On tariffs–and a proposal

I wrote yesterday about globalization to provide a context for today’s post about tariffs. A tariff is a tax assessed by a government upon imports. Governments assess taxes to gain money, of course, but the purpose of a tariff is often more than income. Tariffs add to the cost of imported items, making it easier for similar items made in the country to compete for buyers.

In theory, if the United States government wants to help wine makers in the United States, the government can place a tariff on French wine, making French wine more expensive than California wine. Some buyers will still prefer the French wine, even if it costs more than the California wine. Others will switch to California wine to save money.

In theory, if the United States government wants to help car makers in the United States, the government can place a tariff on Japanese cars and German cars, making them more expensive than American cars. Some buyers will still prefer the Japanese cars or the German cars, even if they cost more than the American cars. Others will switch to American cars to save money.

As I indicated yesterday, because of globalization it is difficult to measure how American a car is. Manufacturers have headquarters in several cities around the world, and their major shareholders come from various countries. Factories for parts and factories for assembly are also scattered around the world. Writing a tariff law that helps preserve American jobs in the automotive industry is far more difficult than it sounds.

In addition, when one country starts increasing tariffs, other countries often follow suit. Given the above examples, France and Germany and Japan very likely would place tariffs on American products, which would cancel the benefits the United States hoped to gain by its new tariffs.

Meanwhile, I also made the point that building factories in other countries seems to cost America jobs, but that is not necessarily so. At the same time that the company that built the factory is trying to lower its costs and save its customers money, it is also paying workers in that other country, people who might use some of their income to buy products made in the United States.

Why is it less expensive to pay workers in other countries than in the United States? The United States has stricter laws about minimum wages and benefits than most other countries. The United States has stricter laws about safety in the workplace than most other countries. The United States has stricter laws against pollution than most other countries. We cannot force other countries to adopt laws like ours, and we would not want to lower our standards so far that pollution increases, that workplaces are unsafe, or that workers cannot survive on the wages they are paid. Some compromises undoubtedly can be made in these areas—some regulations probably are excessive. But removing all such regulations would be bad for workers in the United States.

Americans generally want to save money. They are happy with stores that keep their prices low. Yet most Americans do not wish other people to suffer for our prosperity. When we hear of sweatshops where workers are abused, underpaid for their work, and forced to endure unsafe conditions at work, we would prefer not to finance those sweatshops by purchasing their products. Yet how can we know which of the things we buy were assembled by suffering workers? And how can we be sure that our boycott of such products will improve working conditions in these other countries? If the factories close, how will their workers find income to stay alive?

This leads me to a proposal. I suggest that the United States Department of Commerce (DoC) create a team of investigators to inspect factories in other countries, particularly factories owned and operated by corporations based, at least in part, in the United States. These investigators could not force their way into factories; they would need to be invited by the owners of the factories. But those factories that passed inspection would be allowed to carry a seal of approval on their products. The inspection would ensure that workers at the factory receive enough money for the workers to live in their communities (which would probably still be far less than minimum wages in the United States). The inspection would ensure that working conditions at the factory are safe. The inspection would ensure that the factory is not polluting the air, the water, or any other part of their environment—not necessarily according to the measures of American law, but still within the capabilities of the company that owns the factory.

Congress then could place tariffs on products that do not carry that seal of approval from the DoC. The lack of a seal of approval would be the result of failing to pass inspection or the result of failing to permit inspection. Using the seal without having passed inspection would result in higher penalties, whether higher tariffs or higher taxes on the United States property owned by the corporation to blame.

Of course the salaries, the benefits, the office space, and the travel expenses of this new branch of the DoC would need to be added to the national budget. I expect some of those expenses would be offset by the new tariff. At the same time, this tariff would benefit two groups of workers. It would benefit American workers, who would have reduced competition from overseas factories that underpay and mistreat their workers. It would also benefit the workers in other countries because corporations would be more motivated to improve their salary scales and the safety of their factories. My suggestion would be good for America and good for the world. J.

Globalization

“Globalization” is a word invented by historians to describe the increasingly interdependent relationship of cultures and nations all over the world. If a factory opens or closes in Japan, the impact is felt by American workers, and vice versa. More and more, our economies rise together and fall together. No nation can stand alone any more.

Globalization results from rapid transportation and instant communication. Centuries ago, when transportation was slow and messages were carried by hand, various cultures could remain distinct, unaffected by others. A few Italians visited China, and a few Chinese visited Italy, but most people never traveled far from their homes. Even two thousand years ago Chinese silk was available in Italy and Italian glass was available in China, but both were very expensive because of the number of merchants who had bought and sold these items and the number of governments who had taxed these items as they traveled.

