March 30, 2018
By Robert Kuttner | Mar 30, 2018
Even a Stopped Clock Is Right Twice a Day. President Trump gets almost everything wrong. But once in a while he does something approximately right.
Exhibit A: Trump and his trade team have re-aligned U.S. trade policy, from pursuit of a wishful fantasy called universal “free trade” to a realistic recognition that other nations use protectionism to their advantage. The real task is to negotiate a fair balance of different national economic systems.
Though Trump, with his usual bombast and theatricality, began stupidly with universal tariffs on steel and aluminum, his trade team has been astutely turning that leverage into serious negotiations with the prime offenders. The tariffs are now better targeted and these efforts have borne early fruit with the South Korea trade deal. That deal both reduces subsidized exports of Korean steel and increases the openness of South Korea’s markets to U.S. exports of cars and other products.
Negotiations with China have now been ramped up as well. Trump’s Treasury will soon use a long-ignored legal provision to block China’s strategic acquisition of sensitive technologies by purchasing or extorting technology transfer from U.S. firms.
Moves like these do not lead to “trade wars,” whatever those are. They lead to negotiations, and sometimes to real progress. That makes once a day that Trump actually aligned with the clock.
But the clock has two 12-hour cycles, and he just did it again! Trump, in a characteristic fit of pique, has noticed that Amazon has too much market power and pays virtually no taxes. Imagine that.
Trump has even stumbled on a dormant doctrine known as antitrust. When one dominant company keeps scooping up others, that may produce cheaper products in the short run, but it opens the door to countless other abuses.
Did we really need Amazon to buy Whole Foods? Did we really need to let Facebook buy Instagram and WhatsApp? Should we let Walmart buy Humana? (Why does a discount department store need a health insurance and hospital company, which itself is one of the economy’s great conglomerate predators?)
Once in a blue moon, Trump actually sounds like the latent populist he professed to be in the campaign. Now, it could be that Trump wants to squeeze Amazon because its mastermind, Jeff Bezos, just happens to be the owner of The Washington Post.
With Trump, one can’t be too cynical. But at a time when Facebook, Google, and the rest of the tech giants are coming in for overdue scrutiny, it’s probably not a bad thing if even Trump is aware of the abuses of market concentration.
So maybe—just maybe—that makes twice that Trump coincidentally aligns with reality. It would probably be too much to expect three.
If you are reading this post, you might be interested to know that I’m also starting a weekly podcast. It’s called Provocations, and it can be found at prospect.org, or at this link.
In it, I offer commentary and interviews, this week with Harold Meyerson on the West Virginia teachers strike, the coming Supreme Court decision affecting public employee unions in the Janus case, and the future of organizing. I also opine on Facebook, John Bolton, trade, the misuses of language, and other kindred topics.