By Howard Gleckman
Earlier this month, President Trump escalated his trade war with China by announcing 10 percent tariffs on an additional $200 billion in Chinese imports—which took effect yesterday. But he showed a troubling lack of understanding about how the levies work. Pointing to earlier import duties he imposed, Trump braggedthat “China is paying us billions of dollars in tariffs.” Treasury, he added, is collecting “tremendous amounts of money, which is great for our country.”
Where to begin?
What is a tariff?
A tariff is a tax on imported goods. Despite what the President says, it is almost always paid directly by the importer (usually a domestic firm), and never by the exporting country. Thus, if the US imposes a tariff on Chinese televisions, the duty is paid to the US Customs and Border Protection Service at the border by a US broker representing a US importer, say, Costco.
The Chinese government pays nothing, just as the US government pays no tax to Canada for that nation’s tariffs on imported dairy products. Rather, an importer or supplier for a Canadian supermarket pays the duty on Wisconsin cheese that lands in the grocer’s dairy counter (though I suspect few Canadian retailers are selling much US cheese these days, given the recent unpleasantness between the two countries).
Who actually pays the tariff?
OK, so the importer remits the tariff to its nation’s customs service, but who really pays the tax on imported goods? The answer, I am sorry to say is, it depends.
A business will, if it can, pass its higher after-tax costs on to consumers. Thus, the price of Chinese TVs sold in the US may rise rapidly. But the firms selling those TVs eventually will face competition from companies that sell lower-cost TVs made in a third country that is not subject to the import tax. In that case, some of the tax may be paid by the firm’s shareholders in the form of lower profits or by its workers in the form of lower compensation.
Or, the firm may switch to a non-Chinese supplier and, in effect, nobody will pay the tariff. Still, demand for imported goods subject to the tax won’t go to zero right away—so the government will collect some revenue from the import tax. That’s what the president was bragging about.
Adam Smith explains.
There is lots of economic theory about the effect of tariffs on consumption and prices. After all, tariffs are hardly new and economists since Adam Smith have been writing about their problems for centuries.
In the short run, higher prices for imported goods will reduce consumption of those goods. But in the longer term, the decline in competition from foreign products makes domestic firms less efficient. And less competition will result in higher prices, not just for those goods subject to the tariff but for competing goods that are not—such as those made domestically. In the case of Trump’s tariffs on China, that means US consumers will pay somewhat higher prices. Thus, not only will the price of Chinese TVs rise, but so will the price of Mexican TVs and US-made TVs (yes, there still are a few).
In the case of Trump’s tariffs, US prices will rise but not by much and US demand will decline but not by much. Chinese exports to the US will fall but most likely be replaced by imports from producers of competing products in other countries.