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Evaluating Trump's 'America First' Trade Policies


Donald Trump took office a year ago with the vow to throw out trade deals he found unfair to the United States. Then he took the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP. It was part of his America First policy, which he lauded yesterday at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Mr. Trump was well received at that meeting of world leaders in the titans of industry, but his protectionist message has its critics. One of them is Philip Levy, an economist who served in the George W. Bush administration. Mr. Levy is now with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and joins us from there. Mr. Levy, thanks so much for being with us.

PHILIP LEVY: It's very good to be with you.

SIMON: And let's start with the president at Davos. He said there's never been a better time to do business in America. That seemed to go over pretty well, didn't it?

LEVY: Yes. It was part of his talk, which was very much a sales pitch. And so he was peddling tax cuts and regulatory reform. And I think for business people, those are quite welcome.

SIMON: But you have great reservations about his policy overall.

LEVY: I do. And I think that many of the world leaders who were listening were perhaps unpersuaded because with this president especially, there can be a gap between what he says on occasion and how that translates into policy.

SIMON: Well, the president has said - and, in fact, I want to quote, if I may, Gary Cohn, who heads the National Economic Council - that "America First doesn't mean America alone." And the president just signaled that he's certainly open to bilateral trade agreements.

LEVY: He has. And yet he's done a number of things on the international scene which are very worrisome. You mentioned the withdrawal from the TPP. I think you have a lot of countries trying to see what he means by all this rhetoric and watching closely the NAFTA renegotiations. And those have been very problematic. We just had some new protection applied to solar cells and washing machines this week. Plus, there's concerns about things he's doing with the World Trade Organization. So if you look at the rhetoric that he deployed at Davos, it was probably the friendliest spin towards trade that we've heard from him. The question is how that's going to translate into new policies.

SIMON: Well, as you see it, Mr. Levy, what does the U.S. lose by not being a TPP member? Because as the president sees it, it's the other countries who lose out.

LEVY: Yes, although oddly enough, the president for the first time said, we might join the TPP if it turns out that it's in everybody's interest. I think it is in everybody's interest. And the TPP countries have tried to hold the door open for us. You ask, what do we lose by not being there? We lose this chance to shape the rules of the global trading system in our favor and to get all the benefits that come from crafting a global trading system that has been very beneficial to the United States over the years.

SIMON: You do understand, I'm sure, that there are a lot of Americans throughout the country who feel that that beneficial trade has maybe come at the cost of their jobs as labor relocates overseas to places where the labor pool might be cheaper.

LEVY: I certainly understand that sentiment. And I in no way sort of downplay the difficulties that a lot of Americans have had. The really important thing, though, is that we're careful in how we explain those difficulties. Are those difficulties because of trade agreements, or are they because of changes in technology, for example, in the manufacturing sector? To me, perhaps the most telling statistic is if you look at the share of the U.S. labor force in manufacturing, it's not a - went on a fairly steady downward trend starting in the mid-1960s. You can stare at that graph, and you don't even see a blip in the mid-'90s when NAFTA or the latest, you know, round of global trade talks came online.

SIMON: Philip Levy, senior fellow with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, thanks so much for being with us.

LEVY: It's been a pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.