America’s war on competition takes a toll

SAN DIEGO — Let me put in a good word for a concept that, in America, used to be seen as something positive that made everything better but which is now on the outs.

It’s a quaint notion called competition.

And, in the Trump era — where everyday Americans who supposedly didn’t have a voice now holler at the top of their lungs — who’s afraid of a little friendly competition? A whole lot of people, it seems.

Consider the Trump administration’s tariffs — 25 percent on imported steel, 10 percent on imported aluminum.

That is naked protectionism. The idea is for the government to manipulate U.S. trade policy to prop up failing industries in the hopes of saving a few jobs in steel-producing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, which helped tip the election to Donald Trump.

Note that we’re not talking about protecting jobs at Google or Apple. Those U.S. companies are thriving.

But rewarding failure only encourages more of it. Besides, most economists agree tariffs tend to backfire and hurt the very industries that they intended to help by providing a crutch, stifling innovation and fostering dependence on government. None of these things is good for business, and all of them can be fatal.

What is good for business, however, is thinking outside the box. When it hit hard times in the 1980s and found itself with its back against the wall, Pennsylvania’s steel country had to get creative and diversify. Pittsburgh, which was once known as the nation’s top “steel city” with a professional football team to match, now markets itself as an up-and-coming “tech hub.” Instead of angling to get into the steelworkers’ union, young people are taking computer programming courses and learning to code.

That’s what happens when you have to adapt to changing times. You hustle. You pick up new skills. You change your line of work or you move away to a place with more opportunity.

Those who don’t want to do any of the above will instead look for ways to limit competition — in this case, by making it harder and more expensive to import foreign steel and aluminum.

It’s not just about tariffs, either. America’s war on competition also extends into the immigration debate.

Certainly, there are many good reasons to combat illegal immigration. But for many of those who also have a problem with immigrants who enter the United States legally, it often comes down to getting rid of the competition.

Recently, while hosting a radio show, I discussed efforts now underway in Congress and the White House to cut legal immigration by ending a long-standing policy that prioritizes family reunification — or what the administration likes to call “chain migration” because it sounds more sinister.

I asked listeners: “I know that many of you oppose illegal immigration. But what’s your beef with legal immigrants?”

An engineer called in and insisted that it wasn’t “fair” for him to be forced to to compete for jobs with engineers from India or China. He always came up short.

It could be the foreign engineers were smarter, had better credentials and displayed a stronger work ethic.

The caller didn’t see it that way. Rather than admit that he might have been outgunned by those who were more qualified, he said — with no evidence to prove it — that what cost him those jobs was that people from other countries “will work for lower wages” than Americans demand. Thus, he argued, we should limit the number of high-tech foreign workers who enter the United States. And, he insisted, “there is nothing wrong with that.”

Actually, there is a lot wrong with it.

Here’s just one thing: Anti-immigrant conservatives — including those on Team Trump — preach about how people who want to immigrate to the United States need to “play by the rules.”

Fine. That’s what these foreign engineers did. They followed the rules, paid the fees, processed the paperwork and waited in line. And now that they’ve arrived at the front door, someone wants to change the rules and turn them away.

And why is that? Because the incoming talent doesn’t have enough education and skills, and they don’t meet America’s standards? No, the opposite. It’s because they have so much of those things that some Americans are afraid that they themselves might not measure up. So they want to eliminate the competition.

That’s not right. It’s not smart, or beneficial or farsighted. And it’s certainly not the American way.