In a well-functioning modern economy, businesses are generally free to buy and sell the things they need, absent a compelling public need for government intervention. By that definition, the United States does not, at the moment, have a well-functioning modern economy. Because of President Donald Trump’s new high tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, companies across the country are being forced to ask the Commerce Department’s permission to import metal products without paying a tariff, as they were able to do before Trump imposed the levies for patently spurious national security reasons.
The latest absurdity is a request for tariff relief from one of the very aluminum producers in the United States that Trump’s tariffs ostensibly protect. Alcoa informed the Commerce Department that it needs 40,000 metric tons of specialized alloys, which it cannot produce in sufficient amounts itself nor purchase from another U.S.-based company, and must therefore buy from an Alcoa subsidiary in Canada. This is only the first of many such requests the company may be obliged to make. A senior Alcoa official informed the Wall Street Journal that the United States would need to import most of its aluminum even if the tariffs succeed in their declared objective of rekindling idled U.S. smelters.
Before Alcoa’s, more than 20,000 pleas for tariff relief had already flooded the Commerce Department bureaucrats whose job it is to grant such indulgences. The administration announced that tariff exclusions can be awarded for products found “not to be produced in the United States in a sufficient and reasonably available amount or of a satisfactory quality,” a phrase notable for its subjectivity. So far, overwhelmed officials at Commerce have found time to grant 1,300 exclusions to the steel tariffs (70 percent of which went to a single South Carolina firm) and denied 639, according to the New York Times.