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Doug Irwin’s Newest Book

Irwin US Trade Book.jpgAs we’ve said before, you don’t need to go to Google Scholar to see Economics Professor Doug Irwin’s books; they are all on Amazon. His newest one is: Clashing over Commerce: A History of US Trade Policy (Markets and Governments in Economic History), and even though it will only come out on November 29, it has already been cited by Eduardo Porter in the New York Times:

As the Dartmouth College economist Douglas Irwin notes in his timely new book, “Clashing Over Commerce: A History of U.S. Trade Policy,” the share of American imports covered by some form of trade restriction rose to 21 percent in 1984, from only 8 percent in 1975…

What’s most mystifying to foreign diplomats and trade policy experts is how the Trump administration conceives the endgame of bringing down a legal system the United States spent so much time and effort to build. Even if Mr. Trump prevails, the United States stands to lose.

American sugar policy comes to mind. In the early 1980s, hoping to put a floor on prices in the United States, the government set up a quota system to limit sugar imports. As Professor Irwin tells it, the enterprise proved more difficult than the experts in Washington ever thought.

The American import quota got smaller and smaller to keep pace with falling prices worldwide. At one point, American sugar was so expensive that companies started importing sugary products like cake mix, iced tea and cocoa in bulk to extract and sell the sugar within. Coke and Pepsi switched from sugar to corn syrup, slashing domestic demand and forcing the Agriculture Department to reduce import quotas further. And candy makers moved abroad, to where sugar was cheaper.

In the Caribbean and Central America, sugar quotas led farmers to stop producing sugar and start cultivating illegal narcotics that were smuggled into the United States. To cap it all, in August 1986 the United States sold China 136,000 tons of sugar it had accumulated in its efforts to bolster the price. It was sugar it bought at 18 cents a pound. It sold at 5 cents. Within days, world sugar prices plummeted.

Amazon describes Irwin’s book as follows:

Douglas A. Irwin’s Clashing over Commerce is the most authoritative and comprehensive history of US trade policy to date, offering a clear picture of the various economic and political forces that have shaped it. From the start, trade policy divided the nation—first when Thomas Jefferson declare an embargo on all foreign trade and then when South Carolina threatened to secede from the Union over excessive taxes on imports. The Civil War saw a shift toward protectionism, which then came under constant political attack. Then, controversy over the Smoot-Hawley tariff during the Great Depression led to a policy shift toward freer trade, involving trade agreements that eventually produced the World Trade Organization. Irwin makes sense of this turbulent history by showing how different economic interests tend to be grouped geographically, meaning that every proposed policy change found ready champions and opponents in Congress.

As the Trump administration considers making major changes to US trade policy, Irwin’s sweeping historical perspective helps illuminate the current debate. Deeply researched and rich with insight and detail, Clashing over Commerce provides valuable and enduring insights into US trade policy past and present.

Doug Irwin is one of this space’s favorite professors. We’ve written about his devotion to students (even prospective ones), his tireless work for the Political Economy Project, his leadership of student reading groups, and his appearances in popular media like the Wall Street Journal and on NPR. You really should buy his book!

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