Tell the Truth on Tariffs!

So much huff and puff surrounds Trump's tariff talk, I thought it time to inject a little perspective into this heated (and often misinformed) debate.

Senator Ben Sasse was on Newsradio 1110 KFAB in Omaha, Nebraska the morning of March 7, issuing declarative statements regarding tariffs in general and Trump's proposals in particular, that aren't quite supported by facts.

While totally free trade is an ideal and a goal, it is impossible to accomplish without becoming wholly interdependent on other nations.  There will always be another country capable of driving your domestic industry into the dirt on some product or another, as no one nation can be the most efficient and best producer of everything that nation requires.

Because some industries cannot be outsourcedwithout risk to national security – even to friendly nations – trade representatives have always balanced imports and exports of these products through the use of taxation (tariffs) to both protect the viability of their domestic industries and to ensure a place for their own exports in the economies of other nations.

While a simplistic explanation, it covers the basic function of tariffs.  Throughout history, administrations and regimes have misused tariffs, sparking "trade wars."  And it is true that these disruptions have proven costly to both sides, but to say "no one wins in a trade war" is patently false.  The stronger hand will prevail, although not always unscathed.

Now, on to Sen. Sasse's increasingly unhinged rhetoric on tariffs.

It is duplicitous to argue against tariffs from a free trade standpoint when the very industry you are claiming will be decimated (agriculture) is hip-deep in tariffs of its own, not to mention a host of "internal tariffs" we call subsidies.

As an ag state senator, Sasse is obligated to represent his constituent's interests, and it is true that ag exports are likely first targets of retaliation, but I believe that his strident opposition has more than a little to do with his personal animus toward Trump, a man he sees as an interloper who has taken the highest office in the land without having paid the requisite dues.  Ben Sasse is rightly ranked quite high on the list of prominent NeverTrump Republicans.

Regardless of the deep, dank harborings of the good senator from Nebraska, his arguments crumble when viewed in the harsh light of reality.  Namely, the United States is no stranger to tariffs.

According to the United States International Trade Commission (USITC), we impose a 20% tariff on dairy products from other nations.  The same for most vegetables, too.  Asparagus and sweet corn are held in even higher esteem, enjoying tariff protections of 21.3% each.

Apricots, cantaloupe, and dates have tariffs of nearly 30% (29.8), while canned tuna rests loftily on a tariff redoubt of 35%.  Peanuts (both unshelled and shelled) boast tariffs of 131.8% and 163.3%, respectively.

I could go on and on.  The USITC lists more than 12,000 tariffs on imports to America covering the mundane to the arcane.  Live foxes, anyone?  You'll pay 4.8% more for an imported live fox than a domestic one, to satisfy the tariff on them (h/t Business Insider).

The point is, tariffs are both tool and negotiating point, often used to position and frame the agreements that balance international imports and exports.  They can be wholly protectionist, like our 350% tariff on imported tobacco, or merely annoying, like the above mentioned assessment on live foxes.

In any case, for a sitting U.S. senator to shout "protectionist!" from a free trade rooftop is less than genuine when the roof sits upon a house tariffs helped build.

Whether the proposed tariffs on steel and aluminum are wise or foolish is a subject for debate, but that debate must be governed by an adherence to truth, not indulgent hyperbole.

As the president has so often declared, our trade negotiations have been a spare step above abysmal for quite a long time.  We are routinely bullied by nations who need access to our markets and investment far more than we need their imports or their markets.

Wisely, President Trump has chosen to realign our priorities for trade in the same fashion he has advocated for immigration: America First.

Our positions in NAFTA, the now abandoned TPP, and numerous other catch-all trade agreements seem to have been negotiated by people with an inferiority complex, or the political belief that we owe the world an apology for being a superpower.

To permit nations to "pick our pockets" through lopsided trade agreements, as the President describes it, is a policy that belongs on the same trash heap where the idea of high taxes and government spending as drivers of economic growth now reside. 

Fair trade is not always free trade – not because one side is ruthlessly taking advantage of the other, but because neither side is static in a dynamic world economy.

Simply put, prudent trade agreements and wise applications of both tariffs and subsidies are the dual outriggers of our economic canoe, maintaining balance in rough seas.

As an advocate of free(er) trade, I prefer to see our industries compete without restriction or crutch, but I'm also cognizant of the barriers to true competition thrown up by others, on far shores, beyond our control.

Senator Sasse is not the only guilty party to be found in this rolling fog bank of obfuscating claims and pretensions of novelty now being assigned to Trump's proposed tariffs.  Numerous Republicans of the Never Trump variety are acting as if tariffs are musty anachronisms of the 19th century with no utility in the 21st.

Even my own personal hero, Mark Levin, is stridently opposed to Trump's tariffs.  However, unlike Sen. Sasse and others, he argues from a position of transparency, addressing the specifics of the proposal rather than relying on breast-beating and fear-mongering, as if the mere sight of a tariff poses a mortal danger to the body politic.

In other words, he is debating the merits, which is always the wisest course.  I wish our esteemed senator would do the same.

The author writes from Omaha, Neb. and welcomes visitors to his website,

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