Joseph Stiglitz, in Globalization and Its Discontents, was definitely on to something when he criticized developed countries for preaching liberalization of trade and then hypocritically sheltering themselves behinds walls of protectionism. Developed countries subsidize certain goods – think of agricultural subsidies in America – to crowd out foreign competition, or they can enact tariffs that make foreign goods more expensive and have the foreign goods effectively lose their comparative advantage.
President Obama recently practiced such hypocrisy by enacting a 35% tariff on low-grade Chinese car tires. As The Economist points out,
The number of jobs affected is barely a rounding error in measurements of the mighty American workforce…But in geopolitical terms, it is a whopper.
I shant go into much obvious detail about the actual net job gains from free trade, so I’ll elaborate on the second point of The Economist’s point: the political consequences.
The infamous Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act was passed in the midst of the Great Depression in an attempt to revive the American workforce. Accepted economic wisdom regarding Smoot is that it not only didn’t solve unemployment, it made it worse. The same situation could occur with this tariff on tires. China could start a trade war and impose tariffs on American goods. Suddenly, one retaliation leads to another and the walls of inefficient protectionism begin to grow larger.
The possible trade war is also accompanied by the increasingly hypocritical reputation of America in terms of trade liberalization. Why would anyone listen to American recommendations for free trade when they don’t practice it themselves? Whatever happened to Obama’s cry of restoring America’s credibility around the world?
Several news sources have pointed to political pressure from the United Steelworkers Union in order to get support for healthcare reform, but I haven’t seen any concrete evidence for that so I won’t believe it just yet.
Obama should be calling on all countries to lower trade barriers. But he’s got to practice what he preaches.