A Commerce Department report that likely labels auto imports a national security threat which, under Section 232 of the World Trade Organization, would clear the way for Trump to impose tariffs, is now in Trump’s hands. It could happen at any time now. It’s impossible to overstate the consequences of such a move. Without question, it would be the biggest shake-up in global trade since the signing of the Global Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in 1947.
Let’s begin with some perspective. In 2018, 17.3 million cars and pickup trucks were sold in the U.S. Of these, only about half of these vehicles were produced domestically. The rest are imports. Through November, the annualized value of imported cars in 2018 was approximately $180 billion. The annualized value of auto parts was approximately $165 billion. Together, that’s $345 billion worth of imported cars and trucks. Roughly half of the cost to produce autos and parts is labor – about $172 billion. If we assume that the average annual wage paid to auto workers is about $50,000, then that’s a total of about 3.5 million jobs that are lost to imports.
With that background, let’s take a look at the above-linked Reuters article about the possibility of Trump imposing a 25% tariffs on imported autos and parts.
The report’s recommendations may bring the global auto industry a step closer to its worst trade nightmare – U.S. tariffs on millions of imported cars and parts of up to 25 percent that many in the industry fear would add thousands of dollars to the cost of vehicles and potentially cost hundreds of thousands of jobs throughout the U.S. economy.
While it may be a “nightmare” for the “global auto industry,” it would be a dream come true for domestic U.S. manufacturers. A 25% tariff would indeed drive up the cost of imports by thousands of dollars, and could even increase the cost of domestic autos some, depending on the amount of imported parts used in their manufacture. The net result? It’s not hard to imagine. If you were in the market for a new vehicle that currently costs $30,000, which would you buy? An import that now costs $37,500 or a domestic that now costs maybe $31,000. It’s a no-brainer, one that would be repeated millions of times per year by new car buyers. The result is that domestic auto manufacturing would soon double in volume while imports would slow to a trickle. It’s as simple as that.
So how can one claim that “hundreds of thousands of jobs” would be lost throughout the U.S. economy? It’s easy to make that claim as long as you’re talking only about jobs lost and don’t include job gains elsewhere. Sure, there’d be lots of jobs lost (and a couple hundred thousand is feasible) in the distribution, sales and servicing of imported autos. But the loss of those jobs would be offset ten-fold or more by gains in the manufacturing, distribution, sales and servicing of domestic autos, not to mention the jobs involved in building the required manufacturing facilities, including buildings and machinery.
And what about this?
Senator Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, recently introduced legislation that would shift responsibility for Section 232 investigations from Commerce to the U.S. Defense Department. The law containing the provision was passed in 1962 to keep U.S. industries healthy to meet Cold War defense needs.
“There is no way that minivans from Canada are a national security threat,” Portman told reporters.
Portman is wrong on two levels. First of all, every imported car and truck weakens our manufacturing sector. That could be critical in a time of war. Just as important as our victories in the battlefield that ultimately forced the surrender of Germany and Japan in World War II was America’s industrial might that supplied them with weapons and materials. No other nation on earth could even come close to matching America’s industrial power. By the end of World War II, America’s shipyards were building complete destroyers, from the keel up, in two days, and Ford’s Willow Run factory in Michigan cranked out B-24 bombers at the rate of one per hour around the clock, or 650 bombers per month. That didn’t happen by magic. It took a veritable army of men and women experienced in manufacturing.
Existential wars – wars fought for survival against an enemy bent on conquering you – like our war against the Axis powers in World War II, are wars of attrition. Who wins and who loses is often determined by who runs out of something first. It doesn’t have to be ammunition or tanks or ships. It can be something as simple as boots. Every nut and bolt counts. The lack of even one component can grind a war machine to a halt. Supply chains that depend on overseas suppliers can be quickly and easily disrupted. In other words, it’s critical to our survival that we maintain a robust manufacturing base, one that can be quickly converted to a wartime footing to supply everything imaginable that we might need. Anything that degrades that capability is a national security threat.
Secondly, our national debt – now over $22 trillion – has grown to the point at which it threatens the viability of our economy. Our national debt is directly tied to our trade deficit. Every dollar drained from our economy by purchases of imports must somehow be put back to work in the economy, and the only mechanism available to do that is through federal deficit spending, financed by the sale of debt to those countries awash in our trade dollars. Our debt is now growing by nearly a trillion dollars per year, and the $345 billion trade deficit in autos and parts is a major contributor. The trade deficit is, without question, a national security threat and every imported minivan that Senator Portman references is part of the problem.
Tariffs are the only mechanism at our disposal for restoring a balance of trade – something we haven’t had since 1975 – and applying tariffs on the import of autos and parts is critical if we are to have any hope of achieving that balance. Tariffs can’t simply be used as leverage to force other nations into trade concessions because they’ll never willingly give up their trade surpluses, regardless of their promises, as we’ve seen time and again for many decades. We need tariffs now and they need to be permanent.