Tag Archives: tariffs

Old McDonald Had A Subsidy

Like many of you, I get all sorts of newsletters, from a variety of sources. A recent report about farm incomes, from this issue of Axios Markets, made me take a deep breath, because I’m old enough to remember the Republican Party that no longer exists.

That iteration of the GOP would have screamed bloody murder had a President imposed tariffs; defense of free trade was (forgive the pun) a party trademark. Those Republicans would have pointed to all the readily-available evidence of the negative effects of tariffs, including but not limited to the fact that they are paid for by consumers in the nation that levies them.

That GOP was also a champion of genuine capitalism, and an (admittedly selective)  opponent of corporate welfare.

That GOP did scream bloody murder when President Barack Obama “bailed out” American auto companies. Never mind that we were just coming off the “Great Recession,” or that thousands of American jobs were at stake, or that the funds were structured as loans, not giveaways. They continued to criticize the decision even after it was clear that the intervention had worked, and even after the companies completely repaid the loans.

But I haven’t heard a peep from any of today’s Republicans about the mounting subsidies to farmers–subsidies meant to compensate them for losses entirely caused by Trump’s tariffs. Those subsidies are now larger than the amounts lent to automakers.

Here’s the information from Axios Markets that set me off:

What’s happening: U.S. farmers have been suffering this year. Chapter 12 bankruptcies have risen 24% over the previous year and farm debt is projected to hit a record high $416 billion.

While farm income is expected to reach its highest total since 2014, 40% of that income will come from trade assistance, disaster assistance, the farm bill and insurance indemnities, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation.

What we’re hearing: That’s “definitely not the normal,” Farm Bureau chief economist John Newton tells Axios. The $28 billion bailout package for farmers that President Trump signed earlier this year has “increased the percentage to a level we’ve not seen in a while.”

So let’s see.  The party that believes in capitalism and markets–the party that counsels poor folks to suck it up and avoid ” welfare dependency”–is perfectly fine with government dollars supplying 40% of farm income.

The party of free trade has no problem with disruptive tariffs that interrupted farmers’ existing markets (many of which are unlikely to come back once this episode is over–other countries grow soybeans) so that their “leader” could look like the “tough guy” he clearly isn’t, and they’re hunky-dory with using billions of taxpayer dollars to compensate the people their idiocy injured.

Chinese imports of U.S. agricultural products totaled $24 billion in 2017 and peaked at $29 billion in 2013, according to U.S. government data. Imports fell to $9 billion last year as a result of the trade war.

Trump insists that he’ll make a new deal under which China will buy “40 to 50 billion”  dollars of American farm products annually. As the Axios report notes, we’ve heard that song about an impending “great deal” before–and each time, Trump has had to pull back.  Peterson Institute senior fellow Jeffrey Schott has opined that, even  if a deal is signed, it’s unlikely that either side could deliver on its bloated promises to sharply increase US farm exports to China to $50 billion annually, “or anywhere near that total.”

Of course not.

Sentient Americans understand that virtually all of Trump’s pronouncements are untethered to reality–that they come straight from the fantasy universe he inhabits. What we don’t understand is where all those free-trade, fiscally-conservative, pro-market Republicans have gone.

I guess those policy preferences were less important than supporting a “leader” who promised them the continued dominance of straight white Christian males….

 

Not-So-Merry Christmas?

I keep remembering the line Yul Brynner used  whenever he was faced with a conundrum in The King and I?  “It’s a puzzlement.”

As Americans count down to the 2020 elections, those of us who view the Presidential contest as a critical referendum on the American Idea and the rule of law are torn. We want to stop this corrupt and incompetent administration from doing even more harm between now and then, but we also know that preventing the worst consequences of Trump’s madness will work in his favor.

Take the damage being done to the economy by his ham-handed imposition of tariffs.

As an article in the Washington Post recently put it,

There’s a case to be made that Trump has the upper hand in these trade disputes because the United States buys more from China and Mexico than those countries buy from the United States. To put it another way, China and Mexico need Trump economically more than he needs them.

But that’s just the raw economic calculation. Trump is also facing a campaign for reelection in 2020, and he’s banking on a strong economy to propel him to victory. There are already signs that Trump’s trade policies are making the markets and economy jittery, and the pain is likely to escalate if he doesn’t make some deals by September.

People who actually understand economics and trade policy (a category that clearly excludes Donald Trump) are warning that America’s economy is losing steam. Despite Trump’s fantasies, coal is dying, factories aren’t coming back and companies that are still here are pocketing their tax windfalls, not creating new jobs.

