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On the Road

A biker parks his motorcycle in front of St. Peter’s square during the Harley-Davidson 110th Anniversary Party in Rome, June 14, 2013. (Stefano Rellandini/Reuters)
Harley-Davidson decamps for Europe

My friend Jonah Goldberg has denounced the “tyranny of clichés,” but some clichés are glorious, and among the finest of them is being (as I am) a middle-aged man, way more than old enough to know better, riding a Harley-Davidson to no place in particular for no good reason at all. Open road, roar of the V-twin, wind in my . . . er . . . face: It’s all good. Any motorcycle can be stupid fun, but the great big bundle of clichés attached to a Harley adds to the merriment and, unlike a Ducati or one of those weird little origami-looking Japanese bikes that sound like a really pissed-off kitchen appliance, a big Harley makes you feel okay about observing the speed limit, which is important to an Eisenhower guy like me.

Jack Kerouac may have been an occasional reader of Daily Worker and spent most of his days around a bunch of Reds and worse (though he did mock Allen Ginsberg’s “pro-Castro bulls**t” later in life), but there is something deeply and sincerely patriotic (in the true, suprapolitical sense of that word) about his love of the open road, the West, and the great American mythos that goes along with all that. The same is true for many of the other counterculture figures of his time, especially Ken Kesey and his gang. (One of the happy accidents of my life was discovering a copy of the late Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test at a garage sale; I knew nothing about the author or the book, and just thought it was a cool title; it was the best quarter I’ve ever spent.) The Merry Pranksters and their bus, Easy Rider and that Stars-and-Stripes chopper, Tom Joad and his Hudson, Chuck Yeager (consulting Tom Wolfe again) and his experimental aircraft, Hunter S. Thompson and his Great Red Shark: Americans spent the 20th century going places. (And before that, it was Ahab and his ship, Huck Finn and his raft, Walt Whitman and his rambles . . . ) The nobility of Europe were proud of their fixedness: John de Vere was proud to be the twelfth Earl of Oxford. Americans are defined by their being in motion: The oldest American families were simply the first to get on the boat, the Mayflower being the ur-vehicle of our wayfaring, pilgrim people.

That’s a lot of cultural baggage to lash onto a Harley Dyna, which wasn’t really designed to carry any luggage at all.

Harley-Davidson, like the Pilgrims, finds itself at odds with the authorities. In this case, it is the Trump administration, which is displeased with the Motor Company’s decision to shift some additional production overseas. The proximate cause of that decision is tariffs imposed by the European Union in retaliation for tariffs imposed on European goods by the Trump administration. Trade wars cause a great deal of collateral damage.

Americans are mobile. We always have been. American capital is mobile, too.

Harley-Davidson already operates facilities in Brazil, India, and Australia, and it has plans for a factory in Thailand. Avoiding protectionist measures drives some of that, but so do other factors, including proximity to customers — which is why Mercedes-Benz manufactures SUVs in the United States, where most of them are sold. Indians buy nearly 17 million motorcycles and scooters a year, and Harley-Davidson covets a larger share of that market. It also has a following in Europe, and its executives calculate that the Trump administration’s anti-trade policies will cost it as much as $100 million a year in the EU market alone. The president has sternly warned the company that there will be consequences for its decision to move some production to Europe.

“Don’t get cute with us!” he said.

What is Harley-Davidson supposed to do? Lose a few hundred million dollars while it waits for the Trump administration to get it right on trade? Because that day probably is not coming. The president’s chief trade adviser, Peter Navarro, is a crank with a hilariously boobish China fixation, a man with no particular background in trade policy whose main contributions to public life have been a series of silly self-help books (If It’s Raining in Brazil, Buy Starbucks; Always a Winner: Finding Your Competitive Advantage in an Up and Down Economy; etc.) and a series of borderline-illiterate denunciations of China (Death by China: Confronting the Dragon — A Global Call to Action, The Coming China Wars, Crouching Tiger, etc.) that read like the ten-to-midnight-on-a-slow-Tuesday disquisitions of a third-tier talk-radio host.

Americans are mobile. We always have been. American capital is mobile, too. A couple of years ago, the Obama administration became briefly fixed on “corporate inversions,” a maneuver by which U.S. firms merged with overseas acquisitions to escape the unreasonably heavy burdens of the U.S. corporate-income tax, which was, until recently, one of the highest in the world. They weren’t fleeing to reincorporate in Caribbean tax havens — they were going to Ireland, Canada, and Switzerland, among other destinations. The Trump administration and congressional Republicans got it mostly right on corporate taxes, removing a considerable disincentive for doing business in the United States. They should take the right lesson from that experience.

For all of the bitching and bellyaching about NATO and German industrial policy, the nations of Western Europe remain, along with the United Kingdom, our most important allies. They are also important trading partners. In the much (and stupidly) maligned NAFTA arrangement, the United States has a fruitful and functional trade accord with Canada (which has fewer people than California) and Mexico (average household income less than $9,000 a year), but we have no such agreement with either the European Union or the United Kingdom. We have no agreement with India, an increasingly important economic and strategic partner — even though such an agreement would have made it more attractive for Harley-Davidson to ship U.S.-made motorcycles to India rather than set up an Indian factory, as it did. India has made great progress in the past 20 years, but go spend a month there and tell me whether you really think its backward, protectionist trade policies are helping its people get rich at the expense of Milwaukee.

With all due concern for the necessity of policing the border, Americans have always been about roads, not walls: Gene Autry never sang “Please Fence Me In.” Rather than putting up barriers to exchange, the United States ought to be pursuing free-trade deals wherever they are to be had, especially with the economically advanced and politically liberal nations that are our most natural allies and — not a trivial concern — whose people are the most likely to have the money to buy the stuff we make and to make the stuff we need. But our economic interests are wider than our immediate political interests: Almost all of the Trump tariffs on Chinese products will land on capital goods, i.e. on stuff U.S. manufacturers need to make the stuff they make, and the retaliatory Chinese tariffs will land primarily on U.S. farm exports. The Chinese don’t buy shiploads of American soybeans because they love us — we’re the best producer at the best price. But we aren’t the only producer.

We have very little to fear and much to gain from more open trade relations with the rest of the world. Unilateral free trade would serve Americans’ actual economic interests far better than would any attempt at tit-for-tatting our way around the world, something neither the ideologues in the Obama administration nor the amateurs in the Trump administration have shown any particular talent for doing in any case, which is why they’ve been reduced to acting as cheerleaders as state and local authorities more or less bribe FoxConn with $4 billion to do business in Wisconsin.

But unilateral free trade is an idea far too radical for our current timid national mood.

Pilgrims on the seas, Neil Armstrong on the moon, Jack Kerouac on the road: Whatever it is that drives Americans, it’s never been fear. It’s never been a desire to sit pat, burrow in, and hide from whatever is out there. It’s always been the opposite.

The last thing Americans need is a Checkpoint Charlie for goods and services. What Harley-Davidson needs is what its customers need, and what Americans have always cherished: an open road.

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