Steeling Elections

Article excerpt

In early March, the Bush Administration adopted a policy that the steel industry as well as the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) have long been agitating for--tariffs on steel imports. The official reason is to give the industry some "breathing space," so it can restructure while shielded from foreign competition. It's more likely that Bush wants to carry some important industrial states in 2004.

Thanks to NAFTA, Canada and Mexico are exempted, as are some poorer countries. Imports from elsewhere will face initial duties ranging from 8 percent to 30 percent, though the levels will decline over the next three years as they are gradually phased out. This is less than what labor and management wanted, but it's still striking coming from a professed free-trader. The Clinton Administration never did anything remotely like it--and if it had, Wall Street, which was unfazed by the Bush announcement, would have panicked about the protectionist threat.

Loud complaints did come from abroad, though. Even British Prime Minister Tony Blair, usually found waving the Stars and Stripes with hysterical glee, denounced the move as "unacceptable and wrong." He urged the industry to restructure rather than hide behind trade barriers--exactly the prescription the United States usually gives other countries (with similar indifference to displaced workers). Blair was joined by politicians, businesspeople, unions and pundits around the world--and by Bush's own frequently indiscreet Treasury Secretary, Paul O'Neill, who told the Council on Foreign Relations that the tariffs would cost more jobs in steel-using industries than they could save in steel.

Indeed the industry is in dire shape. It's lost 35,000 jobs in the past two years. Sixteen producers are operating in bankruptcy. Steel employed 1.5 percent of US workers in 1950, 0.6 percent in 1980 and 0.2 percent in 2000, versus 0.1 percent today. It's hard to believe three years of protection can reverse that long slide.

Clearly the Administration structured its tariffs with an eye on the political map. The kinds of steel offered maximum protection happen to be produced in the electoral battlegrounds of Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. There's a political pattern to the victims too: Turkey, an important factor in the likely war on Iraq, was spared. Brazil, key to any future hemispheric free-trade agreement, got off relatively lightly, as did Russia, key to many things. The most affected producers are in South Korea, Japan, China, Taiwan and the European Union. …