Tariffs are taxes on the American people. So far, those costs have been modest. As Trump and top White House officials frequently point out, inflation (a good gauge of price increases across the economy) has remained low, which helps explain why there hasn’t been widespread public revolt over the tariffs, except among farmers and some manufacturers who have been hit the hardest.

Experts who follow economic trends warn that the costs of Trump’s delusional “dealmaking” are likely to ramp up in August and September. That’s because he appears intent upon announcing new rounds of tariffs– thus dramatically increasing the costs Americans will have to pay for goods, and making it probable that people will notice that they, not China, are paying the tab for Trump’s version of trade policy.

August and September are when U.S. retailers import goods for the holiday shopping period. Retailers warn that If Trump’s tariffs are still in place then, “it will be nearly impossible not to pass some — if not all — costs on to consumers for holiday season 2019.”

Consider the numbers. At the start of the year Trump’s tariffs cost the typical family of four about $480 a year, according to calculations by the right leaning Tax Foundation and The Washington Post. Last month Trump increased tariffs on China, which lifted the cost for a typical family of four to $860 a year…If Trump moves forward with his other threat to put tariffs on all Chinese imports by the end of the summer, the cost would jump even higher — to more than $2,000 for a family of four.

And it’s not just higher costs. Retailing–and retail employment– is already on the ropes. As one columnist recently noted,

Last week, 661 firms — including major players such as Costco, Target and Hallmark — signed a letter pleading with the administration not to use tariffs as a cudgel in its efforts to address China’s trade abuses. The USTR has also received more than 1,600 written comments thus far, overwhelmingly negative.

These, like the USTR public hearings, echo what big retailers had already been warning investors and customers: Sweeping tariffs will stress already-thin profit margins and lead to layoffs. They will also raise prices for U.S. households by hundreds or thousands of dollars, wiping out the value of Trump’s tax cuts.

My only quibble with that letter is with the notion that the tax cuts had value…

So here’s the conundrum: Consumer spending is the backbone of the U.S. economy. If Trump continues with his “Tariff Man” antics, the economy will suffer, and the working poor, as usual, will bear the brunt of the pain.

On the other hand, other than appeals to racism, Obama’s economy is pretty much the only thing Trump has going for him.

Should good Americans root for a downturn that would be likely to ensure Trump’s defeat, even though it would cause pain for so many people? Or should we hope that sane policymakers can keep him from tanking the economy–  thereby improving his election prospects?

It’s a puzzlement.

Tariffs And Taxes

When I was still a Republican, and Republicans were still a political party and not a cult, there was broad agreement within the GOP that tariffs were rarely if ever useful policy tools. They raised the price of goods, invited retaliation, and interfered with productive trade. Today that position is, if anything, more correct: In our increasingly globalized economy, most tariffs are counterproductive.

There was less agreement back then about tax policy, and over the years–as the GOP has pursued tax cuts as an article of faith (and self-interest)–it has taken a real effort on the part of ostensibly thoughtful “policy wonks” to ignore the mounting evidence of the harm that low-tax philosophy was doing. (Kansas, anyone? How about the most recent tax cuts, which even the Congressional Budget office says did nothing for the economy, but did line the pockets of the already obscenely wealthy?)

Trump’s sudden decision (all of his decisions are sudden–comes with the “why examine this, I”ll just go with my gut” process) to impose tariffs on Mexico until they magically manage to seal the border is egregious for a number of reasons. Republican Senator Grassley has noted that trade policy and immigration policy are different, and require different tactics–and that this gambit is highly unlikely to work. Worse still, the U.S. does an enormous amount of business with Mexico, and a large number of American companies have operations in both countries. It gets complicated.

Ed Brayton summed it up succinctly at Dispatches from the Culture Wars:

Most of the goods crossing the border are parts of a larger supply chain, particularly for the auto industry that is already reeling from Trump’s huge tariffs on steel and aluminum. That means this is going to do enormous damage to our economy. Both economies, actually, and what happens when Mexico’s economy is in bad shape? More illegal immigration, obviously. The man is desperately ignorant, on virtually every subject but especially on this one.

I won’t belabor the thorny economic issues raised by this latest bit of Trumpian economic ineptitude. What I do want to point out–and as economists confirm–is that tariffs are taxes on the American public. Trump seems to think they are paid by the country against which he is leveling them, but anyone who has taken Econ 101 knows better. We the People pay the tariffs, because they raise the prices paid by consumers. And they are already hurting the poor.

So tariffs are effectively a tax we pay. Worse, however, they are a tax that fails to do what taxes ought to do: pay for necessary government services.

