In 1900, the average tariff on imported goods was 27.4% and there was no income tax. Import tariffs provided all the money to run the US government and there was no minimum wage law. The high tariffs kept wage rates from falling to match those in the 3rd world. Currently, the average tariff is near-zero: 1.3%. There is a sizable income tax and a government income deficit; minimum wage laws are used to prop up salaries. Most economists claim we are doing things right now, and that the protective tariffs of the past were a mistake. Donald Trump claimed otherwise in his 2016 campaign. Academic economists are appalled, and generally claim he’s a fool, or worse. The argument they use to support low tariffs was made originally by Adam Smith (1776): “It is the maxim of every prudent master of a family, never to attempt to make at home what it will cost him more to make than to buy…. If a foreign country can supply us with a commodity cheaper than we ourselves can make it, better buy it of them with some part of the produce of our own industry.” As a family benefits from low cost products, a country must too. Why pay more? How stupid would you have to be to think otherwise?
Of course, a country is not a family, and it is clear that some people will benefit more from cheap products, others less, and some folks will even suffer. Consumers and importers benefit, while employees generally do not. They are displaced from work, or find they must compete with employees in very low wage countries, and often with child labor or slave labor. The cartoon at right shows the conundrum. Uncle Sam holds a knife labeled “Tariff Revision” trying to decide where to cut. Any cut that helps consumers hurts producers just as much. Despite the cartoon, it seems to me there is likely a non-zero tariff rate that does not slow trade too much, but still provides revenue and protects American jobs.
A job-protecting tariff was part of the Republican platform from Lincoln’s time, well into the 20th century, and part of the Whig platform before that. Democrats, especially in the south, preferred low tariffs, certainly no more than needed to provide money for government operation. That led to a diminution of US tariffs, beginning in the mid- 1800s, first for US trade with developed countries, and eventually with third world as well. By the 1930s, we got almost no government income from tariffs, and almost all from an ever-larger income tax. After WWII low tariff reductions became a way to promote world stability too: our way of helping the poor abroad get on their feet again. In the 2016 campaign, candidate Donald Trump challenged this motivation and the whole low-tariff approach as anti- American (amor anti America-first). He threatened to put a 35% tariff on cars imported from Mexico as a way to keep jobs here, and likely to pay for the wall he claimed he would build as president. Blue-collar workers loved this threat, whether they believed it or not, and they voted Republican to an extent not seen in decades. Educated, white collar folks were uniformly appalled at Trump’s America-first insensitivity, and perhaps (likely) by the thought that they might have to pay more for imported goods. As president, Trump re-adjusted his threat to 20%, an interesting choice, and (I suspect) a good one.
The effect of a 20% tariff can be seen better, I think, by considering a barter-economy between two countries, one developed, one not: Mexico and the US, say with an without a 20% tax. Assume these two countries trade only in suits and food. In the poor country, the average worker can make either 4 suits per month or 200 lbs of food. In the developed country, workers produce either 10 suits or 1000 lbs of food. Because it’s a barter economy with a difference in production, we expect that, in the poor country, a suit costs 50 lbs of food; in the rich country, 100 lbs of food. There is room here to profit by trade.
With no tariff, totally free trade, an importer will find he can make a profit bringing 100 lbs of US food to Mexico to trade for 2 suits. He can return two suits to the US having gotten his two suits at the price of one, less the cost of transport, lawyers, and middlemen (relatively low). Some US suit-makers will suffer, but the importer benefits immediately, and eventually US consumers and Mexican suit workers will benefit too. Eventually, US suit prices will go down, and Mexican wages up, We will have cheaper suits and will shift production to produce what we make best — food.
In time, we can expect that an American suit maker will move his entire production to Mexico bringing better equipment and better management. Under his hand, lets assume his Mexican workers make 6 suits per month. The boss can now pay them better, perhaps 100 lbs of food and two suits per month. He still makes a nice profit, more than before: he ships two suits to the US to buy the 200 lbs of food, and retains now two suits as profit. Hillary Clinton believed this process was irreversible. “Those jobs are gone and they’re not coming back,” her campaign told CNN. She claimed she’d retrain the jobless “for the jobs of the future” and redistribute the wealth of the rich, a standard plank of the democratic platform since 1896. But for several reasons industrial voters didn’t trust her. Redistribution of wealth rarely works because, for example, the manufacturer can keep his profits off-shore, as many do.
While a very high tariff would stop all trade, but lets see what would happen with Trump’s 20% tariff. With a 20% tariff, when the first two suits come to the US, we extract 0.4 suits in tax revenue, but nothing on export. The importer still makes a profit, but it’s now 0.6 suits, the equivalent of 60 lbs of food. He can sell his suits for less than the American, but not quite as much less. If the manufacturer moves to Mexico he makes more money than by trade alone, but not quite as much. Tax is still collected on every suit brought to America — now 20% of the 3 suits per Mexican worker that the Boss must export. The American worker’s wages are depressed but he/she isn’t forced to compete with the Mexican dollar-for-dollar (suit for suit). In barter terms, he isn’t required to make 6 suits for every 100 lbs of food.
Repeating the above for different tax rates, we find that, in the above fictional economy a 50% tariff in the maximum to allow any trade (or the minimum rate to stop trade completely): the first two suits might enter; but they’d be taxed at one suit, just enough to pay for the 100 lbs of food. There would be no profit for the importer, and he/she would stop importing. At 50% tariff, we would get no new goods, and we’d collect no new revenue – a bad situation. Lincoln’s “protective tariffs” of 1861 may have contributed to Southern succession and the start of the civil war. While there is a benefit to trade, it seems to me that some modest tariff (10%, 20%) is better for us — a conclusion that Trump seems to have intuited, and that many other countries seem to have come to, too (see map-chart above). As for the academic economists, I note that they also predicted that stock market crash should Trump be elected; it’s gone nearly straight up since November 8, 2016. For experts on money, I find that most economists are not rich.
Robert E. Buxbaum, March 27, 2017. I learned such economics as I have from my one course in economics, plus comic books like the classic “Once upon a dime” produced by the New York Federal Reserve. Among the lessons learned: that money is a distraction, just a more convenient way to carry around a suit, 100 lbs of food, or a month of work. If you want to understand economics, I think it helps to work things out in terms of barter. As