Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Douglas A. Irwin's "Peddling Protectionism"

Douglas A. Irwin is the Robert E. Maxwell '23 Professor of Arts and Sciences in the Department of Economics at Dartmouth College and the author of Against the Tide: An Intellectual History of Free Trade and Free Trade under Fire.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Peddling Protectionism: Smoot-Hawley and the Great Depression, and reported the following:
Page 99 happens to be the conclusion to chapter 1 of my book, which is on the domestic politics behind the infamous Smoot-Hawley tariff of 1930. (That Congressional tariff act was and is controversial for having increased U.S. import duties as the world economy was slipping into the Great Depression.)

The page notes:
One of the ironies of the Smoot-Hawley tariff is that it did not originate primarily as a result of interest group pressure ... Republican politicians offered up a tariff in the hopes that it would placate farm interests and demonstrate that they were doing something to help agriculture.... The process spun out of control and, as a result, the Smoot-Hawley tariff will forever be associated with logrolling, special interest politics, and the inability of members of Congress to think beyond their own district. The episode illustrates that politicians are just as guilty as interest groups when it comes to using economic legislation to their benefit. The politicians were more interested in the appearance rather than the reality of helping farmers cope with low prices and high indebtedness.
Actually, this page is a very good summary of the book up to that point – how the Smoot-Hawley tariff got its well-deserved reputation for being a terrible and terribly ill-timed piece of legislation. Because Congress failed to consider the overall impact of the import duties on the American economy, it contributed to the poisoning of international trade relations in the 1930s and the rise of discriminatory measures against U.S. exports that proved difficult to eliminate. One consequence of the Smoot-Hawley tariff is that Congress never again touched the tariff code of the United States, but instead delegated trade policy making powers to the executive branch. The result was the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT, now the WTO), established after World War II.

The remaining three chapters of my short book deal with the economic consequences of the Smoot-Hawley tariff, the foreign reaction in terms of retaliation against U.S. exports, and the legacy of Smoot-Hawley for today. The book is also filled with photographs and political cartoons from the era to illustrate the contemporary debate over the issue.

I wish that we had applied the “Page 65” test to the book. On that page we have an excerpt of a verse from Ogden Nash. Sen. Reed Smoot of Utah, after whom the legislation is named, also wanted to ban imports of obscene books, such as D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. This gave birth to the memorable headline “Smoot Smits Smut” and to a great poem by Nash, which has the line: “Senator Smoot is an institute, not to be bribed with pelf; he guards our homes from erotic tomes, by reading them all himself.”
Read an excerpt from Peddling Protectionism, and learn more about the book at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue