expensive gadgets like Apple’s iPhone,” as one reviewer put it.
New jobs exist, too. They just don’t exist in the U.S.
When new industries emerge, there’s a development stage that creates few jobs. Then there’s taking the innovation to market; that’s when huge numbers of jobs are created. That happened with rail, with cars, with flight. It didn’t happen with high-tech, thanks to the lack of trade barriers.
The jobs went to China. Thanks, Steve Jobs.
It may also be argued that the loss of jobs and resulting idleness created the hopelessness that paved the way for our national heroin epidemic.
Theoretically, free trade works, by allowing production of goods to go to the cheapest venue. But only theoretically: Saving a couple of bucks on a T-shirt doesn’t do much good to a factory worker who’s lost his or her job.
Now, nationally, there’s weeping and gnashing of teeth because the Trump Administration imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum.
What China was doing wasn’t any secret. “We’ve had a tough time with aluminum because the Chinese market is always dumping aluminum, making prices plummet,” our junior U.S. senator, Kristen Gillibrand, told a gathering in Massena last year.
At issue was $73 million in state money applied to save 600 good jobs at Alcoa, which means China’s predations are costing all of us New York taxpayers. (Our North Country neighbors had already lost Reynolds Aluminum’s jobs.)
Let’s weep for those aluminum workers, not Beijing. And, as Americans, let’s show a little gumption and patriotism.
In response to U.S. tariff proposals, the Chinese plan to impose 15 and 25 percent tariffs on 128 American products, many of which can be found in Otsego County supermarkets and liquor stores.
Some of them – steel pipe, for instance – the typical American consumer doesn’t buy every day, if at all. But others – primarily pork, most fresh and dried fruits, and domestic wines – are also on the list.
The tariff game between the U.S. and China is high-stakes poker. Let’s stay cool, and not throw in our hand too soon. Meanwhile, we as individuals – as citizens – should do what we can to limit the impact on American producers.
For dinner this Sunday, how about a nice pork roast with apple sauce, accompanied by a nice California chardonnay – or even better, a nice blend from Pail Shop Vineyards in Fly Creek?