Tariff panel

Former U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany (rourth from left) leading a panel of local experts and business leaders in a discussion on President Donald Trump's tariffs in Lafayette last year.

The image is of the canary in the coal mine, a bird cage that was supposed to warn miners that dangerous gases were threatening them.

This week’s canary was in the form of a survey showing the potential for a significant contraction in the American economy.

A national association of purchasing managers reported that factory jobs, total goods production and new orders fell sharply in August, for the first time in three years.

Is there any good news in that sentence? It might be that the Institute of Supply Management data can be shrugged off, as it was in 2016 when a similar slowdown was noted.

That earlier hit was caused by an issue with which we are very familiar in Louisiana. A collapse in oil prices led to a countrywide cutback on manufactured goods like machinery and drilling rigs; it also coincided with lower prices for farm products, meaning fewer combines and other machines were built.

The overall economy recovered then, but we remain worried that today’s situation is different because of the instability injected into world economic prospects by politics.

Today, farm prices have also been hurt by President Donald Trump’s tariffs that led to retaliation by China, a huge market for soybeans and much else. Louisiana farm incomes have suffered, since sales of farm and ranch products abroad are vital to that economic sector.

Tariffs are a tax on imports, leading to higher prices for consumers. Neither Trump nor the Chinese appear to be eager for a settlement of the trade issues at stake; more than half the public comments from companies surveyed by the purchasing managers said tariff-driven economic uncertainty was weighing on growth.

Another way that today’s crisis might be worse is that countries across the globe — America’s friends and trading partners — are reporting similar slowdowns. From Germany to Japan and South Korea, America’s trade networks are in peril because of misguided anti-trade tariffs.

The Wall Street Journal is right: “Reordering global supply chains built over a generation turns out to have far greater economic costs than the Trump trade warriors imagined.”

When did the administration go wrong? Even before tariffs, the president spurned a trans-Pacific trade agreement, excluding China, apparently for no other good reason than it was negotiated by former President Barack Obama’s administration.

This pettiness had long-term consequences, as America’s friends in Asia were counting on a closer and mutually beneficial relationship with the free world’s economic engine.

Now, the canary is wobbling on its perch. Perhaps those digging a hole deeper for the U.S. economy will recognize the warning signs.

Lanny Keller: Let's count the ways President Trump has opposed Louisiana's interests