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The '80s Called – They Want Their Trade Policy Back

March 30, 2018 3 minute Read by Matthew Rooney
We really should put protectionism in a drawer between the acid-washed denim pegged jeans and old leg warmers. It’s time to move on.

Remember the '80s?  I do:  Fanny packs.  Big hair.  Renting movies to watch at home that you had to rewind.  At the beginning, we were still using rotary telephones; by the end, we had the first cell phone – commonly known as brick phones offering a whopping 30 minutes of talk time.  Cameras with film you had to wait a week to get developed into paper prints.  Who still remembers having to turn a crank to open your car window?  And those awful tight bike shorts.

Add to this list of things we don’t miss from the '80s, an experiment with protectionist, government-managed trade.  The United States went to some of our best, most innovative trading partners and begged them not to sell items to American consumers that American consumers wanted to buy.

Remember the Walkman? It seems Americans enjoyed them a little too much. So the U.S. Government asked Japan not to sell too many, depriving Americans of some reasonable pleasures, and raising prices for products like cars and electronics. American producers of those items saw a small windfall profit. This protectionism approach slowed down the emergence of digital imagery, movies you don’t have to rewind, and cell phones that fit in your pocket. 

But the long-term explosion in manufacturing productivity in the United States and around the world continued unabated, as we produced more with fewer workers.  This is, at bottom, a positive thing: rising productivity is the cornerstone of rising prosperity.  And the evolution of our economy to greater reliance on services is also positive: creative jobs in web design, marketing, research and development pay well and keep our country at the cutting edge of technology and innovation – and strengthen our manufacturing base.

The transition is challenging and some people feel left behind, of course, and we need a constructive way to respond to their concerns. But trying to get the whole economy to go back to using the Yellow Pages is not the answer.

Some good things happened in the '80s that are worth celebrating.  The fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War confrontation with Soviet Communism, are some of history’s greatest moments.  The first season of Seinfeld was pretty promising, too.  But we really should put protectionism in a drawer between the acid-washed denim pegged jeans and old leg warmers. It’s time to move on.


Author

Matthew Rooney
Matthew Rooney

Matthew Rooney joined the Bush Center in June 2015 following a career as a Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Department of State. At postings in Washington and abroad, he focused on advocating market-driven solutions to economic policy challenges in both industrialized and developing countries, and on protecting the interests of U.S. companies abroad.

In Washington, Rooney was on loan to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to create a high-level private sector advisory body for the Summits of the Americas, working closely with the U.S. private sector and with companies and business associations from throughout the Americas to negotiate an agenda to promote economic integration in the region.  Previously, he was Deputy Assistant Secretary responsible for relations with Canada and Mexico and for regional economic policy.  In prior Washington assignments, Rooney worked for then-Senator Fred Thompson, and supported negotiations to open global markets to U.S. airline services.

Abroad, Rooney was Consul General in Munich, a Consulate General providing a full range of Consular and export promotion services, supporting a permanent presence of 30,000 U.S. forces in two major base complexes, and carrying out a media and public relations initiative in support of U.S. diplomatic objectives in Germany. As Counselor for Economic and Commercial Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador, El Salvador, he laid the groundwork for free trade negotiations between the United States and the five countries of Central America, and promoted market-based reforms for electrical power. Prior to this, he served in various posts in Germany, Gabon and Côte d’Ivoire.

Rooney studied Economics, German and French at the University of Texas at Austin and received his Master’s Degree in International Management at the University of Texas at Dallas.

Full Bio