18 September 2018

Trump Hikes Taxes - How Tariffs Really Work and Why They Rarely Do (work, that is)

Here in mid-September, Trump just announced tariffs on $200 billion in goods from China.

This is a tax on American consumers that works out to about $60 per American. Americans will pay that much more for items.

Who gets that money? American companies that have already proven themselves incapable of competing. American companies who need protection in the form of tariffs.

There are times when it makes sense to have trade protection in the form of tariffs. If your national policy is working to move from an agricultural to an industrial economy, or from an industrial to information economy it makes sense that you may want to protect some sectors or companies from foreign competition as they establish themselves against global competition. For awhile.

Companies that benefit from trade protection have a few options about what to do with the added revenue. They can increase the wages of hard-hit employees who have been competing against cheaper foreign labor. They can use the extra revenue to invest in new capacity or technology so that they are more competitive. Or they can payout the profit to stockholders and executives in the form of bonuses, using this subsidy from American consumers as a reward for having the political clout to do what they could not do through the market.

Tariffs are essentially a tax but not a tax that go to the government. Government spending can actually help displaced workers by funding unemployment and retraining. Government spending can finance infrastructure building that makes regions more competitive because of better rails or roads or cheaper energy or water. Government spending can go into the basic research that companies can develop into products.

Apple is now the most valuable company in the world, worth more than a trillion. It's most profitable product is the iPhone. The iPhone represents product development that incorporates research advances like touchscreen, satellite, and small chip technology originally funded by government research. (This is well documented in Mariana Mazzucato's The Entrepreneurial State.) Government research can lead to breakthroughs that not only help citizens but that can be the basis for new products that companies develop into highly profitable markets. A few billion in research spending can help to create trillions in value.

Tariffs don't help to finance basic research, infrastructure, education, or the creation of new industries and companies. Tariffs often subsidize companies that have not kept up, doing more to reward executives who have made campaign contributions than executives who have invested in the future. Within the last year, the GOP passed a tax cut that makes it harder to do any of these things. With Trump's new tariffs, it has just reversed that tax cut for the typical American and will now give that tax or tariff revenue to uncompetitive companies instead. 

1 comment:

Jason Brunson said...

Is that how tariffs work?
I thought a tariff was a tax that went to the government.

The only thing that the protected companies are getting is more business than they would have gotten without the tariff.

Couldn't the tariffs be looked at as a, partial, replacement of revenue for the tax cuts?