Globalization is good because we can learn about other people and experience their culture without leaving our homes. Purchased recordings, television, and the internet expose us to music and drama and other forms of art from nearly every culture in the world. Japanese music is performed in Vienna, and the works of Mozart are performed in Tokyo. One old warehouse downtown has been transformed into an eating establishment with a dozen booths selling food. Customers choose from cheeseburgers, pizza, gyros, tacos, Japanese food, Thai food, Indian food, and soul food. Moreover, economic links reduce violent confrontations between nations. Until 2008 (when Russia attacked Georgia) there had never been a war between two nations that both contained McDonald’s restaurants.

One risk of globalization is homogenization of culture. When every city in the world has McDonald’s and Walmart, will local cultures survive? If you were blindfolded and transported to a shopping mall somewhere in the United States, could you guess what city you were in by looking in the various stores? Perhaps the caps and T-shirts in the sporting goods department might give you a hint, but even there you will spot Cubs hats and Yankees hats and Dodgers hats in every part of the country.

Globalization makes it harder to “buy American” in the United States, to quote a movement from the 1970s and 1980s. Most carmakers have headquarters in several countries and are owned by major stockholders in several countries. They have parts factories and assembly factories in various countries. Hours of research would be needed to choose a make and model of car and determine how much it was “made in America.”

When a company based in the United States builds a factory in Mexico, they are hoping to reduce their expenses to increase their profit. However, they are also hoping to pass some of the savings to their customers, beating the competition with their better prices. At the same time, by providing paychecks to Mexican workers, they are increasing the likelihood that more products “made in America” will be bought in Mexico, which increases jobs or enlarges paychecks in the United States.

Globalization is complicated. No easy answers exist for the problems it causes, and those problems are offset in many ways by the benefits of globalization. As long as travel remains rapid and communication remains instant, globalization is unavoidable. The best we can do is work to preserve local customs and manners while we enjoy the fact that nothing is truly local any more—everything is international. J.

Europe and the USA

While Americans were glued to their television sets and devices yesterday, listening to a man talk about the executive who fired him, real change was occurring in the United Kingdom. British voters selected members of the House of Commons, changing the balance of their government in a way that was unexpected. The Conservative Party hoped to maintain their hold on Parliament, perhaps even increase their margin of leadership. Instead, they lost seats—sufficient losses that the party needs now to form a coalition government with another party. Many people speculate that Prime Minister Theresa May will resign as a result of the election.

Bring together a group of leaders—business leaders, political leaders, shapers of public opinion—from Europe and North America. Ask each of them what the voters in their country really want. Watch them scratch their heads and listen to them mumble. Over the past few years, voters have made it plain that they want change, but the same voters have been unclear about the kind of change they want.

In Europe and in North America, dissatisfaction with the status quo is running rampart. Liberals promise change, saying that things can be better, and many voters believe them, agree with them, and vote for them. Conservatives say that the government is already doing too much and that change for the better will only happen when the government scales back and stops trying to do so much. Many voters believe them, agree with them, and vote for them.

In this swirling uncertainty, political leaders would ordinarily pull together and support each other. Instead, within governments polarization increases and anger boils over in heated exchanges of rhetoric. Between governments distrust grows, and cooperative ties are stretched to the breaking point.

From its beginning as an economic agreement among three small countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, who formed a free-trade zone they called Benelux) to the European Common Market and the eventual European Union, the governments of Europe have tried to remain competitive with large countries such as the United States, Russia, and China by working together on a set of common goals. The United Kingdom made big news in the early 1970s when they joined the Common Market. They made big news again last year when British voters chose to withdraw from the European Union. When countries open borders and share resources, they find that they also share the problems of their partners. Governments in Spain and Greece are struggling to keep promises made to their citizens—free education, free health care, and the like. Citizens protest with fervor whenever these governments try to trim the national budget to stay solvent. As Margaret Thatcher quipped, “The trouble with socialism is that eventually you run out of other peoples’ money.” Fear that their taxes would be spent propping up struggling governments—and fear that the European Union’s open borders was allowing dangerous people to enter their country—caused British voters to reject continued membership in the European Union.

Meanwhile President Donald Trump, during the campaign and also since his inauguration, declared that part of his program to make America great again involves reducing American commitments to European allies. European intellectuals tend to view conservative American presidents—Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and now Donald Trump—as reckless, misguided cowboys, whooping and hollering and firing guns into the air, endangering the stability of the rest of the world. They would prefer to ignore such a leader, but at the same time they are more certain than are many Americans that President Trump means what he says.

