That’s a tough question. At 144 years old, he might have accumulated more wisdom than the rest of us. Whether he would be able to articulate it is another matter.
Robert Litan, a senior fellow in economic studies for the Brookings Institute, has an idea what Hoover, the king of misguided protectionism, would say. In a recent paper titled, “History won’t be kind to politicians who stay silent on Trump’s trade war,” he wrote, “having recognized his huge mistake of pushing similar policies that stirred the trade war in the 1930s and then deepened what would become the Great Depression, he (Hoover) surely would tell the administration to stop this madness.”
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Hoover certainly wouldn’t have given that advice in the early 1930s, however, when it mattered for him. That’s when he was busy outlining a 12-step program that touted his high tariffs and a ban on immigration as reasons to vote for him instead of Franklin Roosevelt.
Regarding immigration, he said in 1932 that his efforts to keep foreigners out had kept 400,000 people from taking jobs “from our people.”
Sometimes, history echoes through the ages. It would be nice if we could learn from past mistakes.
Hoover is long gone, of course. The task of confronting madness today falls on others. Perhaps it falls on Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch.
Hatch may be the president’s biggest supporter in the Senate, but he has called the trade war “misguided and reckless.” In a floor speech, he said, “These actions put American families and businesses at risk and threaten to undermine the success of tax reform.”
He’s not the only Utahn who is worried. A recent World Trade Center Utah study showed Chinese efforts to respond to U.S. tariffs could damage more than $60 million of the $850 million Utah exported to China and Hong Kong in 2017.
Salt Lake Chamber President and CEO Derek Miller told the Deseret News the tariffs on steel and aluminum threaten to increase construction costs just as Utah tries to fight a housing shortage that is driving costs skyward.
Ranchers and farmers also would suffer, as overseas markets for their products disappear.
Trump has imposed new tariffs on steel and aluminum from many nations, including allies, as well as higher tariffs on a host Chinese imports. The targeted nations are retaliating in-kind, just as they did in the 1930s.
Tariffs are sold as a way to protect jobs in select industries that are threatened by cheap imports. But they cost many more jobs in other parts of the economy that rely on those imports.
The Trade Partnership Worldwide, based in Washington, illustrated this recently by projecting the effect of Trump’s tariffs on the auto industry over three years. The conclusion? They would add 92,000 jobs in the American car and parts industries, but cost 250,000 jobs in the rest of the economy.
Current law allows presidents to impose tariffs for national security reasons. The irony is that Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs likely will make it more expensive for the military to obtain equipment, thus harming national security.
Hatch, the Deseret News recently reported, would prefer to work with the administration to change the president’s mind, but ultimately he would back a bill that restricts the president’s authority to enact tariffs without congressional approval.
Earlier this month, the Senate voted overwhelmingly, 88-11, in favor of a measure that would do this. But that measure was non-binding, and it’s unclear whether anything binding will appear soon.
But the vote was interesting. Democrats overwhelming supported it. No doubt they wanted to embarrass the president, but as the Wall Street Journal recently reported, some Democrats are beginning to campaign on a free-trade agenda.
The Journal cited recent polls showing rank-and-file Democrats supporting free trade more than Republicans. That’s an interesting political twist.
We’ll never really know what Hoover’s ghost would tell the current president. He might wonder why, without a depression, it’s necessary to do anything.
Unemployment is a scant 4 percent. In Hoover’s day, it was nearly 24 percent.
This is a slow-moving issue. The bad effects of tariffs will take a while to develop.
Unlike Hoover, Hatch is still very much alive and in power. Maybe he can make a difference while there still is time.