O.K., they weren’t supposed to start the trade war until I got back from vacation. And I really have too many kilometers to cover and hills to climb to weigh in on a regular basis or at great length. But since I’m currently sitting in an outdoor cafe with my coffee and croissant, I thought I might take a few minutes to address two misconceptions that, I believe, are coloring discussion of the trade conflict.
By the way, I don’t mean Trump’s misconceptions. As far as I can tell, he isn’t getting a single thing about trade policy right. He doesn’t know how tariffs work, or who pays them. He doesn’t understand what bilateral trade imbalances mean, or what causes them. He has a zero-sum view of trade that flies in the face of everything we’ve learned over the past two centuries. And to the (small) extent that he is making any coherent demands on China, they’re demands China can’t/won’t meet.
But Trump’s critics, while vastly more accurate than he is, also, I think, get a few things wrong, or at least overstate some risks while understating others. On one side, the short-run costs of trade war tend to be overstated. On the other, the long-term consequences of what’s happening are bigger than most people seem to realize.
In the short run, a tariff is a tax. Period. The macroeconomic consequences of a tariff should therefore be seen as comparable to the macroeconomic consequences of any tax increase. True, this tax increase is more regressive than, say, a tax on high incomes, or