WASHINGTON – It's become ever more hazardous to write anything positive about President Trump because every time he appears to do something constructive, Trump takes a step – or two – back.
The president did something highly constructive when he announced well-merited taxes on imported steel and aluminum. The howls of protest from the Establishment were predictable, considering the degree to which foreign governments and government-controlled industries have infiltrated this city's elite think tanks.
Plus, what has become the 21st Century version of free trade – meaning the parceling off of American industry to Asian interests – has recruited some very powerful American investors, who speak through their members of Congress of both parties.
Economist Alan Tonelson of RealityChek.com has listed a dozen think tanks that have received grants topping $1 million from powerful Asian industry groups. Among these influence peddlers are the prestigious Brookings Institute, the Peterson Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Trump's decisive action against these subsidized imports would not have happened were Trump better connected with with this city's well-preened political muscle. Trump's edict subsequently exempted Canada and Mexico from the tariffs.
Trump's announcement of tariffs against imported steel and aluminum was not one of his sudden, impetuous acts. It was the result of a formal government investigation begun a year ago. The Alliance for American Manufacturing noted that as a result of foreign dumping of subsidized metals that 10 U.S. blast furnaces were closed since 2000.
The United States was down to a single manufacturer of weapons quality steel.
Presidents Bush and Obama had years to react to this foreign metals dump. They didn't. Trump did.
The tariffs have already re-lighted fires in a number of American blast furnaces and smelters, including an aluminum facility in New York's North Country. But this last was kept alive temporarily because of heavy tax subsidies.
Unfortunately, the president's welcome intervention in the aluminum and steel businesses will have little measureable effect on employment in Buffalo-Niagara or across upstate New York.
Industrial employment in Buffalo Niagara became unhinged long before any of the big trade deals like the World Trade agreements, Canadian Free Trade, or North American Free Trade Agreement were signed or ordered by Presidents Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan or George H.W. Bush. Factories that provided steady private employment to 45,000 workers in the metals business are long gone.
Some of the difficulties still exist that were in place in 1982 when Bethlehem Steel announced it was stripping down all steel-making in Lackawanna. Bethlehem didn't just mothball the plant in Lackawanna.
It pulled the whole place down. It wanted out.
Some of the issues were national, such as transportation costs, and the price of labor. Others unhappily were local such as the loss of the region's one-time advantage on the cost of electricity, that occurred under then Gov. Mario Cuomo, a sorry history of shakedowns of industry by officials of both parties, and militancy by labor unions who believed they had a captive market.
Since then, little by little, Buffalo Niagara has changed from a modified supply-side economy influenced by business and industry to a what is effectively a single-party, demand-economy driven and now controlled absolutely by the state, meaning New York State government.
The region owes much to government for the Buffalo Billion investments and to the state university and private foundations for investments made in downtown Buffalo. But this demand-style economy has its draw-backs as seen in the corruption trials in Manhattan, and the heavy hand Albany wields in so many decisions. There is a loss of business spontaneity in such a system, and soft corruption as in the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority and the Erie County Water Authority grows like a mushroom in the dark.
Other communities in the Northeast boasting lower taxes and regulation have made the transition from the smokestack trades to other businesses. One of these places is the one-time steel center of Allentown-Lehigh, Pa., once-lamented in the Billy Joel song, "Allentown." This region has transformed itself into a bustling truck distribution center. It can happen.