In 2017, I wrote a column about how there were compelling and thoughtful reasons why many Americans voted for Donald Trump. One of those reasons was Trump’s focus on the renewal of jobs in America.
"We have a lot to overcome in our country, especially the fact that our jobs are being taken away," Trump said at a 2016 campaign rally. "It's happening right here in Michigan." He wasn’t wrong then. And he isn’t wrong now.
Since 1990, the U.S. lost nearly 30% of its manufacturing jobs, and economic growth has slowed over the past decade. This steep decline in blue-collar, manufacturing jobs is upending the lives of thousands of workers and their families all across the country. When he promised that “millions of workers on the sidelines will return to the workforce," Trump was speaking the coveted blue-collar language, a mode channeled by the most talented politicians to make voters feel heard.
But the problem lies in that Trump was promising the return of an economy that isn’t coming back.
Underpinned by the rise of AI, automation and robotics, his premise that manufacturing jobs can and will come back to places like Detroit in the same manner and fashion as before ignores the broader context of the changing nature of work as a whole. No amount of good intention can reverse the effects of deindustrialization with any significance—and let it not be lost on us that good intentions don’t always lead to good ideas.
This is evident with regard to Trump’s overall strategy, which is to reverse the trends of declining manufacturing and industrial jobs predominantly through the use of tariffs. But the tariff approach is flawed for a variety of reasons.
First, Trump’s battle waged against economic openness and his restructuring of U.S. trade policy—which closely resembles the protectionist inclinations of many of his progressive 2020 opponents—will likely exacerbate U.S. manufacturing job loss, increase underemployment and slow economic growth over the long term. But the short-term impact is already proving disastrous for many of the blue-collar workers Trump vowed to protect.
A concrete example, as noted by Weijian Shan in his captivating essay for Foreign Affairs Magazine, is the impact of tariffs on U.S. lobster producers. “China imposed a 25 percent tariff on U.S. lobsters in July 2018,” a retaliation to Trump’s decision to imposed tariffs on Chinese goods, “precipitating a 70 percent drop in U.S. lobster exports.” However, in a corresponding move, China cut tariffs on Canadian lobsters and increased imports from Canadian providers to offset American tariffs. Shan notes, “Chinese consumers now pay less for lobsters imported from essentially the same waters.”
Secondly, tariffs neglect to address non-trade factors, which account for a large portion of the devastating effects associated with deindustrialization. In fact, experts find the majority of job losses incurred in American manufacturing are not the result of poor trade polices but rather the result of productivity improvements from automation and robotics. One study cited by Mark Perry, a policy analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, “found that 90 percent [of job losses from 2000 to 2010] were due to productivity and technological change,” compared with only 10 percent from trade. Multiple other studies have produced similar findings.
The point is that, while it certainly plays a role, trade is but small portion of a broader societal shift in the nature of labor around the globe.
In order to adapt to an evolving economy, the United States should instead develop robust support systems to aid blue-collar Americans who disproportionally bear the costs of deindustrialization. This can be achieved by investing heavily in efforts such as a national apprenticeship program, federally subsidized job-training for displaced workers and vocational training in secondary education.
Thus far, the Trump administration has further decentralized similar efforts, pushing the responsibilities of worker education back on the private market. Trump’s hyper-focus on trade policy, presumably as a political tool to garner domestic support, is failing to address the issues that will prove even more consequential in the future.
And that’s precisely the problem: Trump isn’t solving the root problem of our domestic woes.
Instead we are levying tariffs with reckless abandon, which is tantamount to punching ourselves in the face. The fact is that the United States is engaged in a trade dispute predicated on a faulty premise, and all ordinary Americans are getting in return is a punch in the face.
The Trump trade doctrine is simple: a flawed strategy in pursuit of an unachievable goal.
So, if you voted for Trump because you wanted economic growth or to bring back American jobs, I have a message for you: he’s not your guy.
Hancen Sale is a senior majoring in economics. He can be reached at email@example.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @hancen4sale.
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