Donald Trump’s plan to introduce tariffs is just a tax on consumer goods

I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery
I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery

What are the consequences of adopting tariffs for all of the people who are affected? What happens next, after stage one?

Here’s a lesson in basic economics from Joe Carter, writing for the Acton Institute.

He writes:

Both Sanders and Trump propose increasing tariffs on goods imported from other countries — and increase them significantly.* This isn’t that surprising for Sanders, a socialist who, on the issue of economics, is one of the most ill-informed candidates in modern history. But Trump should (and probably does) understand the detrimental impact tariffs have on the poor. And yet he has proposed an economy-crippling, poverty-increasing tariff.

In 2012, Trump proposed a tariff on China of 25 percent. In 2016 he bumped it up to 45 percent. (He later tried to lie and say he never proposed the 45 percent increase, but there is audio of him making the proposal.) A tariff is simply a tax on imports or exports, so Trump is proposing to raise taxes on imported goods by 25 to 45 percent. (To keep this point in mind, I’ll hereafter refer to tariffs as “taxes.”)

You might be thinking, “ So what? That’s a tax the Chinese have to pay.” But that’s not the way tariffs works. China doesn’t pay the tax — you do. If a tariff on Chinese goods is increased by 25 to 45 percent then you pay 25 to 45 percent more for those goods.

Here’s a way to think about it. Imagine there are two hamburger stands in town. One is owned by the mayor’s wife, Veronica, and one is owned by a woman who lives in the next town over, Betty.

Of the two, Betty makes the tastier burger. She is also able to charge $1 a burger since she is able to buy her supplies in her own hometown for much cheaper. Veronica’s burgers aren’t quite as good and cost more to make. She has to charge $1.30 per burger.

The mayor decides to implement a new tax of 45 percent on producers (like Betty) who don’t live in the city limits. Since Betty’s profit margin is already low, she has to pass the bulk of the 45-cent tax on to her customers. Instead of $1 she now has to charge $1.35.

So who is better off in this scenario? The only winner is Veronica. Since her burgers are now cheaper, she is likely to sell more. And who is worse off? The customers who now have to pay 30 to 35 cents more for every burger. That is money they could have used to buy other products or services. Now they have to spend additional money on this new tax.

The same principle applies to taxes on goods and services imported from other countries. Customers simply have to pay more for goods and services they used to get much cheaper.

To understand how Trump’s tax increase would affect consumers, take a trip to Target or Wal-Mart and add 45 percent to almost all the prices. That’s money that comes directly out of your pocket into the hands of the federal government — all to punish you for buying goods that are cheaper to make in China.

Harvard University economist Greg Mankiw explains what most professional economists agree on. The economic benefit of free trade tied for first place, with 93% agreement:

The recent debate over the stimulus bill has lead some observers to think that economists are hopelessly divided on issues of public policy. That is true regarding business cycle theory and, specifically, the virtues or defects of Keynesian economics. But it is not true more broadly.

My favorite textbook covers business cycle theory toward the end of the book (the last four chapters) precisely because that theory is controversial. I believe it is better to introduce students to economics with topics about which there is more of a professional consensus. In chapter two of the book, I include a table of propositions to which most economists subscribe, based on various polls of the profession. Here is the list, together with the percentage of economists who agree:

  1. A ceiling on rents reduces the quantity and quality of housing available. (93%)

  2. Tariffs and import quotas usually reduce general economic welfare. (93%)

He is the author of his “favorite textbook”, which is published by Harvard University Press.

This is not controversial among professional and academic economists. Economists across the ideological spectrum understand that free trade lowers the prices of consumer goods, and allows individuals, families and businesses to get more quality for their dollars. We can do better than Donald Trump and his naive, populist economic pablum.

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4 thoughts on “Donald Trump’s plan to introduce tariffs is just a tax on consumer goods”

  1. Yes, the avg. Joe will pay the additional money. But we are in waters not travelled before:

    1. We are losing manufacturing jobs and our factories at break neck speeds. Tariffs encourage these things to stay in country (nationalism).

    2. Along with #1 we are losing all of the jobs (good middle class jobs) associated with those factories. These jobs would be preserved and increased, strengthening the avg Joe/common people economically.

    3. Many would argue that local manufacturing that, if protected, would produce superior products to those of China or Mexico. Most would rather by made in the USA and pay a little more for a better product than a throw away piece of junk. Buy cheap, buy twice, thrice, or more. Buy quality and buy once.

    In conclusion, don’t be penny wise and pound foolish if you value the above three things. It is better for our nation in the long run.

    (And, Heaven forbid) What if we ended up in a real war (along the likes of the World Wars) and China was on the opposite side. Aiding the Chinese communists and their anti- Christian govt. is also a concern as a Believer.

    We are currently under a non “free trade market” anyhow with all of govt. interference (crony capitalism/corporatism). And though I find Anarcho Capitalism attractive, it is a libertarian utopian dream and not anything possible in the real world.


  2. I am afraid you did not listen to what he said. He said he would THREATEN THEM. Right now they have the equivalent of a tariff on us and there is no free trade.


    1. Well, that’s Trump’s newest version – it’s just a threat. He’s changed his position on that somewhat in response to informed people like Cruz pointing out how a tariff would hurt consumers. But either the threat is a bluff, in which case it’s not smart. Or we’re likely to actually implement it, in which case it’s bad for consumers.

      If you want businesses to make their products here, the smart thing to do is to reduce business taxes so that they can afford to produce goods here and create jobs in the process. Tariffs raise prices without bringing back jobs. Trump either doesn’t understand economics, or he doesn’t care about the little guy.


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