The Trump Administration’s Trade Policy -- Comedy or Tragedy?

To understand the Trump administration’s trade policies, close your economics textbook, put down your newspaper, and instead turn on your tv and stream three Hollywood cult classics. The comedies Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Office Space, and Idiocracy can teach Americans some important lessons about President Donald J. Trump’s trade policies.

The most infamous example is from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, which shows high school students suffering through a boring discussion of whether the 1930 Smoot Hawley Tariff Act alleviated the effects of the Great Depression. “Did it work? Anyone? Anyone? Anyone know the effects? It did not work, and the United States sank deeper into the Great Depression.”

The Trump administration’s sketchy justification for imposing costly steel and aluminum tariffs mirrors the comedy Office Space, where the protagonists come up with a scheme to round off pennies from customers’ accounts and transfer the money into their own account. When the plot’s mastermind is accused of theft he replies, “I’m just talking about fractions of a penny here. So what’s wrong with that?”

White House trade advisor Peter Navarro and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross eerily echoed that scheme earlier this year when they said tariffs on steel and aluminum cost “a penny for a six pack” and were “no big deal.” As with Office Space, their idea was to hide the costs by spreading them across as many people as possible.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross: Trump tariffs will have a 'broad' but 'trivial' impact on prices from CNBC.

Last but not least, Idiocracy shows a future where people water their crops with a sports drink called Brawndo. The movie’s protagonist points out that the plants are all dying, and suggests they use water instead of Brawndo. His suggestion is met with scorn: “What you're saying is that you want us to put water on the crops? Water? But Brawndo’s got what plants crave.”

On November 20, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative issued a report explaining that its Section 301 tariffs on imports from China are not working:

As the evidence gathered in this update demonstrates, China fundamentally has not altered its acts, policies, and practices related to technology transfer, intellectual property, and innovation, and indeed appears to have taken further unreasonable actions in recent months. USTR intends to continue its efforts to monitor any new developments and actions in this area.

The Trump administration’s proposed solution to failed tariffs? More tariffs! Less than a week after the USTR reported that tariffs are not working to change China’s policies, President Trump said he will go ahead with plans to boost tariffs on $200 billion in imports from China on January 1, potentially followed by even more tariffs on an additional $267 billion in imports. This is the trade policy equivalent of killing plants with “more Brawndo.”  

President Reagan once used Hollywood comedies to warn Americans about the dangers of protectionist trade policies. Reagan compared trade wars to pie fights that start small but escalate dramatically: “The pattern is exactly the one you see in those pie fights in the old Hollywood comedies: Everything and everybody just gets messier and messier. The difference here is that it's not funny. It's tragic.

Americans deserve a trade policy that reflects the near-universal consensus of economists in support of free trade, not one that brings to mind punchlines from Hollywood comedies.