WASHINGTON – Some Buffalo-area old-timers no doubt heard Thursday's news about President Trump slapping tariffs on imported steel and aluminum and thought: Finally.
Finally someone in Washington is paying attention to the foreign competition that helped kill the Bethlehem Steel plant in Lackawanna and other local steel mills back in the early 1980s. Finally, maybe, the American steel industry will come back.
But a quick glance at the numbers makes it seem like Trump is trying to make a miracle – and that he could start a trade war in the process.
Trump said the moves will help regrow the steel and aluminum industries, but it's difficult to see how they will ever employ as many people as they once did.
Wrap your head around these figures. In 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the nation's iron and steel mills employed about 84,000. Fifty years earlier, 22,000 people worked at Bethlehem Steel in Lackawanna alone, part of a contingent of more than a half a million steelworkers nationwide.
The bottom line: The U.S. steel industry never went away. It shrunk dramatically – but mostly in terms of employment. It's the same story that's occurred in industry after industry: The number of jobs plummeted as technology improved, making the business of producing steel much more efficient.
You can't blame other countries for the increase in productivity in U.S. steel plants, and to his credit, the president doesn't really do that.
Trump seems mostly concerned about the fact that there's a worldwide steel glut that could mean hard times for the U.S. steel industry. And he's especially concerned about imports from China, which has a gigantic excess steel-making capacity, meaning it could, in theory, flood the U.S. market with cheap steel.
So you would think that Trump might want to slap tariffs on imported steel from China and China alone, right?
Wrong. The tariffs he is threatening to impose – while not yet fully detailed – appear aimed at all countries.
And if you're wondering which country could get hurt the most from the Trump tariffs, think of your last nighttime drive home from Toronto. Think of that flame alighting the night sky from the steel plants that still line the lake shore in Hamilton.
America gets 16 percent of its imported steel from Canada – more than from any other country. China ranks 11th, contributing less than 2 percent.
Not surprisingly, the Canadians were not happy with Trump's tariff tactics. Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland called Trump's proposed 25 percent tariff on imported steel and 10 percent tariff on imported aluminum “absolutely unacceptable.”
Trump did not make clear whether the tariffs would affect Canada and Mexico, but if they do, “Canada will take responsive measures to defend its trade interests and workers,” Freeland said.
Keep in mind that all this is happening as the United States, Canada and Mexico try to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Trump hates but which is responsible for the easy cross-border production chains that keep American facilities like Ford's Hamburg stamping plant up and running.
Trump's tariffs could upend those talks, and the facilities that depend on NAFTA, and that's just the start.
It's anyone's guess how Canada might retaliate, but it buys more products from the U.S. than any other country, so it has plenty of options for retaliatory tariffs of its own. Other countries, including China, could retaliate, too.
So yes, finally, the U.S. is taking tough action against its trading partners, and to the many people who have suffered in the industrial devolution of the past 50 years, this vengeful moment no doubt feels good.
Just remember, though, that while revenge may be best served cold, this time it could cost you some cold hard cash.
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