2016 turned out to be a year in which it was wise to take Donald Trump as a political candidate seriously but not literally, in the inspired phrase of the Washington Examiner's Pittsburgh-based columnist Salena Zito. As 2017 is on the point of vanishing, it’s worth asking whether it’s time to take Trump seriously, if not literally, as a public policy maker.
At least that’s the approach of two heterodox policy analysts, one a persistent skeptic and the other an early Trump fan.
The skeptic is George Mason University economist and Marginal Revolution blogger Tyler Cowen. Like most economists, he tends to favor free trade and has not been converted by Trump’s rants and tweets.
But he sees a pattern where others see only mayhem. “The real significance of the Trump economic revolution,” he wrote In a Bloomberg column, earlier this month, “is a focus on investment.” The goal of Trump and the Republicans then fashioning the now-passed tax cut package, he argues, is to “make the U.S. a new and dominant focus of investment, including at the expense of other nations.”
Their deep reduction in the corporate tax rate, from the highest in the developed world to below average, obviously incentivized both U.S.- and foreign-based firms to invest here. Trump’s rejection of the Trans Pacific Partnership and renegotiation of NAFTA, in Cowen’s view, will make lesser-developed Asian nations and Mexico less attractive alternatives to the U.S. for investors.
Trump critics are right to say that this upends—the regnant cliché—the thrust of American policy since the years just after World War II. Then there was bipartisan agreement on encouraging free trade and foreign investment, as economist Douglas Irwin writes in Clashing Over Commerce. Europe was in ruins and voters thought its revival was in our interest.
But that was 70 years ago, and economic situations seldom remain static so long. A revived Europe has turned sluggish, while low-wage nations in Asia, Latin America, and even Africa are open for investment. First Japan, then China, now others will be moving up as competitors.
America has proved competitive at the top levels. But a country whose labor force is always going to include many low-skill workers may have some continuing interest in incentivizing low-skill employment. That’s not Cowen’s view or mine, but it’s apparently President Trump’s. Maybe it’s not just dismissible as crazy ranting.
Something similar may be said for the Trump foreign policy, considered as a perhaps unstable amalgam of his sober drafted national security Strategy and his sometimes impulsive tweets. This view explicated by David P. Goldman, writing this month in the Asia Times.
Trump’s view, Goldman argues, is of an America that is more competitive than cooperative, not necessarily hostile to others but not willing to rely on assertions of abstract common interests. “Competition does not always mean hostility, nor does it inevitably lead to conflict—although none should doubt our commitment to defend our interests.”
The national security strategy has a tough enough approach to Russia to disabuse all but the most dogmatic believers of the notion that Trump is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Manchurian candidate. It is sharply critical of some actions by President Xi Jinping's China. It drops former President George W. Bush’s earnest promotion of democracy in the Middle East and former President Barack Obama’s gauzy faith that Iran will abandon its nuclear weapons program and become a normal constructive power in the region.
On the contrary, Trump sees Iran as a clear enemy and Israel as a strong friend, and he looks with favor on the de facto, publicly unacknowledged alliance of Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states. Left on the back burner are the long moribund Israel-Palestinian negotiations, once considered the key to solving every regional problem.
The national security strategy is even more explicit in promising to “increase quadrilateral cooperation with Japan, Australia and India.” This is another informal alliance, advanced intermittently by Trump’s predecessors, with the potential to cabin in China.
On Europe, the national security strategy reaffirms Trump’s support of NATO but also suggests that Europeans aren’t doing enough themselves to repel threats from Russia, China and, especially, Muslim jihadists. But Europe seems almost a footnote, in contrast to the postwar years when it was the central focus of the emerging bipartisan foreign policy.
Back then policymakers believed it was in America’s interest to revive and subsidize Europe. Trump believes that time is over. That’s one rational response, though you and I may not agree, to how things have changed over 70 years.