KRUGMAN -- TRUMP'S TARIFFS ON SOLAR PANELS AND WASHING MACHINES WILL COST US JOBS, NOT CREATE THEM

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25 january 2018

The Economics of Dirty Old Men

Paul Krugman, The New York Times, JAN. 25, 2018

As a candidate, Donald Trump talked incessantly about international trade and how he was going to make America great again by renegotiating trade agreements, forcing foreigners to stop taking away our jobs. But during his first year in office, he did almost nothing on that front — possibly because corporate America managed to inform him that it has invested a lot of money based on the assumption that we would continue to honor Nafta and other trade agreements, and would lose bigly if he broke them.

This week, however, Trump finally did impose tariffs on washing machines and solar panels. The former tariff was, I think, more about looking tough than about any kind of strategic objective. The latter, however, fits in with an important part of this administration’s general vision. For this is very much an administration of dirty old men.

About washing machines: The legal basis of the new tariff is a finding by the United States International Trade Commission that the industry has been injured by rising imports. The definition of “injury” is a bit peculiar: The commission admitted that the domestic industry “did not suffer a significant idling of productive facilities,” and that “there has been no significant unemployment or underemployment.” Nonetheless, the commission argued that production and employment should have expanded more than it did given the economy’s growth between 2012 and 2016 (you know, the Obama-era boom Trump insisted was fake).

If this seems like a flimsy justification for an action that will significantly raise consumer prices, that’s because it is. But Trump decided to do it anyway.

The solar panel tariff is more interesting, and more disturbing, because it will surely destroy many more jobs than it will create.

The fact is that the U.S. is largely out of the solar panel-producing business, and whatever the reasons for that absence, this policy won’t change it. Like the washing-machine tariff, the solar-panel tariff was imposed using what’s known in trade policy circles as the “escape clause” — rules that allow temporary protection of industries suffering sudden disruption. The operative word here is “temporary”; since we’re not talking about sustained protection, this tariff won’t induce any long-term investments, and therefore won’t bring the U.S. solar panel industry back.

What it will do, however, is put a crimp in one of the U.S. economy’s big success stories, the rapid growth of renewable energy. And here’s the thing: Everything we know about the Trump administration suggests that hurting renewables is actually a good thing from its point of view. As I said, this is an administration of dirty old men.

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