DAVID GREENE, HOST:
A lot of the aluminum and steel we use here in the United States is imported from other countries. And that, according to a report from the Commerce Department, is a threat to national security. Last week, department officials recommended that President Trump impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. That plan certainly has critics, as NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.
JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: The Commerce Department report portrayed a steel industry that's lost enormous ground to foreign competitors. The U.S. imports four times as much steel as it exports. China alone produces as much steel in a month as the U.S. does in a year. And the picture was just as dismal for aluminum, where jobs fell by 58 percent between 2013 and 2016. Scott Paul of the Alliance for American Manufacturing says import tariffs could reverse some of the damage that's been done to these industries.
SCOTT PAUL: There's a real opportunity for the president to make a difference for some of those forgotten men and women that he talked about for so long on the campaign trail in states like Pennsylvania.
ZARROLI: But the question of whether to impose tariffs, which are a kind of tax on imports, isn't as simple as it seems. While tariffs may save steel jobs, they would increase costs for other manufacturers.
REMY NATHAN: This is a complex set of problems and possible solutions with potential for unintended consequences.
ZARROLI: Remy Nathan is vice president of the U.S. Aerospace Industries Association. He says U.S. aviation manufacturing is an export success story. It provides nearly 2 1/2 million American jobs, and it depends heavily on steel and aluminum imports. Take, for instance, the fasteners that are used to connect airplane parts. Tariffs would drive up the cost of manufacturing them in the U.S. he says.
NATHAN: Now, multiply that impact across every possible piece of an aircraft that connects to an aluminum or a steel part, and you could have a cascading effect that has pretty significant impacts on our industry's global competitiveness.
ZARROLI: And tariffs could have a ripple effect in other ways. Mark Vaughn is president of Nashville-based Vaughn Manufacturing, which makes parts for appliance and automakers. Vaughn buys the steel he uses from U.S. suppliers, but he's concerned about the broader disruption that tariffs would cause in manufacturing. Vaughn says, if tariffs take effect, some of the big companies he sells to could start doing more of their manufacturing abroad.
MARK VAUGHN: All of them concentrate on cost, and if the cost of their product goes up, then that would create the environment where they may look elsewhere as far as how they go about supplying their plants.
ZARROLI: And there's another worry - the tariffs will most likely be challenged at the World Trade Organization, which mediates disputes. The U.S. could argue that it needs aluminum and steel industries for making tanks and planes for defense purposes, but if it does, other countries can follow suit and end up imposing tariffs of their own. Scott Paul of the Alliance for American Manufacturing says that's pretty unlikely. No other country has the huge trade imbalances that the U.S. has.
PAUL: The difference is, in the past, we've kind of just sat back and taken it when countries violated our trade laws and have dumped into our market. This time, we're standing up.
ZARROLI: In fact, he says, tariffs could benefit the U.S. economy by smoothing out the distortions caused by trade imbalances. But to impose them, President Trump would end up alienating a lot of other manufacturers, and that may be a risk he doesn't want to take. Jim Zarroli, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)