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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

One Equal Temper

Robert Lighthizer’s new book, No Trade Is Free, should be the foundational text for a new generation of policymakers.

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(Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock)

No Trade Is Free, Robert Lighthizer, HarperCollins, 381 pages

When I was first married, I briefly tried to earn an honest living. I worked for a startup attempting to take advantage of various long-term changes in the irreparably broken American healthcare industry. It paid poorly and had no benefits, and the rigors of the early COVID economy had resulted in exciting changes to the payroll process—namely, whether we’d get paid or not. Shortly before the birth of my eldest daughter, like a dog to its vomit, I returned to the conservative press.

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At this company, we were handling large amounts of what we called, vaguely, “data”—lists of patients organized by this or that metric, clinical notes from encounters with patients, collections of billing information. The tedious movement of these data into and out of electronic medical records systems was handled by Filippina ladies, who were hired through an online service at the princely sum of $7 per hour. 

Near the end of my tenure, we discovered through the same service a taciturn Macedonian named Ali. Ali was an actual medical doctor, and could proofread clinical notes for accuracy as he entered them into records systems; he cost $6.50 per hour. Our billing was handled by an Indian firm; I forget exactly how much we paid them, but it was far less than an equivalent American full-time position.

There are a handful of important and interrelated points to take from this little self-indulgent dip into my personal history. These “knowledge work” jobs are all completely digital and ultimately service-based, the sorts of positions meant to replace American manufacturing and goods-based work at the end of history. They are also, by American standards, often low-paying and unpleasant—not the promise held out in the ’90s. Finally, thanks to the internet, they turn out to be just as easily outsourced as manufacturing jobs, if not more so—even relatively high-skill work like proofing notes and handling billing. 

This anecdote should be a cause for alarm and dread. (If you think it is exceptional, I recommend you go to fiverr.com and look for other high-skill service professionals like graphic designers or web developers.) Robert Lighthizer’s new book, No Trade Is Free: Changing Course, Taking On China, and Helping America’s Workers, articulates that alarm and proposes remedies.

Former President Donald Trump’s trade representative first lays out clearly and dispassionately the history of American trade policy, particularly the last three catastrophic decades. He explodes the idea that a trade deficit is irrelevant, showing instead that the United States has leveraged a perversely strong dollar and hollowed out or sold off its industrial capacity. The fruit of the swap? An explosion in imported consumer goods. 

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The result: a mass outflow of American capital, and the capture of real American assets by non-American firms. (To the doctrinaire free marketeers who would pooh-pooh this concern: Are you really comfortable with the fact that a Chinese company dominates the American pork industry?) Manufacturing jobs have been sent abroad in favor of the sort of “knowledge work” described above, which itself, as shown, can be easily offshored. In short, a bad deal for the mass of Americans and a bad deal for national sovereignty. 

An impression that emerges from Lighthizer’s account is how moderate the Trump trade policy was. The American tariff load post-Trump is still lower than that in comparable economies, including those of our putative allies in the European Union. The renegotiation of NAFTA, the USMCA, required Mexico to play by American labor rules and reformed country-of-origin regulations for automobiles rather than attempting to cut Mexico out entirely. (I have written some about the difficulties and questionable desirability of completely decoupling from Mexico at this point.) It is worth underlining a point that Lighthizer makes gently—the Trump administration completely changed the trade policy paradigm, and the Biden administration has adopted many of its solutions wholesale. Hardly the stuff of wide-eyed fire-breathing economic madness.

Lighthizer does not render only an archaeology and theoretical account of American trade policy; he gives granular reports of the particulars of his own negotiations. While these sections may seem beside the point for pundits and think-tankers, they will provide an invaluable primer for the staffers of any future administration’s trade office—for example, Lighthizer’s description and analysis of the application of steel and aluminum tariffs to Europe, including a description of what he would have done differently.

There are two types of argument when it comes to economic policy. As you’d expect, the first is purely economic: Thus and such action will bring more prosperity. The second is—you guessed it—political: The state and the nation are strengthened by thus and such action. The former sort of argument is subject to all sorts of quibbling and special pleading; the latter tends to be clear-cut, a matter illuminated by the sober light of day. Simply put, if the United States is ever involved in a war with a near-peer power, it must have an industrial base that is under its control. (For those who think the days of materiel-heavy infantry wars are over, or that trading partners never go to war, I say, Ha! and point to the Russia–Ukraine articles in the New York Times.) Lighthizer argues persuasively that an aggressive trade policy is economical; he is unanswerable when he says that it is vital to the interest of national sovereignty.

Without laws set and enforced states, markets devolve into piracy and unruly conflict, hardly an arena for fair trade. Since conditions for markets are created and maintained by states, market purity must be subordinated to the interests of the state—a simple premise. The Trump presidency made some first steps toward reining in our trade policy to serve the national interest; the question is whether a weakened America will stay the difficult course to a healthier clime.

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.