Trump Comes to Bury Tariffs, Not Praise Them

Andrew Cullen

L-a-a-a-a-dies and gentlemen, your attention please. I am about to attempt a death-defying stunt THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER ATTEMPTED BEFORE. I am going to defend Donald Trump’s tariff policy.

Are you ready? (Cracks knuckles.) As you know, tariffs are bad. All the finest economists say so. BUT. There’s one generally tolerated exception to this rule: If another country has indefensibly high tariffs, and the sole purpose of your tariff is to cause them enough pain to force them to reduce their tariffs, then it’s OK. If you’re successful, then everyone’s tariffs go down and the world is better off.

But this can take a while, and in the meantime your own people can suffer. So today President Trump announced a plan to help our farmers who are hurt by the tariffs we imposed on China. The general reaction to this was mockery:

But if the purpose of the tariffs is to force China to reduce its tariffs; and if we know this will take a while; and if we know that domestic resistance to sustained economic pain is our biggest obstacle to seeing this through—then it makes sense to stand tough on the tariffs but assuage domestic resistance with random payouts here and there. And that’s what Trump is doing.

If you think the tariff war is dumb in the first place, then the payoff to farmers is dumb on top of dumb. But if you support the tariff war as a way of getting China to open its economy more, than the payoff to American farmers makes perfect sense. It’s just a way of bribing people to allow a good but painful policy to run its course.