“I am a tariff man...” President Trump, December 2018
“We should beware of the demagogues who are ready to declare a trade war against our friends—weakening our economy, our national security, and the entire free world—all while cynically waving the American flag.” President Reagan, November 1988
(If you have five extra minutes -- and tissues to wipe away tears of joy, affection, and patriotism -- watch the full Reagan defense of free trade.)
Many people would end the comparison here, but this is a blog for scholars, who look at actions as well as words. Even for Reagan fans such as me, measurement is especially required when the rhetoric comes from an accomplished actor and politician succeeding at the highest levels – winning two governor elections in the largest U.S.
(Casey B. Mulligan) considers the following as important: CEA
, International Trade
, President Reagan
, President Trump
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Many people would end the comparison here
, but this is a blog for scholars, who look at actions as well as words.
Even for Reagan fans such as me, measurement is especially required when the rhetoric comes from an accomplished actor and politician succeeding at the highest levels – winning two governor elections in the largest U.S. state and two presidential elections – and thus not isolated from political pressures.
Thanks to a book written in 1986
by former Reagan CEA member William Niskanen, it is easy for an economist from the Trump CEA
to rigorously compare economic policies
and processes between the two presidents.
The comparisons for international trade restrictions are surprising, both in direction and magnitude. The table below summarizes.
(Although not exhaustive, the list of Reagan restrictions are long enough to be exhausting!)
Contrary to many of the President’s speeches, Niskanen in 1986 saw the Reagan Administration as restricting international trade rather than promoting it:
“…the administration imposed more new restraints on trade than any administration since Hoover.”
“…the administration was on both sides of [trade issues], articulating a policy of free trade and implementing an extensive set of new import quotas.”
(Niskanen, pp. 137, 143, emphasis added)
“the share of American imports covered by some sort of trade restriction soared under ‘free-trader’ Reagan, moving from only 8% in 1975 to 21% by 1984.” (Hanke, a friend and colleague of Niskanen)
I emphasize “import quotas” (much the same as export restraints made by foreign countries) because President Reagan was a quota man whereas President Trump is a tariff man.
There is an important difference.
As discussed elsewhere
, quotas have different winners and losers than tariffs do.
Quotas are an “America last” policy because, unless the quotas are allocated to domestic businesses or are sold by the U.S. government, foreign businesses are major beneficiaries while the Treasury loses revenue on import duties and other taxes.
Tariffs at least bring revenue to the U.S. Treasury without necessarily creating profits for foreign businesses at U.S.-consumer expense. Milton Friedman compared
Reagan’s trade policy with the infamous Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930,
“[The Reagan Administration had] been making Smoot Hawley look positively benign. Despite the harm it did, Smoot-Hawley had at least one virtue—the tariffs it imposed did yield revenue to the Treasury.”
I agree with Friedman’s qualitative assessment, but note that tariffs shift some revenue from other taxes and may also result in retaliatory tariffs (as beneficiaries of quotas, foreigners have little reason to retaliate against them
It should also be noted that tariff rules often have quota elements to them, such as quotas on exemptions from tariffs (“tariff quotas”) that create windfall profits for the foreign businesses possessing an exemption.
Protecting Automobile and Motorcycle Producers
Let's begin by agreeing that protectionism is and has been the norm in the U.S. automobile market. A 25 percent tariff on light trucks and cargo vans (almost half of the current U.S. auto market), dating back to the 1960s and known as “the chicken tax
,” remains in place with no changes during that time except that Mexico and Canada became exempt with the 1993 NAFTA agreement. Why would we have a tariff that obtains essentially no revenue? Protectionism is the only credible answer
Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama all maintained the chicken tax. So far President Trump has too, although there have been occasions when Presidents set out plans (later discarded) to phase out the chicken tax after they left office. Looking through the ERPs back to Reagan, I see zero mentions of this tariff. (The 2018 ERP alludes to it on page 247. The 2002 ERP mentioned a Mexican tariff on light trucks, without acknowledging the U.S. tariff. Multiple ERPs asserted that fuel-economy standards distorted sales toward light trucks, without mentioning that the chicken tax distorts in the other direction.)
