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President should implement steel and aluminum tariffs

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

One of the most fiery and contentious battles of the presidency of Donald J. Trump has exploded over the chief executive’s announcement last week to slap tariffs on all steel and aluminum imports into this country.

Eleven days ago in this space, we issued a plea to Trump to do just that as a means of leveling the global economic playing field. Today, we stand by that appeal and urge the president to make good on his pledge to implement the tariffs as expeditiously as possible.

As expected, opponents of the action are firing off fiercely on several fronts.

Some argue that the proposed 25 percent tariffs on steel products and 10 percent surcharges on aluminum products will trigger a destructive trade war, the likes of which this nation has not witnessed in 100 years.

Others call the measures a direct hit on the many U.S. industries that depend on the two critical raw materials for production.

Still others decry the tariffs as a regressive tax, hurting lower-income Americans disproportionately, by raising prices on a host of consumer goods, from soda-pop cans to sport utility vehicles.

Most of those and other arguments easily can be challenged as overblown fears.

Of course, no one wants an international trade war to break out as a result of these tariffs. Already, Canada, China, the European Union and others have threatened retaliation of their own on U.S. imports. Given today’s interconnected global economy, international trade conflict would benefit no one.

Given that reality, the U.S. should be prepared for such retaliation and work with its allies to prevent it. That could include, as some Republicans and Democrats alike have suggested, narrowing the scope of the tariffs to the most blatant offenders like China or negotiating with some nations such as Mexico and Canada for relaxing or removing the import taxes.

But taken as a whole, the tariffs serve as one viable means to achieve relief from decades of dumping low-priced subsidized steel products into the U.S. market, causing great harm and distress to American producers such as Vallourec Star, Wheatland Tube and others in the Mahoning Valley.

How much harm? According to the respected Economic Policy Institute, steel production has fallen to 82 metric tons a year from nearly 100 million a decade ago, and 75 percent of U.S. aluminum smelters have been shuttered over the past three decades. Tens of thousands of jobs have been destroyed in that fallout.

MINUSCULE IMPACT ON INFLATION

To those who argue that the tariffs will precipitate disaster for all U.S. industries using aluminum and steel, we’d respond that the verdict is not yet in, but the scope of their impact likely would not be anywhere near severe.

Consider, for example, the comments of Mitchell Joseph, the executive behind the $20 million chill-can production and research campus nearing completion on Youngstown’s East Side.

“Our beverage can comes from a U.S. can manufacturer. ... We do not know where the aluminum comes from, but we do know that some was imported. [Still] The increase in our beverage can would be minuscule.”

So, too, would be the minuscule impact on other steel and aluminum products made in the USA. According to U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, the impact of the tariffs on a can for Campbell’s Soup or Coca-Cola would be a fraction of a penny. According to Century Aluminum CEO Michael Bless, the tariffs likely would raise the price of a typical new $30,000 passenger vehicle by about $35.

Those are small prices to pay for a reinvigorated American metals industry.

Lost in the debate over the economic effects of the tariffs has been the prime motivator for the action in the first place – protection of America’s national security.

In a report that precipitated President Trump’s proposal, the Commerce Department argued strongly that the U.S. must build up its steel and aluminum industries to have enough metal for vital armaments as the F-15 and F-35 fighter jets and for a variety of armored military vehicles.

In fact, it is protection of our national security that gives our president carte blanche authority to bypass traditional bureaucratic and time-consuming delays in implementing crucial trade remedies.

We therefore urge the president to use his legitimate authority under Section 232 of the 1962 Trade Expansion Act promptly this week. In so doing, Trump also will fulfill a passionate campaign pledge to the tens of thousands of Valley voters who played an important role in electing him president two years ago.