Just How Wrong Is Bush on Steel Tariffs? Where to Begin ...

In how many ways is George W. Bush's decision to impose tariffs on imported steel so completely wrong that it physically hurts? Let's work through the list:

Economically. You there, reading this. You buy stuff, right? Get ready to pay more for anything connected to steel importation or manufacture. That's pretty much everything, all the way down the economic food chain. For the sake of temporarily rescuing a dying industry,
you're going to be out of pocket whether you're buying a hairdryer or a HumVee.

Morally. Bush knows what the "free" in "free trade" stands for. Last October, he said -- correctly -- that the September 11 attacks on the United States were also attacks on free trade, and added: "We will keep our countries open, and our markets open for business." During the 2000 Presidential campaign, Bush declared that he would be "a free trading president, a president that will work tirelessly to open up markets … that's why I am such a strong advocate of free trade and that's why I reject protectionism and isolation."

He rejects protectionism no longer. Who is Bush hurting with his tariff decision? He's hurting his allies in the War on Terror, like the U.K. and Australia. Thanks a bunch. Germany, Japan, and Russia are being punished for the crime of selling cheap steel to American businesses. They should be rewarded.

Politically. At a stroke, Bush has alienated free-traders within his own party, encouraged other moribund industries to beg for undeserved handouts, and revived the dormant anti-market ideas of the Buchananite right and Naderish left. Way to go! And do you think there are actually votes in this? For every steel industry vote picked up, Bush will likely shed two votes from people harmed by the tariffs. It's an easy calculation: many, many more people work outside of the steel industry than within it.

Historically. Bush's rationale for throwing a stack of your money at the steel industry is to allow it time to rebuild. But the steel industry has had plenty of time to rebuild, and been given money to do so. They keep blundering, and the government keeps bailing them out. Besides, how do you save an industry dominated by a union that thinks it's a good idea to invest in Canadian anti-capitalist propaganda films?

In fact, in one area the steel industry has rebuilt itself: efficient mini-mills now have about 50 percent market share, up from 10 percent in the 1970s. The larger, less efficient integrated mills -- which Bush's tariffs aim to assist -- are more threatened by these smaller operations than by any foreign competitor.

And now for a few extra esoteric categories of utter wrongness:

Aesthetically. Bush's move puts him in the same protectionist political picture as slobbering leftist millionaire incubus Michael Moore. This is not a good look. Stick with the guys in the suits.

Harley-Davidsonly. Anti-free trade conservative knuckle-draggers always roll out the example of Harley-Davidson whenever they champion tariffs. "Without tariffs, Harley-Davidson would be gone," claims Buy American campaigner Roger Simmermaker. "There would no longer be an American motorcycle industry."

Simmermaker is exactly wrong. Tariffs didn't save Harley-Davidson. Harley-Davidson only regained strength when it overhauled its management style, built some cool new rides that didn't leak oil and break down all the time, and realised the power of the Harley-Davidson brand.

Harley-Davidson needed government help because by the early 1980s the once-dominant bike builder was making and selling junk. Tariffs were their reward for incompetence.

In any case, Harley-Davidson realized themselves the folly of tariffs once they got their act together. In 1987, with a year of tariff protection still to run, the motorcycle manufacturer petitioned the International Trade Commission for early termination of its five-year tariff deal. Nowadays Harley actively campaigns against international tariffs, so it can sell more bikes overseas.

There's a fair amount of steel in your average Hog. I wonder how much the price will increase when these tariffs kick in …

Gorely. As a general rule, you want to avoid copying the career path of Al Gore. On steel, Bush is duplicating Gore's slide on trade policy. In 1993, Gore took a principled and powerful stand for free trade in his famous debate with Ross Perot. Seven years later, at the Democratic National Convention, Gore abandoned free trade for so-called "fair" trade. He'd been dragged into the giant sucking Big Union maw. Now, George W. Bush too is within its terrible, slimy grasp.

There is one, and only one, benefit to the steel tariffs: they've exposed the duplicity of anti-free traders outside the States. Here in Australia, for example, Doug Cameron, national secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, has for years demanded tariffs on steel imported into Australia, and pleaded for protectionist barriers.

But now Doug is angry with the US for putting tariffs in place. "This will destroy [Australian] jobs," he complained. "It is a serious threat to the industry." Doug, pal, you have no right to whine when the U.S. does something you’ve advocated doing here. By the way, welcome to the free trade side of the debate. Starting to see some of the benefits, Doug?

The Europeans are angry also. Of course, the same people were upset when Bush rejected the Kyoto treaty on global warming. Europe should look on the bright side; by harming its steel industry, Bush is helping to ease pollution. Kyoto would've closed a lot more industries down, but these tariffs are a good environmental starting point.

And that's about all. The U.S. knows it can't stop metal imports, and knows it would be insane in the long term to try. Manufacturers and consumers know it, too. Even you guys on tariff-boosted Harleys know it. Those big fat shiny alloy wheels you’re riding atop of? They were made right here in Australia.

The Sound and the Fury

Last week in this space I mentioned something about modern motor vehicles producing emissions that were cleaner than city air. At the time, I thought it such a statement of the obvious as to require little supporting evidence.

Some people didn’t see it that way.

Robert Zitka wrote: "If you really think that cars don't pollute, then try sitting in a closed, unventilated garage with your car running for a half hour and see if you can  live to write about the experience."

From Todd Cheek: "Next time, try to come up with a notion that makes a little sense, not nonsense."

Iain Robertson sent this: "What you've stated (‘These days, cars clean the air’), comes across as completely and utterly impossible to anyone who even remotely understands how an internal combustion engine works … there is absolutely no way that an internal combustion engine can clean the air."

As it happens, I do know how an internal combustion engine works. My correspondents, fixated on vehicle emissions, ignored the fact that internal combustion engines first consume air. If that air is especially polluted (as in London, say, or Los Angeles) it may emerge from a modern, efficient car in a filtered state -- cleaner than it was before.

According to this pro-car website, "Despite the enormous increase in traffic over the past 25 years, [England’s] urban air will be cleaner than it was in the 1960s - and will continue to improve steadily into the next century as the national vehicle fleet is replaced."

Clean-car technology is nothing new. P.J. O’Rourke was writing about it eight years ago. Even a few posters at plastic.com are aware of it.

The Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology mentions Saab’s 1994 air-cleaning claims, which so far have never been refuted. Last year the Swedish company received a Discover award for its SCC engine, which devours its own pollutants. Volvo claims to have designed a smog-eating radiator.

So you want cleaner air? Buy a new car. And tell those Greenpeace freaks down the street to get rid of their '67 Beetle.

Tim Blair is an Australia-based journalist who first encountered the horror of environmentalism as a grade school student, when a bearded teacher told him that all the fossil fuel in the world was about to vanish and everybody would soon be driving electric cars. Born in 1965, he has been a senior editor at Time magazine, a columnist at Sydney's Daily Telegraph, and the editor of Sports Illustrated's Australian edition. He currently writes for various Australian newspapers and magazines, publishes Timblair.com and has owned dozens of cars and motorcycles — none of them electric.

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