Trump has pontificated on trade for decades, and every word out of his mouth clearly reveals a man who knows nothing about the economics of trade and who is as clichéd an economic nationalist as can be imagined.
Behold this line from a 1990 interview he did in Playboy: “The Japanese double-screw the US, a real trick: First they take all our money with their consumer goods, then they put it back in buying all of Manhattan. So either way, we lose.”
Let’s examine this unalloyed gem of economic witlessness.
Overlooking Trump’s outrageous exaggerations, such as his claim that the Japanese buy up “all” of Manhattan, we start by stating an obvious truth: the voluntary purchase of a good is not a transaction in which the buyer is “screwed” or has his or her money “taken.” Instead, the buyer’s money is voluntarily spent. While every person of good sense sees a foreign seller who makes attractive offers to domestic buyers as someone who improves the well-being of each buyer who accepts the offer, Trump sees this seller as a con artist or thief.
And so Trump ignores the value to Americans of the imports we purchase. In typical mercantilist fashion, he believes that the ultimate purpose of trade is to send out as many exports as possible in exchange for as much money as possible — money that in Trump’s ideal world is never spent on imports. His view on this matter is even more bizarre than that of ordinary mercantilists. For Trump, imports are not merely costs that we endure in order to export, they are actual losses. (Although it goes without saying, I’ll say it nevertheless: Trump does not understand that imports are benefits and that exports are costs.)
Furthermore, by describing the money spent on imports as “our money,” Trump reveals his belief that money earned by each American does not belong to that individual but, instead, to the collective.
Also in the fashion of the typical mercantilist, the presumption is that the nation is akin to a gigantic household whose members all share in and collectively own its money. And just as Dad justly superintends little Emma’s and Bobby’s spending to ensure that they don’t dissipate the family’s wealth, Uncle Sam must superintend his subjects’ spending in order to ensure that we don’t dissipate the nation’s wealth.