The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

There is no Plan B. There is only the war.

Too many Republicans want to have an economic fight for the sake of having an economic fight

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) speaks during a Judiciary Committee hearing examining liability issues during the coronavirus outbreak on Tuesday. (Carlos Barria/Pool/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
Placeholder while article actions load

It would be safe to say that Sen. Josh Hawley was displeased with Wednesday’s Spoiler Alerts column that gave a poor grade to his proposal to “abolish” the World Trade Organization. Taking to Twitter, Hawley said some things.

Hawley (R-Mo.) engaged in a few misdirections with these tweets. First — and this is pretty important — in none of his responses did he acknowledge that his op-ed was riddled with historical and factual errors. Hawley wants to talk about China now, which is fine. The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts is happy to have that debate, so long as everyone acknowledges that Hawley has already shifted the goal posts a fair amount.

When it comes to his reading of my work, well, he could learn how to read a bit better. I certainly did not say that Americans should be happy if they lose their jobs to China. I said that the economic gains from trading with other countries are greater than the losses that Hawley stresses. I even linked to a great Peterson Institute for International Economics paper that spelled out this point in detail. If there was a policy mechanism where the beneficiaries compensated the losers, that would allow for greater efficiency and greater equity. Instead, Hawley prefers exiting the World Trade Organization and rejecting the estimated $2.1 trillion in benefits from trade. That is much less efficiency, and the effects on economic equality are murky at best. He should own up to those costs.

As for his claim that elsewhere I praised “China’s commitment to ‘an open global economy,’ ” this appears to be a willful misreading of my latest essay in Reason. I did write that “the Chinese leadership is still rhetorically committed to an open global economy.” That is not praise; that is description — the word “rhetorically” was the tell there. I noted in the very next paragraph that, “China’s stakeholder status, however, has not prevented the country from gaming the system.”

The more I nose around into Hawley’s musings about global political economy, the more confusing I find them to be. Hawley wants to “force a debate about reforming international trade system and bringing jobs & production back to USA.” He says that this is the “only way to confront China and strengthen America.” This has been a running theme of the GOP under President Trump — withdraw from agreements that are viewed as imperfect in the belief that the exit option will yield a better deal.

This is not an entirely crazy idea; it’s what the Trump administration did with the Universal Postal Union. But it’s a pretty crazy idea. This is how the Trump administration dealt with the United Nations. That worked so well that … China increased its power in Turtle Bay and the Trump White House had to appoint a special envoy to counter China’s rising influence. The U.S. effort to punish the World Health Organization will probably end in an equally embarrassing fashion.

If there is a pattern to the Trump administration’s efforts to use U.S. economic power to negotiate better global deals, it is this: Officials repeatedly underestimate the resolve of other actors, and the results from economic statecraft are meager. Any viable exit strategy requires like-minded allies to exit as well, and the Trump administration has been too busy alienating U.S. allies to persuade them to form an economic alliance.

None of the above analysis is terribly complex, and yet it seems to escape the likes of Hawley and Trump. Why? In a column on the culture wars, Jonah Goldberg suggested that for certain conservatives, “the culture war has become more important than the issues the culture is supposed to be about.” In other words, like Robert Shaw’s character in “Battle of the Bulge,” the fight matters more than the reasons for the fight:

I wonder if for national conservatives like Hawley, the joys of economic conflict equal those of cultural clashes. The junior senator from Missouri prefers to wage a fruitless economic war for the sake of opposing China. For the record, I, too, would like to see the United States exercise more influence in the world than China. But an economic war for its own sake serves no purpose other than to increase the chances of an actual war breaking out.