What's the Meaning of Trump's 'America First'?

President Trump's "America First" initiative is an effort on many fronts. Even while facing one of the country's tightest-ever labor markets—with more than six million unfilled jobs and a 4.3 percent unemployment rate—the Trump administration has proposed to reduce by half the number of green cards provided to highly sought-after immigrant engineers, scientists, and technicians who seek to come to the United States.

On another front, the administration has condemned Germany for exporting "too much" to the U.S. and has accused China of currency manipulation and other alleged export-enhancing tactics. Oddly enough, the consumers who prefer German cars and Chinese computers don't seem to count for much in the Trump administration's America First calculations.

What exactly is the meaning of America First? How do we truly know when all Americans, taken together, are getting what they want and need? Or do just some Americans count in the America First tally?

It's difficult to make a grand tally and determine if one policy action lifts the boat for all Americans. But we can tell when actions impose costs on lots of Americans. Maybe some industry investors and production workers are gaining from Trump's efforts, but it is just as clear that American consumers are losing.

Almost invariably, special interest groups seeking favors are happy to wave the America First flag. In early May, Heidi Brock, president and CEO of the Aluminum Association, commented on a petition her association had just filed with the U.S. International Trade Commission calling for protection from low-cost Chinese-made aluminum foil that was taking a large chunk of the U.S. consumer market.

"This unprecedented action," said Brock, "reflects both the intensive injury being suffered by U.S. aluminum foil producers and also our commitment to ensuring that trade laws are enforced to create a level playing field for domestic producers."

Aluminum producers seem to count. But what about American consumers who will pay more for aluminum foil? Will they not count?

Back in December 2016, Sen. Steve Daines, D-Mont., spoke about a petition filed by U.S. lumber producers seeking protection from low-cost Canadian timber products. According to Daines, "We need to fight aggressively for Montana jobs. Subsidized and unfairly traded lumber imports continue to severely harm Montana mills, workers and communities."

The petition was successful. What the senator called "compensating tariffs" were imposed on Canadian lumber. Lumber prices in U.S. markets rose; homebuilding nationwide became more costly.

Montana lumber producers were happy, I suppose. What about consumers? Does this put America first?

In the name of the America First initiative, we have figuratively placed rocks in our own harbors. These rocks limit the entry of people and goods, and in doing so interfere with U.S. citizens' freedom to engage in wealth-improving contracts with people elsewhere. Instead of the freedom to trade, hire, and prosper, we get government-designed command and control.

Meanwhile, the sleepwalking U.S. economy, hungry for skilled labor and low-cost raw materials, continues to struggle simply to match historic levels of GDP growth.

The next time you hear the term "America First," ask which America is being promoted. Is it the producers' America? Consumers? Or both?