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The White House says free trade causes wife-beating. Why stop there?

Dana Milbank on

WASHINGTON -- So now we know: Free trade causes abortion, wife-beating and infertility.

This exciting new discovery was made -- or, rather, made up -- by the Trump White House as it sought to find arguments to justify scuttling the Trans-Pacific Partnership, NAFTA and other vehicles of international trade.

The Washington Post's indispensable Damian Paletta reports that the two-page document, which he obtained, was "prepared and distributed" by Peter Navarro, an economic adviser to President Trump who directs the White House Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy. It was "presented without any data or information to back up the assertions" to Trump administration officials as they deliberated over trade policy.

On a page titled "socioeconomic costs of a weakened manufacturing base," Navarro's document lists, among other things: "higher abortion rate," "lower fertility rate," "increased spousal abuse," "lower marriage rate," "higher divorce rate," "higher crime," "rising mortality rate" and "increased drug/opioid use."

Now, it's true that job loss can lead to social ills, but the Trump White House officials involved in such social-science "research" made some enormous leaps of logic -- that the social ills are caused specifically by the loss of manufacturing jobs and by nothing else, and that the job losses are caused by free trade rather than, say, productivity, technology or the failure of government policies. To use the technical, social-scientific lingo, Navarro "pulled this one out of his butt."

Curiously, Paletta reported that the wackadoodle documents "alarmed other White House officials, who worried that such unverified information could end up steering White House policy." Since when is anybody in this White House worried about bad information steering official policy? Trump's policies rely on bad information.

On Wednesday, the day Paletta's piece appeared in the newspaper, Attorney General Jeff Sessions boasted to the Senate Judiciary Committee that "we have already reduced ... by half" the big backlog in administration responses to congressional inquiries. This sounded impressive until the panel chairman, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, pointed out the nonsense on which that statistic was based: Trump declared that the administration would no longer respond to inquiries from Democrats or even Republicans who aren't committee chairmen -- thereby throwing out inquiries made by 83 of the 100 senators. Voila: Backlog reduced!

There is something charming and elegant about the White House's sophistry, both in Sessions' backlog calculation and in the free-trade(equals sign)spousal-abuse logic. Essentially, Navarro identified two occurrences that may or may not be related and, without furnishing any evidence, proclaimed a correlation.

By that same logic, it would be fair to argue that the growth of free trade is also responsible for Harvey Weinstein's treatment of women, the rise of fidget spinners and the noxious habit of dabbing.

But why stop at free trade? Let's apply the White House's logic -- identifying two things that correlate and capriciously declaring causation -- to President Trump and his actions.

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