Trump’s Self-Sabotaging Trade Taxes

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Posted: Jun 04, 2019 11:57 AM
Trump’s Self-Sabotaging Trade Taxes

Source: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

What’s worse, a politician who knowingly supports bad policy or a politician who actually thinks that bad policy is good policy?

I was very critical of the Bush Administration (I’m referring to George W. Bush, but the same analysis applies to George H.W. Bush) because there were many bad policies (education centralizationwasteful spendingTARP, etc) and the people in the White House knew they were bad policies.

For what it’s worth, I think it’s reprehensible when politicians knowingly hurt the country simply because they think there’s some temporary political benefit.

I’m also critical of many of Trump’s policies. But at least in the case of protectionism, he genuinely believes in what he’s doing.

But that doesn’t change the fact that protectionism is bad policy. Higher taxes on trade hurt prosperity, just like higher taxes on work, saving, investment, and other forms of economic activity are harmful.

And, according to the National Taxpayers Union, Trump’s various tax hikes on trade cumulatively represent a giant tax increase.

The Trump administration has imposed 25 percent taxes on $234.8 billion in imports from China under Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974. This represents a nominal tax hike of as much as $58.7 billion — the third-largest in inflation-adjusted dollar terms since World War II ended. But things could soon get much worse. President Trump plans to impose a 5 percent tariff on imports from Mexico starting on June 10, possibly increasing to 25 percent by October 1. He is also considering adding a 25 percent tariff to an additional $300 billion in imports from China. Tariffs on washing machines, solar goods, steel, and aluminum add billions of dollars more to the burden on U.S. taxpayers. If the Trump administration follows through on all its tariff threats, the combined result will be far and away the largest tax increase in the post-war era in real dollar terms. …tax increases of this scale threaten to undermine the economic expansion that has driven unemployment down to levels not seen since 1969.

Here’s a chart from the NTU report. They have two ways of measuring Trump’s trade taxes. In either case, the transfer of money from taxpayers to politicians is bigger than any previous tax hikes.

The National Bureau of Economic Research also has some estimates of how Trump’s protectionism has undermined the U.S. economy.

Two new NBER working papers analyze how this “trade war” has affected U.S. households and firms. The recent tariffs, which represent the most comprehensive protectionist U.S. trade policy since the 1930 Smoot-Hawley Act and 1971 tariff actions, ranged from 10 to 50 percent on about $300 billion of U.S. imports — about 13 percent of the total. Other countries responded with similar tariffs on about $100 billion worth of U.S. exports. In The Impact of the 2018 Trade War on U.S. Prices and Welfare (NBER Working Paper No. 25672), Mary Amiti, Stephen J. Redding, and David Weinstein find that the costs of the new tariff structure were largely passed through as increases in U.S. prices, affecting domestic consumers and producers who buy imported goods rather than foreign exporters. The researchers estimate that the tariffs reduced real incomes by about $1.4 billion per month. …Pablo D. Fajgelbaum, Pinelopi K. Goldberg, Patrick J. Kennedy, and Amit K. Khandelwal adopt a different methodological approach to address the welfare effect of recent tariffs. They also find complete pass-through of U.S. tariffs to import prices. In The Return to Protectionism (NBER Working Paper No. 25638), they estimate that the new tariff regime reduced U.S. imports by 32 percent, and that retaliatory tariffs from other countries resulted in an 11 percent decline of U.S. exports. … They estimate that higher prices facing U.S. consumers and firms who purchased imported goods generated a welfare loss of $68.8 billion, which was substantially offset by the income gains to U.S. producers who were able to charge higher prices ($61 billion). The researchers estimate the resulting real income decline at about $7.8 billion per year.

Here’s one of the charts from NBER.

That is not a pretty picture.

Especially since Trump is using the damage he’s causing as an excuse to adopt additional bad policies.

Here’s some of what George Will recently wrote for the Washington Post.

The cascading effects of U.S. protectionism on U.S. producers and consumers constitute an ongoing tutorial about…“iatrogenic government.” In medicine, an iatrogenic ailment is one inadvertently caused by a physician or medicine. Iatrogenic government — except the damage it is doing is not inadvertent — was on display last week.The Trump administration unveiled a plan to disburse $16 billion to farmers as balm for wounds — predictable and predicted — from the retaliation of other nations, especially China, against U.S. exports in response to the administration’s tariffs. …The evident sincerity of his frequently reiterated belief that exporters to the United States pay the tariffs that U.S. importers and consumers pay is more alarming than mere meretriciousness would be. …So, taxpayers who are paying more for imported goods covered by the administration’s tariffs (which are taxes Americans pay) are also paying to compensate some other Americans for injuries inflicted on them in response to the tariffs that are injuring the taxpayers. …Protectionism is yet another example of government being the disease for which it pretends to be the cure.

A tragic example of Mitchell’s Law in action.

The trade issue is also another example of hypocrisy in action.

Back in 2016, I applauded the IMF for criticizing Trump’s protectionist trade taxes, but simultaneously asked why the bureaucrats weren’t also criticizing Hillary Clinton’s proposed tax increases on work, saving, and investment.

Now I spend a lot of time wondering why Republicans, who claim to be on the side of taxpayers, somehow forget about their anti-tax principles when Trump is unilaterally imposing higher taxes on American consumers and producers.

What’s ironic about this mess is that Trump very well may be sabotaging his own reelection campaign. As he imposes more and more taxes on trade (and as foreign governments then impose retaliation), the cumulative economic damagemay be enough to completely offset the benefits of his tax reform plan.

If he winds up losing in 2020, I wonder if “Tariff Man” will have second thoughts about the wisdom of protectionism?

Since he’s a true believer in trade barriers, he may think it was worth it. I doubt other Republicans in Washington will have the same perspective.