“Compare and contrast, what international trade mistakes made by Presidents Herbert Hoover and Barack Obama helped lead the US into great depressions?”

If President Obama is not careful that may very well be a question on future Social Studies Tests.

Back in 1930 The Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act was signed into law. It raised US tariffs on over 20,000 imported goods to record levels. The Smoot-Hawley Act almost completly halted  U.S.-European trade the start of the Great Depression. Although the tariff act was passed after the stock-market crash of 1929, historians consider the political rhetoric leading up to the passing of the act a factor in causing the crash and the recession that began in late 1929, and its passage a factor in deepening the Great Depression. Unemployment was at 7.8% in 1930 when the Smoot-Hawley tariff was passed, but it jumped to 16.3% in 1931, 24.9% in 1932, and 25.1% in 1933.

As it stands today, the “stimulus” bill  before the Senate has a Buy American protectionist provision that has the potential of launching an international trade war and deepen the recession we are facing today:

Congress Wants a Trade War
The president should veto “Buy American” if he doesn’t want to be remembered like Herbert Hoover.


As the world-wide recession deepens, protectionist sentiments are rising. The House of Representatives’ version of the economic stimulus bill contains a provision that only American-made steel and other products be used for the infrastructure projects. Wrapped in the cloak of “Buy American” patriotism, the Senate version of the bill contains even stronger anti-free-trade provisions.

This Buy American momentum is bad economics, and by threatening to destabilize trade and capital flows, it risks turning a global recession into a 1930s-style depression. Asked about Buy American on Tuesday, President Barack Obama told Fox News that “we can’t send a protectionist message.” He said on ABC News that he doesn’t want anything in the stimulus bill that is “going to trigger a trade war.” He’s right.

Suppose that we did not allow free trade between the 50 American states. Citizens like me in New Jersey would be far worse off if we could not buy pineapples from Hawaii, wine and vegetables from California, wheat from Kansas, and oil from Texas and Louisiana while we sell pharmaceuticals to the rest of the country. The specialization that trade makes possible allows all of us to live better.

The situation is the same with respect to world trade. Both we and the Chinese are better off if we can import inexpensive clothing from China and sell them large-scale computers and data storage equipment.

To be sure, such trade does not make everyone better off, and that is why free trade is often a tough sell, especially during times of hardship.

If I am a textile worker whose job is lost because Chinese imports have caused my factory to close, I feel the pain far more acutely than consumers feel the benefits of cheap clothing. The pain tends to be localized while the benefits are spread broadly. No one person’s benefit can compare with the loss felt by the textile worker. But the total benefits do exceed the costs. And competitive markets have spurred the innovation revolution that has made the U.S. the economic powerhouse that it is.

The solution for the displaced worker is job retraining and adjustment assistance, and to improve the safety net available to displaced workers during the transition period. We also need to revamp our educational system so that it prepares workers for the jobs that are available today — and imparts the flexible skills that make our citizens ready for the future jobs that we cannot even imagine.

Buy American provisions invite retaliation by other nations, and the spread of “beggar thy neighbor” policies throughout the world.

This House provision caused a palpable anxiety during the recent World Economic Forum at Davos, and America’s closest allies are furious. “Buy American” would effectively ban Canadian steel products and other raw materials from infrastructure projects receiving stimulus funds. Foreign steel would only be allowed if domestic products were either unavailable or drove up the cost of the project by 25% or more. If the provision is not diluted, Mr. Obama will find a very hostile reception during his first international trip to Canada later this month.

Hostility has been no less evident in Europe and China. The European Union has said that it will not stand by idly if the U.S. violates its trade agreements and its obligations to the World Trade Organization. The risks of retaliation and a trade war are very real.

Since the U.S. is the biggest exporter in the world, retaliation could cost America more jobs than the provision would create. It could also destabilize the global capital flows on which the U.S. depends to fund its deficits. Moreover, the provision could delay some shovel-ready infrastructure projects, since sufficient American-made materials may not be immediately available. The U.S. does not manufacture enough steel to meet domestic demand.

In 1930, just as the world economy was sinking as it is today, the U.S. Congress passed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, which essentially shut off imports into the U.S. Our trading partners retaliated, and world trade plummeted. Most economic historians now conclude that the tariff contributed importantly to the severity of the world-wide Great Depression.

Later, as one of his last acts, President Herbert Hoover made the situation even worse by signing a “Buy America Act” requiring all federal government projects to use American materials. (That act is still on the books although it was weakened during the 1980s.) We must avoid repeating the disastrous mistakes of the past.

Buy American provisions and other forms of protectionism will destroy jobs, not create them. They are an irresponsible and self-defeating response to a downturn in world economic activity. Beggar-thy-neighbor policies create more beggars and hostile neighbors. Let’s hope that President Obama presses his Democratic colleagues in Congress to listen to him, and to British Prime Minister and Labour Party head Gordon Brown. As Mr. Brown put it at Davos, “Protectionism protects nobody, least of all the poor.”