Georgia's junior U.S. Senator discusses tariffs, economic growth at Anheuser-Busch brewery

David Perdue talks trade wars in Cartersville

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United States Sen. David Perdue spoke at the Anheuser-Busch brewery in Cartersville Friday, primarily addressing tariffs and other ongoing trade matters.

"I do not favor a broad tariff like we've had on steel and aluminum," he told employees at the Bartow County plant. "Some of the types of steel that we've actually put tariffs on, we don't even make anymore, the same thing with aluminum ... there are some benefits because you protect the producers of that, but you also cause price increases for the users of that product, and that's an imbalance."

He also touched upon an issue that certainly has an impact on the local brewery — the controversial "Midwest Premium" metric set by S&P Global Platts to establish aluminum prices.

"We've got some stuff coming that would require a review of how that is calculated, because frankly, I just don't understand it," he said.

Perdue, who was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2014, gave a speech and fielded questions from Anheuser-Busch employees after taking a tour of the plant alongside the brewery's general manager, Kevin Fahrenkrog.

The brewery made a fitting backdrop for his presentation, Perdue said, considering he used beer consumption as a "leading indicator" of economic success in his previous business experiences.

"When I ran Reebok and Dollar General, we had a beer quotient," he said. "And I could tell how good business was going to be by how many bottles of beer were being bought."

Perdue delved into the intricacies of international trade, which he described as something of a three-dimensional chess game with countries, industries and products representing the key pieces.

"When you take steel [tariffs] and go across all countries and you go across all industries, that's a broad instrument and I believe it's inefficient," he said. "What it does do, though, is get the other players' attention to bring them to the table."

While Perdue said he's not fond of President Donald Trump using tariffs as bait for trade negotiations — "I would rather have a specific conversation about an industry and a product than I would around the whole industry" — he nonetheless said he agrees with Trump's "long-term goal" of creating a more level playing field for American jobs and American workers in the international market.

And to a certain extent, he acknowledges that Trump's tariffs are working.

"Right now we have a new free-trade agreement with South Korea," he said. "The president put tariffs on them in a couple of areas, because there was some steel being transshipped out of China. Actually, Obama put a 47 percent tariff on them in 2016 that nobody talks about on South Korean steel coming into the United States. That was a very targeted tariff that got the result it wanted, it stopped transshipping."

Ultimately, he said he believes Trump is employing the threat of tariffs as an "offramp" to spur "specific conversations about equal access" with major economic players such as China and the European Union.

"We have the E.U. talking right now about zero tariffs, they're now entering a conversation," he said. "NAFTA right now is maybe only weeks from an agreement ... I know we have direct conversations going again with China on a bilateral basis."

On the domestic front, Perdue said Trump's economic policies have been successful, with about $1 trillion in U.S. profits "stuck overseas" coming back to the country in the first half of 2018 alone.

"The bottom line is, today, we have the lowest unemployment in about 20 years, we have CEO and consumer confidence at 20-year highs and right now, I can tell you we just had a 4.1 percent GDP growth," he said. "We see with the tax bill there's more consumable dollars in the middle class environment that's just beginning to hit the marketplace, and that bodes well for you guys."

Still, Perdue said he has some worries about two possible "limiters to economic growth" — labor and interest rates.

"We still have a 62 percent workforce participation [rate], that means 38 percent of the working aged men and women in the country are not working," he said. "Well, they're trained, many of these people want to work, now it's a question of finding the right job ... that's why immigration laws have to be modified."

With interest rates rising seven times in the last year and a half, Perdue said he expects Americans to pay $50 billion more in interest this year than last year. "And that's a concern to me," he said.

Perdue said Georgia remains "the best state in the country in which to do business" for a litany of reasons. Addressing several state representatives in attendance, he said Georgia's "citizen legislators" and its local community leadership have worked diligently to make it easier for major companies like Anheuser-Busch to set up shop.

"We're innovative, we're resourceful, we're loyal, and that means a lot to a company who's trying to site," he said. "And the state government in Georgia is fiscally sound. We've got great bond ratings, we don't have a deficit every year ... we have a balanced budget law."

Although Perdue said there are still plenty of economic issues to be concerned about — the surging national debt, the onerous federal budgeting process and potential Social Security and Medicare funding shortfalls among them — he still said he believes the overall fiscal future of America (and the Cartersville brewery) remains bright.

"I'm very optimistic that in the next two to five years, that the economy is now headed in the right direction," he said. "And it bodes well for beer drinkers, let's put it that way."