Polling data continues to show that young Americans are broadly supportive of free trade policies. Yet, recent news in this space finds America headed in the opposite direction. Despite insistence of progress from President Trump, the hopes of reaching a detente with China over the ongoing trade war appear to have fallen flat. Trade headlines were rounded out with the Trump administration announcing new tariffs — this time a 25 percent levy on European imports from Scotch whiskey to Italian wines and cheese.
The result of the president’s trade policy is unambiguous. American Enterprise Institute fellow James Pethokoukis sums it up thusly: “Factory jobs are down, the trade deficit is up. Business investment is down, uncertainty is up.” On the specific point of economic uncertainty, Pethokoukis found it “spiking to levels even higher than during the Global Financial Crisis.” All of this raises the question of what approaches 2020 and beyond hold for U.S. trade policy.
I have previously made it clear that Congress is missing in action on trade policy, but in lieu of much-needed congressional vigor for reclaiming its authority on trade, it is necessary to keep an eye toward what proposals the 2020 presidential contenders are offering. Most important of all is the degree to which these policies facilitate a free trade environment that helps all Americans.
President Trump’s views on trade have been well-documented throughout his tenure as president, summarized no better than styling himself as “Tariff Man.” He is in familiar company with several Democratic candidates.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has blamed free trade as a primary cause for job loss in the United States in a way not dissimilar from President Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign. Despite Sen. Warren introducing the trade plank of her “economic patriotism” plan with the claim that her heavy-handed approach aims to stem the loss of “millions of jobs to outsourcing,” there is no mention of how President Trump’s trade restrictions have already cost 300,000 jobs.
Sen. Warren’s plan labels President Trump’s approach as “haphazard,” but there are precious few differences between their proposals. Where Sen. Warren promises to “impose duties to support particular industries” and “create automatic triggers to initiate investigations into unfair trade practices,” President Trump’s 2016 vowed to make it more difficult for “trading competitors to ship cheap subsidized goods into United States markets” and “identify every violation of trade agreements a foreign country is currently using to harm […] the American worker.”
Her plan would also go further than the Trump administration’s most recent trade actions against Europe, with an awkward side-effect resulting from her plan’s prohibition of trade agreements with countries being monitored by the Treasury Department for currency manipulation. Several countries — including Ireland, Italy, and Germany — would be precluded from participating in any trade negotiations with the United States.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) concurs with the trade restrictionist views of Sen. Warren and President Trump, stating that “of course” he would use tariffs, but in a “rational way within the context of a broad, sensible trade policy.” That broad, sensible policy would still entail imposing higher costs on imports that result in the same higher prices for the goods in question that President Trump’s trade war has caused.
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) has been more ambiguous on her vision for U.S. trade policy. According to a Vox report breaking down the presidential candidates’ trade positions, “Harris has sat at every intersection of the trade debate. She talks about giving workers a voice and protecting American jobs. But she doesn’t approve of Trump’s protectionism.” When asked this past June about whether or not she would impose tariffs as president, Sen. Harris gave an unclear answer; “I would consider as President reading a briefing book. I would consider surrounding myself with experts. I would consider listening to the voices of the people who are going to be most at risk.”
With President Trump and Sens. Warren and Sanders as trade skeptics and Sen. Harris as somewhere in the middle, former Vice President Joe Biden and Mayor Pete Buttigeig have emerged as the two major candidates advocating for scaling back President Trump’s more restrictive approach and encouraging more openness on trade.
Biden has been strident in his past support for NAFTA, and though he has expressed concerns over intellectual property theft by China, he ultimately believes the “problem isn’t the trade deficit.” Mayor Buttigeig goes even further. A common refrain from him underscores a simple truth on restrictive trade policies: “Quick reminder: a tariff is a tax. On Americans.” He similarly denounced the ongoing U.S.-China trade war as a “fool’s errand” and stated he would rescind the current tariffs on China.
Mayor Buttigeig’s favorability toward free trade is of particular note because of its place in the generational divide on trade. While the septuagenarian trio of President Trump and Sens. Warren and Sanders are hostile to more open trade policies, the 37-year-old Mayor Buttigeig is in line with younger Americans’ broad support for free trade.
The trend is encouraging. Free trade is so beneficial to all Americans because of its wide-ranging impact on our daily lives, and younger Americans are have the most to gain or lose in this situation. The 2020 presidential candidates’ perspectives on trade is liable to have outstanding policy implications for America’s economic future. Though a less glamorous topic, the role trade plays deserves due consideration from young Americans hoping to benefit from future economic prosperity.