Isolationism will not make America great again. The nations of the world are too interdependent to ignore one another. However, renegotiating agreements that are not in the best interest of the United States is good for America. Even withdrawing from agreements that weaken the United States is good for America. As new leaders emerge in Europe, they will need to deal with President Trump as an existing reality. They will need to ignore the ongoing dramas—the smoke and the mirrors—and communicate with the real President Trump. Most of all, they will need to understand that President Trump will do what is best for the United States while expecting leaders of other nations to do what is best for their citizens. This is the way leaders are supposed to lead. J.

Defeating terrorism

I intended to write a post about problems in Europe and about its changing relationship with the United States. That topic is so complicated, though, that I shall have to break it into several pieces. One of those pieces is terrorism, particularly as it relates to the Muslim world.

Many Muslims are fleeing war and poverty, seeking safety and a chance for a new life in Europe. Many more have died attempting to reach Europe. The crisis is a humanitarian problem not directly related to terrorism. On the other hand, many Europeans and North Americans have linked the problems of human migration and terrorism, using the religion of the migrants as a linking factor.

Muslim terrorist organizations claim that they are fighting in a war between Islam and western civilization. They view this violence as valid because they have been exposed to the decadence that freedom of expression has allowed in western nations. Fundamental Muslims are not so much opposed to Christianity or the Constitution of the United States as they are opposed to Jersey Shore and the Kardashian family. This decadence is what they believe they are attacking when they explode bombs and engage in acts of violence in public places.

Americans serve no good purpose when we agree that the war being fought is a war between Islam and western civilization. All we accomplish by agreeing with that idea is greater success for the recruiting efforts of terrorist groups. A far better approach is to label terrorism as the actions of a few deranged individuals, actions that are opposed to the principles of Islam as well as to the principles of western civilization. The more North American and European governments cooperate with North African and West Asian governments to battle terrorism, the better all these governments can persuade Muslim populations that western civilization is not at war with Islam; it is combating terrorism, which is the right thing to do.

Ironically, one method for governments to respond to terrorist threats is to reduce human rights—those very rights to which the terrorists object. To catch all the terrorists before they cause harm, governments must closely monitor communication, internet usage, and other aspects of our lives that are not generally the government’s business. European and North American governments have tried to find a balance between respecting personal rights and protecting citizens from harm. Most government decisions—and most government controversies—are a balancing act of this kind, trying to maintain two good things that contradict each other. The governments are probably doing as well as they can when some citizens are complaining that the governments are not doing enough while other complain that they are doing too much.

When President Franklin Roosevelt received letters from Jewish citizens of the United States asking why the U.S. was not doing more to end the Holocaust in German-held lands, Roosevelt said that we were doing everything we could to end the Holocaust. The only way to end it, Roosevelt said, was to win the war and defeat the German government. The same approach is needed today. Eliminating the conflicts that migrants currently flee would relieve a lot of pressure on European governments regarding those migrants. Seeing capable governments established in Libya, Iraq, and Syria would make it easier to eliminate cells and training institutions of terrorists in those countries. Overcoming the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria while cracking down on other terrorist groups would make the world far safer. The United States cannot do this alone, or even with help only from our European allies. Winning the war against terror requires the help of governments in Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, and their smaller neighbors. Even Israel has a role to play and a strong motive to play that role.

We can and should expect leaders of governments throughout the world to communicate and cooperate in order to defeat terrorism. Complete victory will not happen in our lifetime, or probably any time before Judgment Day. Marginalizing terrorist groups and stifling their opportunities and motives to cause harm will bring improvement, though, and improvement is a worthy goal. J.

Respecting Donald Trump

By mid-November of last year, meetings were being held in Washington DC to plan and organize the impeachment of President Donald Trump. This fact is bizarre, given that he had just won the election that month and would not be inaugurated for another two months.

I did not vote for Donald Trump in the Republican primary election. I did not vote for Donald Trump in the general election last November. If the election was held today, I would not vote for Donald Trump. But Donald Trump is my President. He won the election last year, an election held according to the procedures mandated in the Constitution of the United States.

The apostle Paul wrote to the Romans, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.  Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves….Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience” (Romans 13:1-2, 5). The apostle Peter wrote, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right (I Peter 2:13-14). These apostles were not writing about democratically elected leaders or about Christian leaders. They wrote about Caesar and the Roman Senate. If first-century Christians were expected to honor and respect Caesar, then twenty-first century Christians in the United States should be expected to honor and respect President Trump.

