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In Our View: Tit-for-tat tariffs is a losing strategy for U.S.

The Columbian
Published: March 2, 2024, 6:03am

In celebrating international trade and its oversized impact on our state, Sen. Maria Cantwell recently distilled the issue.

“I would hope that any administration in the future would not see tariffs as the end-all answer,” Cantwell said, “because it’s not.”

The impetus for the comment was a Seattle event acknowledging a rebound in Washington apple exports to India. While most Washingtonians might not think of Mumbai or Delhi or Visakhapatnam as hotbeds for our state’s favorite agricultural commodity, they are indeed — particularly the Red Delicious variety.

At one point, India annually imported $120 million worth of Washington apples. That changed in 2019 as a result of then-President Donald Trump’s ill-fated trade policy. Trump imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum imports in response to unfair trade practices by China. Targeting China is warranted, but the effort resulted in collateral damage represented by Washington’s apple industry.

That is because India also was impacted by tariffs on steel and aluminum. So, the world’s second-most populous nation responded with a 20 percent increase on tariffs for U.S. apples, walnuts, lentils and chickpeas. Washington apples suddenly were too pricey in a market where they had been popular. As Cantwell said: “With 68,000 people employed in Central Washington in the apple-growing economy, it had an impact.”

In the past year, Cantwell has taken the lead in urging the Biden administration to improve trade relations with India. In September, retaliatory tariffs on many products that are important to our state were lifted, and the results have been noticeable. Apple sales from Washington to India are expected to be more than $15 million for this growing season; last season, they were about $1.3 million.

“What we want to see is more trade opportunities, expanding markets,” Cantwell told The Seattle Times. “We, Washington, are a very trade-dependent state.”

That underscores the importance of trade policy. When India imports Washington apples, the sales ripple well beyond the orchards of Eastern Washington; they also benefit the truckers who move the product across the state and the longshoremen who ready it for sea travel.

As Port of Seattle Commission President Hamdi Mohamed said: “Even with the right investments in our terminals, offering the greatest services, if we don’t … have the right (trade) policies in place, it undermines our success.”

There is hope that Washington can build on its recent success. India last fall opened a consulate in Seattle, and the nation of 1.4 billion inhabitants is a ripe market for many products that are grown or manufactured in our state.

But mostly there is hope that American policymakers will embrace free trade rather than isolationism. Ignoring the failures of his previous policies, now-candidate Trump has suggested that he will impose a 10 percent tariff on all imported goods.

Trump and his supporters suggest that higher prices paid by American consumers will be offset by job growth. In the wake of those claims, we remind voters that, according to an assessment of Trump’s presidency by FactCheck.org: “The economy lost 2.9 million jobs. The unemployment rate increased by 1.6 percentage points to 6.3 percent.”

Pursuing tit-for-tat tariffs is a losing strategy that is harmful to American consumers and American workers. This is particularly true in Washington, where the Indian apple market serves as a lesson in the benefits of international trade.

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