News & Politics

Paul Krugman: Donald Trump Is Just Terrible at This

The president is flirting with a trade war that could devastate his own voters.

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You knew it was coming. In a fit of pique Thursday, Donald Trump threatened to triple tariffs on Chinese goods, the latest in a series of provocations that could land the United States in an all-out trade war. The move is almost guaranteed to backfire, but then the president has never let empirical data or common sense dictate his decision-making. As Paul Krugman writes in his Thursday column, Trump is just terrible at this whole governing thing. 

While Krugman acknowledges that trying to anticipate stock fluctuations is a "mug's game," a series of recent plunges can tell us this much: The markets don't respond kindly to the president's wild bloviations. In fact, they only seem to recover when investors decide that Trump has no intention of following through on his threats and that's he's basically full of it.

"So is a trade war coming?" Krugman wonders. "Nobody knows—even, or perhaps especially, Trump himself. For while trade is one of Trump’s two signature issues—animus toward dark-skinned people being the other—when it comes to making actual demands on other countries, the tweeter in chief and his aides either don’t know what they want or they want things that our trading partners can’t deliver. Not won’t—can’t."

While China may not be a model actor in the global economy, regularly pilfering the intellectual property of foreign governments, what really seems to rankle Trump is the country's $340 billion trade surplus with the United States. (The president maintains it's closer to $500 billion; where he came up with that figure is anybody's guess.) Whether through malice or incompetence, Trump has convinced himself that the Chinese are effectively stealing this money from the U.S.

"As many people have pointed out, this is junk economics," Krugman writes. "Except at times of mass unemployment, trade deficits aren’t a subtraction from the economies that run them, nor are trade surpluses an addition to the economies on the other side of the imbalance. Overall, the U.S. trade deficit is just the flip side of the fact that America attracts more inward investment from foreigners than the amount Americans invest abroad. Trade policy has nothing to do with it."

If Trump isn't just bluffing, he risks maiming not only the global economy but the very red-state voters who helped elect him president. No one stands to lose more from a trade war than rural Americans who rely on agricultural exports for their livelihoods.

"And that’s why things seem so incoherent," Krugman concludes. "One day Trump talks tough on trade; then stocks fall, and his advisers scramble to say that the trade war won’t really happen; then he worries that he’s looking weak, and tweets out more threats; and so on. Call it the art of the flail." 

Read Paul Krugman's column at the New York Times.

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Jacob Sugarman is the acting managing editor at Truthdig.