One problem with populists is that they make really simplistic solutions to really complex issues sound really appealing. Take Donald Trump on foreign trade.


One problem with populists is that they make really simplistic solutions to really complex issues sound really appealing. Take Donald Trump on foreign trade.

The leading Republican presidential candidate was in Michigan this week and brought down the house at the Birch Run Expo Center by declaring he’d get tough with America’s trading partners, particularly those who engage the United States in automotive commerce.

“Cars and trucks and parts are going to go all over the place, but they’re coming into the United States — no tax,” Trump thundered. “How does that help us, except that they’ll be closing plants in Michigan and perhaps other paces.”

That’s a message that resonates in Michigan, which saw its automotive employment plummet during the Great Recession and is only now recovering jobs in that bread-and-butter industry.

But Trump, as an accomplished businessman, knows the answer to the question he posed. Free and vigorous foreign trade “helps us” by creating broader markets for American goods and services.

Automotive jobs in Michigan didn’t fall to cheap foreign imports. Rather, the domestic industry has been roiled by a variety of forces, including technology, high production costs and a long period of inferior products at the end of the last century.

Automakers are healthier today than they’ve been in decades, and as a result are hiring American workers again, in large part because they have addressed their competitive and cost disadvantages and have a strong presence in the global marketplace.

Trump’s ideas on trade would hurt the auto industry and stifle its growth.

The real estate mogul proposes that all goods imported into this country carry a 20 percent tax, or tariff. Since auto manufacturing is a global industry, many of the parts in a car assembled and sold in America are imported from other countries. The tax would raise the sticker price, but isn’t likely to coerce the makers into moving production here.

Rather, such a protectionist policy would invite other countries to impose similar penalties, meaning fewer sales of exported vehicles and other goods.

Trump, who says he shares the trade views of Sen. Bernie Sanders, the socialist running for the Democratic nomination, promises not to make any trade deals unless they give America a clear advantage. That’s a fine sentiment, but not one that will play well at the negotiating table. The assumption that the world market needs the United States more than the U.S. needs access to world markets is a nationalistic delusion that doesn’t match the real economy. An optimum trade deal would balance opportunities and seek to find areas of mutual benefit.

Trump also deplores the off-shoring of jobs, and promises to bring manufacturing work “back to America where it belongs.” But not all manufacturing jobs belong in America. Certain low margin work is most efficiently done in places where the workforce is not as expensive or as highly skilled. American workers, with their wide access to education and training programs, should manufacture goods that require more technical skill, and thus carry higher prices and bigger paychecks.

Trump claims not to be a protectionist, and acknowledges there is an “interdependence of world economies.” Exactly. That’s why the U.S. cannot adopt isolationist economic policies.

Trump is conveying the notion that America would thrive if all the goods and services that are consumed here were also produced here. The world, and the United States, moved beyond that sort of agrarian society a century ago.

Prosperity today depends on making the best products at the best price, and extending their reach into the widest possible marketplace. Free trade agreements like the ones Trump criticizes are essential to achieving that objective. Trump does Americans no favor by trying to convince them he’d be able to move more of their goods into other markets, while closing their own.

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