We all owe George Lucas an apology.
For a long time, it seemed difficult to come up with a more disappointing way for “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace” to begin than with the words “the taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute.” After all, unless you're an extremely doctrinaire economist, tariffs generally aren't as exciting as, say, space stations that can blow up planets. Which is why, once these more bureaucratic stakes became clear, it was as if a million voices suddenly cried out in boredom and were suddenly silenced by sleep. Their fandom couldn't repel tedium of that magnitude.
As we're finding out today, though, this might actually be a pretty prescient story about how democracies and the international (or interplanetary) order they've created fall apart. “Episode I,” then, might now be the most consequential Star War movie there is, even if you'd have to get rid of a lot of the acting, most of the dialogue and all the Jar Jar Binks to be able to get through it.
Thanks, President Trump.
Of course, this is not to say that trade wars always turn into shooting wars so much as that the lack of cooperation that leads to fights over trade can easily spill over into actual fights over other things. The 1930s are probably the best example of this. Back then, an ill-timed tariff on the part of the United States set off a wave of retaliation, as countries tried to save whatever jobs they could for themselves rather than working together to try to save the world economy for everyone. Now, this retreat to autarky did not, as Dartmouth economist Douglas Irwin has shown, cause the Great Depression itself. But it almost certainly made it harder to recover from, which, in turn, seemed to vindicate the type of zero-sum thinking that was behind these failed policies. As long as things were going badly, you see, people were willing to believe that the only way they could get better was to keep others from doing so — or, as the Axis powers would decide, to take what they needed instead.
It turns out that fear of loss really is a path to the dark side, at least when it comes to policymaking.
That's something we've understood until the past few years. Indeed, in the aftermath of World War II, we very self-consciously tried to promote free trade, because we thought it was both good for the economy and for getting countries to get along better. Rules would replace threats, and cooperation would replace isolationism. It would be a system where the types of negotiations democracies used at home would now happen abroad. That didn't mean that trade stopped being a contentious issue — try telling any country's farmers to give up their subsidies — but it did mean that we had a better way to stop these disagreements from turning into something worse.
But, like “Episode I,” we've reached a point where people care less about the long-term advantages the system provides and more about the short-term ones it prevents them from getting. They want to be able to alter the deal, and force you to pray that they don't alter it any further. In other words, to bully their way to a better one. In “Episode I,” that happened when the Trade Federation invaded the peaceful planet of Naboo to try to exact tribute from it. Meanwhile, in real life Trump has put tariffs on our peaceful neighbor to the north under what even he admits are false pretenses to try to wrest concessions from it. The idea, as explained by the Trade Federation's leader (who, it should be noted, joins Jar Jar Binks in seemingly playing on racist stereotypes), is that Naboo's “suffering will persuade you to see our point of view.” Whether that's military pain in a galaxy far, far away, or economic in our own, the logic is the same.
And so might be the results. In both cases, this challenge to the existing order creates an opening for people who have been constrained by it: Darth Sidious in “Episode I” and Vladimir Putin in our world.
I've got a bad feeling about this.