The United States imports a mind-blowing amount of steel. Last year, the country brought in over 27 million metric tons, an increase of 219 percent since 2009. So it may surprise people to learn that American steel workers are astoundingly productive. As economist Jared Bernstein points out, U.S. steel output per hour worked has increased five-fold since the early 1980s. What's more, American manufacturing labor costs are not that much higher than global norms.
So why is there so much steel importing? The answer, as Bernstein argues, is almost certainly that China has long been dumping its steel, and thus driving the global price down. "By dumping, below cost, so much excess capacity on the global market, China neutralizes the [American] productivity gains," he writes.
Could President Trump's looming tariffs make American steel great again? Probably not. They are likely too "scattershot," as Bernstein writes, to make much of a dent in Chinese production. There's a good argument, in fact, that they're more likely to spark a trade war with Canada and the EU than convince China of anything.