“Trump has heaped scorn upon those Republicans who have worshiped at the alter of unfettered free trade.” - Joe Scarborough, May 22, 2016
“I wouldn’t say that you know this free trade obsession is something that can’t get looked at in regard to making things more fair.” – Incoming White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, November 14, 2016
One of the most pervasive themes of the last year is the notion that America’s populist uprising, and the success of President-elect Donald Trump, has in large part been a direct response to the United States’ – and in particular the Republican Party’s – libertarian obsession with “unfettered” free trade. MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” Scarborough, quoted above, has been a big cheerleader of this argument, which has been treated on his show and elsewhere in the media as obvious truth. And now we see one of the few official members of the future Trump administration, Reince Priebus, repeating the notion, signaling to the country that America’s great free trade moment might be ending. Clearly, the idea is prevalent and persuasive.
But it is also dead wrong.
First, although the United States maintains a relatively low average import tariff of around 3 percent, it also applies high tariffs on a wide array of “politically-sensitive” (read: highly lobbied) products: 131.8% on peanuts; 35% on tuna; 20% on various dairy products; 25% on light trucks; 16% on wool sweaters, just to name a few. (Agriculture is particularly bad in this regard.) We also maintain a long list of restrictive quotas on products like sugar, cheese, canned tuna, brooms, cotton, and baby formula. And although the U.S. has 14 free trade agreements (FTAs) with 20 different countries and is a longstanding member of the World Trade Organization (WTO), many of these same “sensitive” products have been exempted from the agreements’ trade liberalization commitments. Free trade for thee, but not for me.
Second, while America’s tariffs and other “formal” trade barriers have indeed been declining for decades, they are only a small part of the overall story. U.S. non-tariff barriers – export subsidies, discriminatory regulations, “buy local” rules, “fair trade” duties, etc. – have exploded in recent years. In fact, according to a recent analysis by Credit Suisse, when you add up all forms of trade barriers imposed between 1990 and 2013, the biggest protectionist in the world isn’t China or Mexico but none other than… the United States: