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We’ve heard a lot lately about fake news. But President Obama’s outgoing Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) has just reminded us that at least as great a problem is fake policy analysis. For its new report emphasizing that tariffs are “an arbitrary and regressive tax” that hits low-income Americans especially hard glosses over and ignores completely the biggest trade-related income questions that any intellectually honest researcher would ask.

CEA argues that “tariffs – taxes on imported goods – likely impose a heavier burden on lower-income households, as these households generally spend more on traded goods as a share of expenditure/income and because of the higher level of tariffs placed on some key consumer goods.”

But here’s the main point it glosses over: The vast majority of spending by poorer Americans goes to goods and service that are lightly traded, at best. Indeed, the White House economists provide the first clues themselves. As they show (in the figure below), even though the tariff burden on after-tax income does rise as such income falls, the absolute levels are very low – a little over 1.50 percent of such income for the poorest 10 percent of households.

Figure 2 Tariff burden relative to after-tax income

And as the next figure reveals, when totally untraded mortgage, rent, and utilities are removed, both the tariff burden gap between the richest and poorest Americans, and the absolute tariff burden, shrink dramatically. The latter falls all the way down to less than 0.60 percent of the total income of the lowest 10 percent.

Figure 3 Tariff burden relative to expenditures excluding mortgage, rent, and utilities

Looking at what lower-income households actually spend explains these rock-bottom numbers. According to the same Labor Department consumption data set used by the CEA economists, households in the lowest decile on the American income scale are spending fully 42 percent of their income on housing (which is not at all traded internationally) and another 17 percent on food (which is mainly produced domestically). Another six-plus percent of these households’ economic intake goes to health care, five percent to education, and a bit over four percent to entertainment (also all wholly or largely un-traded).

Interestingly, another 14 percent of the lowest-income group’s expenditures goes to transportation. U.S. oil imports are (lightly) tariffed. But assuming most of the poorest Americans don’t own, lease, or rent their own vehicles, the impact on their finances is surely minimal.

Add these numbers up, and clearly America’s lowest-income consumers spend hardly anything on imported goods that are subject to tariffs.

Moreover, here’s what the CEA economists completely ignore: The last few decades’ worth of trade policies they implicitly endorse here have wreaked havoc on the employment – and therefore incomes – of many of these same lower-income households.

Just look at what’s happened to domestic payrolls in two industries that used to provide jobs for many Americans who have no doubt fallen way down the income ladder: furniture and apparel. According to Labor Department data, since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect in 1994 and ushered in the current era of U.S. trade policy, employment is down by more than a third in the former and by nearly 85 percent in the latter. Moreover, import- and offshoring-related job losses have been especially steep since China entered the World Trade Organization at the end of 2001 – as widely cited scholarship has emphasized.

As NAFTA also triggered a heated debate on trade policy in the United States, critics started printing up and handing out garments reading “My job went overseas and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.” Obviously, these are gifts that someone should have mailed the White House economists who suggest that tariffs have delivered the main trade-related hit to America’s poorest.

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