In the quota area, President Reagan’s trade negotiators persuaded (forced?) Japan
“to adopt a VER [Voluntary Export Restraint] on automobile exports to the United States, a trade restraint that dramatically increased the price of Japanese (and European) cars to U.S. consumers … the main beneficiaries of higher automobile prices were the Japanese (and European) automakers who captured scarcity rents: Japanese automakers reaped more than $2 billion in 1982 alone, while their European counterparts also raised their prices, to capture $1.5 billion that year” (Irwin 1994, p. 6)
President Trump has threatened auto tariffs, but as of my writing this (August 2019) had not imposed them. Meanwhile, President Trump’s Department of Transportation (DOT) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have formally proposed to remove regulations that are in many ways the economic equivalent of auto import tariffs: emissions and fuel-economy standards that are most costly to European auto manufacturers.
If the joint DOT-EPA rulemaking were finalized, and tariffs were not permanently imposed, then President Trump would be making international automobile trade freer whereas President Reagan (and also Obama) had made it less free. Because the apparent contrast between the Trump Administration and previous administrations is so stark, and I know first hand that special interest pressures on Federal policymaking did not wholly disappear in January 2017, only time will tell whether these aspirations become reality.
As part of regional trade agreement negotiations, the Reagan Administration proposed to base tariffs on the regional content (“rules of origin”) of automobile imports (Niskanen p. 141).
This proposal was not adopted as of 1986. In its negotiation of the United States Mexico Canada Agreement (USMCA), the Trump Administration has proposed to tighten the rules of origin for automobile imports. This proposal has not yet been approved by Congress.
Protecting Steel and Aluminum Producers
President Reagan protected the steel industry with VERs and quotas (see also pp. 114-6 of the 1986 ERP
; or pp. 77, 138 of Irwin’s 2009 book).
The U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) recommended countervailing duties (CVDs) on steel, but CVDs require Presidential approval, and he chose VERs instead.
This choice was a redistribution of revenue from the U.S. Treasury to foreign steel manufacturers.
In both economic and legal contrast to President Reagan's quotas, President Trump levied tariffs on steel (25 percent) and aluminum (10 percent) imports (although Reuters reported that Department of Agriculture Secretary Perdue has tried to persuade the President to replace those tariffs with quotas; presumably he is reacting to foreign retaliatory tariffs on agriculture that make the tariff-quota contrast less stark than the textbooks make it out to be). The tariff on South Korean, Brazilian and Argentinian steel, however, was replaced with a quota by agreement with the Trump Administration.
I am not aware of any aluminum tariffs or quotas from the Reagan Administration.
(One person present at the Hoover Institution explains how Governor Reagan spoke there about steel tariffs for national security purposes. That sounds like Trump Administration policy (Section 232 tariffs) ... I wonder what changed the Reagan Administration to quotas/VERs? Perhaps the threat of retaliation?)
During the Reagan years, the U.S. had a large bilateral trade deficit with Japan and much trade policy rhetoric related to that.
Today it is China rather than Japan.
“After engineering a cartel between Japanese and U.S. chip makers—again something clearly illegal if done by domestic companies alone—[Reagan officials] profess to be outraged that, like most cartel agreements, it proved to be a leaky sieve—fortunately, I may add. In retaliation, they threatened heavy tariffs against Japanese electronic products, which they have now reluctantly imposed, while broadcasting their intention that the tariffs last only until they have succeeded in bludgeoning Japan into enforcing the cartel agreement on its own firms. If successful, that would lead to the transfer of microchip production to areas other than the U.S. and the Japanese microchip industries. An OPEC in microchips at the demand of the customers! It boggles the imagination.”
The Reagan Administration also levied 100 percent tariffs on imports of Japanese computers, televisions and power tools.
The Trump Administration has levied tariffs on a significant fraction of imports from China, using Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974. It added the Chinese company Huawei to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Entity List, thereby effectively prohibiting U.S. businesses from trading with Huawei. Huawei’s status has been a matter of ongoing negotiations.
Protecting Producers of Textiles, Apparel, and Sugar
President Reagan vetoed the Textile and Apparel Trade Enforcement Act, which would have tightened textile import quotas (pp. 116-8 of the 1986 ERP
However, with the support of the Reagan Administration, quotas were tightened twice with the Multifibre Agreement when it was renewed in 1982 and 1986 (see p. 139 of Irwin’s 2009 book or pp. 212-13 of this article
The Trump Administration supports a House bill known as the "US Reciprocal Trade Act." Before it was introduced, Peter Navarro was leading the White House effort in this area, which he called the Fair And Reciprocal Trade act. To the amusement of the rest of the White House staff, Mr. Navarro got an "F" in marketing; this was one of several occasions that the President was understandably upset with Mr. Navarro.
It seems that neither the House bill nor the FART act have any chance of becoming Federal law.
(I am unaware of a Navarro-type character in the Reagan White House, but perhaps there was one.)
