For Many People, the Tariff Debate Is a Distraction with Potentially Dire Consequences

If you’re confused about President Trump’s trade policies, I suggest you revisit the transcript of a March 2011 interview, where Mr. Trump put forth his views clearly and succintly. Here’s an excerpt:

Now, most economists don’t like this reasoning, not one bit. They think it’s ludicrous for people to pay more for products and services than they’d have to pay if the market was allowed to find an equilibrium unencumbered by tariffs and other trade barriers. In other words, why pay $2,000 for a sofa made in North Carolina when you can purchase an equivalent one made in China for half that price?

Understandably, though, people who’ve lost they jobs to foreign producers see it differently. Being unemployed, or severely underemployed, tends to frame most issues in a deeply personal way. Their concern is jobs, plain and simple. They don’t much care whether shoppers at Walmart will have to pay more.

This is a gross oversimplification of the issues, of course. Economists could and have written entire books on the subject. But people tend to see issues in pretty simplistic and stark terms. Nuances and complexity don’t count for much when your job is at stake, whether you’re a domestic worker or a foreign one who’s making products for the U.S. market.

The one thing most people can agree on is the need for fair trade. And, admittedly, many of the trade rules aren’t fair by any reasonable standards. It’s not that some people and companies, including Americans (including most consumers who have good jobs), haven’t benefited from the rules as they are. They have. But that’s merely an acknowledgement that, no matter what the rules are, there are always winners and losers.

From my perspective as someone who may be retiring soon, the tariffs aren’t a welcome thing. My income will be relatively fixed (depending on my investment returns) while the costs of goods will increase due to these new taxes and the inevitable upward pressure on prices, and downward pressure on quality, caused by less competition and imbedded structural inefficiencies.

But, of course, the tariffs may be welcome to some people, namely, those who may secure jobs that are supplanting imports. However, the number may not be significant, and they may be dwarfed by the number of people who lose jobs due to retaliatory tariffs imposed by other countries. Even without the offset of lost jobs, the number added may not be as significant as some people believe.

The reason is simple: technology. Robots and computer-assisted machines and processes already have displaced many workers, including many of the workers who mistakenly think they’ve lost their jobs to foreign workers. And this phenomenon is just getting started. It’s likely to spread farther through the ranks of both blue and white-collar workers no matter what happens with tariffs.

Which brings me to my main point: young people shouldn’t be distracted by the tariff debate. Rather, they should focus on that which they can control and influence, namely, their own learning, knowledge, and skills in the context of a world in which more and more human activity will be taken over by computers and computer-assisted machinery, no matter what tariffs are in place.

This transformation has huge implications for people. No one can be sure how it will all play out; however, it’s likely it will result in a further stratification of workers and even less equal distribution of income and wealth.

When I was teaching, I tried to challenge my students to address this question when choosing a major and potential career path: What will you be able to do that computers won’t be able to do better? Not only today, but in the decade ahead.

American workers’ stiffest competition in the years ahead won’t come from China: it will come from digital technology. Mr. Trump’s mindset is stuck in the 1950s. When you’re a 71-year-old billionaire, there is little risk in that. If you’re in your 20s and aren’t a billionaire, there is a whole lot of risk.

The aging Baby Boomers who are hostage to mindsets formed in the 20th century will be consumed by debating the president’s policies. The smart young people of the 21st-century will focus on the things they can control. And will be preparing for a future than will look very different from the past.

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