It’s as close to a slam dunk conclusion as can be – at least according to economists, think tank hacks, and Mainstream Media journalists: The early 2018 U.S. tariffs on large household laundry machines have been a dismal failure.
Or have they been?
The levies belong in a category different from those of the main Trump administration trade-limiting measures because they were first mandated by an independent federal agency (the U.S. International Trade Commission, or USITC) via a long-standing legal process. And they’ve been panned for supercharging costs for consumers, and padding the profits of the domestic industry to extents that dwarfed the new production and jobs they fostered. (Here’s a typical example of the press’ evaluation, drawing on equally typical research from the venerable University of Chicago and the even venerable-er Federal Reserve.)
What has gone oddly unreported has been the verdict rendered by the USITC – which came out in August. Sure, the agency is grading itself. At the same time, it’s privy to the most authoritative data (taken from the domestic and foreign companies involved themselves), and it’s surely worth noting that the Commission paints a significantly different , and brighter, picture.
The tariffs, put in place in February, 2018, affected the nation’s total global imports of these products, but mainly impacted such “large residential washers” (LRWs) from China, Mexico, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam – the biggest foreign suppliers to the U.S. market. The duties’ aim: stemming a sudden surge of LRWs that injure U.S.-based manufacturers. But they don’t shelter the domestic industry forever.
After three years – the amount of time the Commission has determined these domestic manufacturers need to adjust – they’re phased out for both the final products and many of the parts covered in the “safeguard order.” In addition, consistent with their surge focus, they only apply to imports above a certain level of units – a trade curb known as a “tariff-rate quota.” In all, moreover, the ultimate objective is to give victim industries time to adjust and then stand on their own two feet. That’s why detailed adjustment plans are a condition of receiving tariff relief.
To some extent, the USITC’s judgment doesn’t contrast dramatically different from that of the tariffs’ critics. Both noted (in the Commission’s words) “generally increased prices” and “decreased imports.” The Commission, though reported some developments generally missed by the critics (especially “some improvement in the financial performance of continuously operating [domestic] producers,” and market share gains for these companies) and some given decidedly short shrift (“increased production by two new U.S. producers” – both of whose owners come from South Korea, undoubtedly because the option of supplying the American market through exports was sharply limited).
The Commission didn’t address one of the critics’ most compelling points – that the new U.S. jobs were created at a cost to consumers (via the higher prices they’ve paid) of a whopping $817,000 per job. But the University of Chicago/Federal Reserve study actually conceded that this number might be an exaggeration, since manufacturing jobs (like all jobs) create a “multiplier effect” – that is, they foster additional employment in related industries ranging from suppliers of inputs to transportation, packaging, and warehousing services. What these researchers didn’t mention is that manufacturing’s jobs multiplier is unusually high.
Moreover, like virtually all scholars of trade, tariffs, and employment, the Chicago/Fed team neglected other benefits of manufacturing job creation (and prevention of further manufacturing job loss). These include:
>avoiding the wage losses suffered by displaced manufacturing workers who find work in lower-paid industries (an especially important consideration given today’s very low overall unemployment rates)
>avoiding the revenue losses incurred by these workers’ communities and the economy as a whole due to reductions in their taxable income;
>avoiding the increased pressure on social programs required to serve employees who can’t find new jobs – which encompass not only unemployment compensation but spending that seeks to address the pathologies that often follow working class Americans’ deteriorating personal finances, like divorce, delinquency, alcoholism, and opioid and other drug use, not to mention higher mortality;
>and the costs incurred by local businesses because of worker-customers who can no longer afford as many of their products and services, which of course reduces business’ own taxable income and additionally crimps public finance at all levels. (See, e.g., this highly cited study.)
The USITC report, moreover, shed light on another big reason that the costs-per-manufacturing-job-saved might be exaggerated: Not all of the increased costs of the tariff-ed products are due to the tariffs. In particular, the Commission listed no less than 14 factors other than import competition (and the tariffs placed on these goods) that affect the prices of LRWs. They range from raw materials, transportation, and energy costs to competition levels from substitute and between domestic producers, U.S.-based production capacity, productivity changes, labor contracts, and state and local government incentives, and demand levels at home and abroad (because all the U.S.- and foreign-owned manufacturers sell all over the world). The USITC then proceeded to ask producers, importers, and purchasers (retailers) to rate the importance of these factors on prices since the tariffs’ imposition in February, 2018.
The answers were reported in table III-26, and import competition levels were anything but dominant. Indeed, their importance consistently was rated by all three stakeholder as lower or no greater than that not only of raw materials costs (higher due to entirely separate tariffs on metals that were imposed by the Trump administration) but of energy costs, domestic production capacity (surely limited over time by the previous import flood), the allocation of this production capacity to other products, productivity levels, labor agreements, transportation and delivery costs, and domestic demand levels.
And adding to the case for reducing the costs per job figure: According to the official U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures, after jumping by 16.31 percent from the February, 2018 onset of the tariffs through that November, they’ve since fallen by 9.73 percent (through September).
In fact, this development leads to a major point completely missed by the tariffs’ critics. As also indicated by the phaseout schedule and the linkage of the tariffs to the submission of adjustment blueprints, the levies were never intended to produce instant results, or to furnish crutches forever. The USITC describes the implementation of these plans starting on p. IV-5 and, more revealing, presents the evaluations of the retailers – who are bound to be the most demanding judges.
The reviews are mixed, but varying numbers of these companies stated that the two domestic recipients of the tariff relief – Whirlpool and General Electric – introduced new products (the most commonly cited improvement), upgraded product quality, expanded marketing campaigns, bettered their customer service, and taken other positive steps (Table IV-2).
Will these measures prove sufficient? Even after the tariffs come off, definitive answers will prove elusive, because as made clear, the LRW trade policy picture contains so many moving parts. What does look definitive, however, is that so far, the critics have engaged in a flawed rush to judgment.