President Reagan’s Proclamation 4901 extended the 1979 quotas on imported clothespins.
The Reagan Administration increased tariffs on Canadian lumber.
Using Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974, President Reagan threatened tariffs in several cases that resulted in no U.S. tariffs and reductions in foreign tariff or nontariff barriers to U.S. exports, as they did for the Japanese tobacco-product market or the South Korean film market (pp. 132-33 of the 1987 ERP
and p. 177 of the 1989 ERP
The Trump Administration levied tariffs on solar panels and washing machines, using Section 201 of the Trade Act of 1974.
The Reagan Administration initiated the Plaza Accord
where major countries agreed to coordinated interventions in currency markets. Yesterday the Trump Administration declared China to be a currency manipulator, which the Wall Street Journal called "mostly symbolic" although financial market reactions were not trivial. The Trump Administration has also proposed to include currency values in determining the applicability of countervailing duties.
For over 100 years, the U.S. postal service has subsidized shipments originating in foreign (esp. developing) countries, pursuant to the rules of the Universal Postal Union (UPU). As Alfredo Ortiz explained in this article
, "it costs around $20 to mail a small parcel weighing 4.4 pounds from one U.S. state to another, yet mailing the same package from China only costs about $5." The Reagan Administration was aware of this problem
, but no solution was implemented. The Trump Administration has directed that either the UPU reduce the distortions in its terminal dues structure, or the U.S. will set its own terminal dues (withdrawing from the UPU).
Niskanen (p. 138) reports that White House components disagreed as to the desirability of trade restrictions, with the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA), Office of Management and Budget, and Department of Treasury emphasizing the economic benefits of free trade while the Department of Commerce, Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), and Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) emphasized the (political?) need to protect domestic producers.
The component configuration is similar in the Trump White House, although I cannot be sure about OSTP due to few first hand interactions with them. Also in some instances USTR opposed proposed trade restrictions.
Robert Lighthizer heads USTR in the Trump Administration.
He was the USTR first deputy during the Reagan Administration.
In both Reagan and Trump White Houses, CEA provided a catalog of trade actions in the annual Economic Report of the President
designed to assist researchers outside the Federal government who are gathering facts about Federal trade policy.
Compare, for example, Table 4-3 of the 1988 ERP
and Table 10-1 of the 2019 ERP
To reprise the quotas cited above (all Reagan): autos, steel, sugar, semiconductors, textiles, machine tools, and clothespins. The Trump Administration did create steel quotas for South Korea, Brazil, and Argentina as substitutes for its Section 232 steel tariffs.
To reprise the tariff increases cited above: steel (Trump), aluminum (Trump)
, motorcycles (Reagan), Canadian lumber (Reagan), Chinese goods (Trump)
, various Japanese goods (Reagan), solar panels (Trump), and washing machines (Trump)
To reprise the (economic equivalent of) tariff decreases
cited above: autos (Trump), and postal terminal dues (Trump)
It is clear that the Reagan administration restricted trade, and did so more than the Trump Administration has.
The Reagan administration harmed consumers in doing so.
While not making comparisons with the Reagan years, Robert Barro
and many others have said that the Trump Administration has been reducing economic growth with its trade policies, and enough to fully offset the pro-growth effects of tax and regulatory reform. What is the quantitative analysis
to show how they conclude that the offset is full? A first pass at the numbers suggests the opposite, even if the tariff increases were permanent: the corporate tax cut alone generated static taxpayer savings of about $200 billion per year, while taxpayers would be paying about $30 billion per year more for tariffs (again, a static calculation). Yes, there is uncertainty as to whether the annual tariffs will ultimately prove to be $0 billion, $60 billion, or somewhere in between, but is there any doubt as to whether it would be less than $200 billion? In terms of quantifying the cost of a trade war, perhaps they are thinking about the fairly large stock market swings that coincide with trade news. But would the stock market drop less if there was a credible threat of eliminating the corporate tax cut and reversing all of the deregulation?
The way I look at it, the proposed DOT-EPA rule would enhance U.S. international trade and consumer benefits so significantly that it would, if finalized, overwhelm the various tariff actions cited above.
In addition, the Reagan experience with Section 301 actions also shows that it is possible for those actions to enhance trade by reducing tariff and nontariff barriers that foreign countries have erected against U.S. imports.
Therefore, while it is clear that trade restrictions from the Trump Administration are significantly less than President Reagan's, more time is needed to determine the overall sign of the Trump Administration’s trade restrictions.