During the campaigns before the election, many media outlets worked vigorously to find and to publish every negative fact or rumor about Donald Trump. Since he became President, the same media outlets have worked vigorously to undermine his authority and encourage his impeachment. Every appointment made by the President was publicly questioned and criticized. His speeches and other communications have been studied, searching for flaws. Nearly every action of the President has been described in the media as if it were criminal. The election itself has been treated as doubtful, as rumors persist that Russian forces somehow influenced American voters. From Presidential executive orders to the recent covfefe kerfuffle, Americans have seen our President mocked and verbally abused, not only by late-night comedians, but by trusted news reporters.

Rumors that Donald Trump entered the primaries as a publicity stunt and that he did not expect to be nominated and elected may very well be true. That does not lessen the legitimacy of his office. He was chosen by the voters to be President of the United States. In 2013, I already sensed the mood of the typical American voter. That voter wanted to get the politicians out of government and was ready to support any outsider who had a chance of winning. In the words of candidate Trump, American voters wanted to “drain the swamp.” Voters who generally support the Democratic Party because of its reputation for helping workers and defending the oppressed regularly reject Democratic candidates for the highest office, preferring Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Donald Trump. All three men have been despised by the liberal elite but embraced by American voters. All three Republicans were seen as better able to lead the United States than their Democratic opponents.

Donald Trump is a survivor. He will continue to weather the increasingly shrill accusations of his enemies in and out of politics. The media has weakened its effectiveness as a guard upon government ethics by opposing President Trump at every turn. Like the boy who cried “wolf,” the media will be ignored even if President Trump should do something truly criminal, because our ears have already tired of the voices that declare the President to be wrong in everything he does.

Meanwhile, our nation risks judgment from the Lord for the way we have allowed our leader to be mocked and despised. Other Presidents have been treated badly, but President Trump is the victim of a new low in savagery and deceit. The way we speak of our father and our mother, of our teachers, of our employers, and of our government leaders reveals our attitude toward authority in general, including God’s authority over our lives. While “we must obey God rather than men,” we also must honor and respect those who rule over us as pictures of the ultimate authority Jesus Christ has over us. When we do less, we sin against God and his kingdom. J.

Catching up again

The last two weeks have been busy. I’ve hardly had time even to look at WordPress, let alone post anything. So let me share some quick highlights:

  • I attended a four-day conference. While I will not be discussing it directly in this space, it has inspired some thoughts that I will share in the coming days.
  • I continued working with the burnt shed. The first contractor to look at the shed was also the first to send a proposal. However, the contractor got our email address wrong. A phone call the following week fixed that problem. Meanwhile one contractor wanted to see how much the insurance company is paying before writing a proposal, and a third promised to save us money by fixing only the part that was burned—ignoring the burn damage that stretches to the back of the shed in the rafters and the scorch marks on the outside of the back wall. (“You can paint over that, and no one will be able to tell that you had a fire.”) Others failed to return phone calls; one promised to come and broke that promise. So obviously I signed a contract with the first company. Demolition will begin in about two weeks. Meanwhile, we are working on identifying which contents were destroyed and which can be restored. The first cleaning company we contacted played phone tag with us for a week. Tiring of that, I called a different company, and they sent out a representative the same afternoon. Cloth items have already been picked up for cleaning. Wood, ceramic, and glass items will be picked up next week. More on this as new developments occur.
  • I got one book to the publisher, even as I have made progress on this summer’s writing project about the parables Jesus told. Later this month I will share portions of that book.
  • Dim decided to clean and restain her deck, something which she last did four years ago. That time she did the work in July, getting to work at six in the morning before the day was too hot to work outdoors. At least this time she is starting later in the day. Her first step was to get a power washer and use it to remove the old stain along with any dirt that has survived her daily blowing. That required days of work. While she had the power washer, she decided to polish her driveway. Another man was helping her—I think he owns the washer—but she was not happy with the speed of his work. With great attention to detail, she scrubbed every section of her driveway. Then she did it again. Then a third time. Then a fourth and then a fifth. The racket continued for days. After power washing, she discovered that she had damaged the wood of her deck by washing it too hard. So for another week she has sanded every piece of wood she washed, using (of course) a power sander. Upright pieces were removed and sanded in the garage, which allowed her to keep on working even while it was raining. She is almost done sanding and will soon use another power tool to apply the stain and sealer.
  • During the conference I attended, I discovered a large used-book store. In the history section I found five out-of-print books that are frequently quoted in other books I own on the same topics (President Nixon and Watergate). Of course I had to buy those books, and now in my spare time I am reading one of them.

Memorial Day weekend begins the social season of summer in the United States, even though the solstice is on June 21. I am on my summer schedule, and I have already heard my first cicada of the summer. I’m still waiting for the lightning bugs to appear. J.