There’s nothing wrong with fighting unfair trade

Imagine it is 1942. You are in President Franklin Roosevelt’s Oval Office. He is on the telephone and has a worried look on his face.

“But Emperor Hirohito, we need the steel to build some new aircraft carriers.

“Yes, we do plan to use them to sink your ships. But we thought we had a deal several years ago. You said if we’d overlook your unfair trade practices that crippled our steel industry, we could buy whatever we needed from you.

“Your excellency, we really need that steel now.”

It never happened, of course. In 1942, Americans had plenty of steel mills of our own. That was one reason we were referred to as the “arsenal of democracy.” The Greatest Generation could not have won World War II without having the mightiest, most diversified industrial machine in the world at its back.

Last week, President Donald Trump said he will establish tariffs on some imported steel and aluminum.

Well, 30 years too late for the Ohio Valley. The steel and aluminum mills that for decades provided good jobs for tens of thousands of Northern Panhandle and East Ohio residents are gone.

For a long time, candidates stumping through the region would gather a few steelworkers around them and pledge to save the steel industry. Then they went to Washington, and didn’t.

Now, Trump wants to help and, bless him, his heart is in the right place. It’s been a long time since a president behaved as if he actually cared about steelworkers and coal miners.

Critics say all he’ll accomplish is to start a trade war that will cost more jobs than it preserves. Americans will have to pay more for products made from steel and aluminum, insist the naysayers.

And, when Trump points out the importance of vibrant domestic steel and aluminum industries to national security, the “intellectual” class snickers. Obviously, they sniff, he just doesn’t understand the global economy.

Well, here are some global economy statistics:

• U.S. imports of steel have increased 219 percent since 2009, with much of that occurring during the Great Recession.

• In 2016, we imported 22.5 million metric tons of steel. By last December, our 2017 total was up to 26.9 million metric tons. Our reliance on foreign steel is growing.

• There are certain types of specialty steel, including some required for military use, that aren’t produced at all in the United States anymore.

Here’s the thing: Around 40 years ago, I wrote a series of stories on the decline of the steel industry in our area. At that time, steel from Japan and Germany was competing with our products.

Experts told me part of the problem was that local steel mills were using outdated equipment. The Japanese and Germans, meanwhile, had modernized — in large measure with U.S. aid provided to help them rebuild after World War II.

Now, some of our trade competitors can spend more on modern manufacturing because they don’t have to spend much on national security. U.S. troops, planes and ships take care of it for them.

Will Trump’s tariffs do much good? I doubt it, partly because they aren’t in time to save many U.S. mills.

But there’s nothing wrong with fighting back against unfair trade practices. FDR would agree.

Mike Myer is executive editor of The Intelligencer and Wheeling News Register.