The Republican approach to tax policy is simply a fixation on cutting taxes. The reason that  is so misguided is that taxes pay for the country’s physical and social infrastructure. The roads we use, the police and firefighters we rely upon, the national defense, the costs of ensuring clean air and water, maintaining the justice system, social security and Medicare…on and on.

Think of the country as a club you belong to, with facilities and amenities that need to be maintained. Taxes are your dues. They keep the club furnace and roof repaired and the grass mowed.

It is entirely appropriate to argue about the specifics of tax policy: how should those dues be assessed? Who should pay the most? How do we ensure that the monies raised are properly spent? What are the tasks we need to fund collectively through government with our tax dollars? Reasonable people will have disagreements about these issues.

But onerous taxes levied through the imposition of disruptive and ineffective tariffs don’t fund our government. They just burden consumers–and especially the poor–without any offsetting benefit or return.

Leaving aside Trump’s multitude of offensive, childish and criminal acts, his ignorance of the economic consequences of his tariffs is a perfect example of his inadequacies for the office.

If Americans are capable of learning a lesson, that lesson is “don’t elect an ignoramus. It will cost you–and it sure won’t make America great.”

 

 

Reality Is So Inconvenient

Time Magazine  recently ran a story illustrating the problem with electing stupid, uninformed people.

Numerous media outlets have explained–patiently, and in detail– why Trump’s evident belief that China is paying his tariffs is wrong; they’ve laid out–in painful detail–the way tariffs really work, and why those tariffs are more properly labeled tax increases on the American public.

The Time article addresses a subsequent demonstration of Trump’s utter economic cluelessness.

Tariffs on foreign goods are supposed to help companies that make things in the United States by increasing the costs of products sold by foreign competitors. Indeed, when rationalizing his administration’s increased tariffs on Chinese goods, President Donald Trump on Monday encouraged consumers and businesses to buy goods from countries other than China, or, in what he called the “best idea,” to buy American-made goods.

That would have been good advice, back when American companies were busy manufacturing  horse whips and corsets. These days, however, advice to “buy American” simply displays an embarrassing ignorance about the current realities of  the world of business.

But that advice is almost impossible to follow, as products made in America can contain parts sourced from all over the world. Even the most quintessentially American of goods has parts from somewhere else, whether that be a Ford F-150 pickup, a can of Budweiser, or tire chains from Worcester, Mass. “In the last 20 years, businesses have become much more strategic,” says Kara Reynolds, an economics professor at American University. “More and more often, they are looking at where they can find highest quality and lowest-cost parts so that they can be competitive.” More often than not, that’s China — and that means many U.S. businesses are feeling the pain thanks to Trump’s tariffs.

Trump, as usual, has ignored the warnings of more knowledgable people (a category that includes most sentient humans), and has doubled down on his tariff policy. Farmers have been the most notably hurt, but manufacturers and retailers aren’t far behind. Automobile companies are already feeling the pinch.

The most recent round of tariffs is expected to affect a broad swathe of industries that make products in the United States. “This is playing havoc with the supply chains of Americans producers — increasing their cost and reducing their worldwide competitiveness,” says Robert T. Kudrle, an economics professor at the University of Minnesota. St. Pierre, for example, makes chains and wire rope in its Worcester facility, as it began doing in 1920 when Henry St. Pierre started the company. But as it started facing foreign competition, St. Pierre began buying chain slings and other parts from producers overseas, then cutting them and adding hooks and fittings in the United States.

The cost of those imported chain slings have gone up as tariffs have risen. Even St. Pierre’s horseshoes, which are made completely from U.S. steel, have been affected by the tariffs on foreign goods. As the cost of foreign steel went up, the cost of U.S.-made steel rose too, says Peter St. Pierre, vice president of finance at St. Pierre Manufacturing — and Henry St. Pierre’s grandson. “Everything we do here is steel-related, and over the last year or so, the price of steel has been going up and up,” he said. Increased demand for domestic steel has allowed U.S. producers to raise their prices; one estimatefound that U.S. steel prices have more than doubled since 2015.

Companies affected by the tariffs include a number that make goods in the U.S., thanks to rising duties on imported parts.

A South Carolina plant that assembled televisions using Chinese parts said last yearit was shutting down because of the tariffs. The Beer Institute, which represents 6,000 brewers and 2.2 million American jobs, said thatabout six percent of the cost of beer is the aluminum used in cans, and predicted that higher aluminum tariffs could cost 20,000 American jobs.

Are we tired yet of all that “winning”?

Will his brainwashed base ever decide that it may be time to elect someone with less ego and more functioning brain cells?

Red Myths, Rural Realities

Paul Krugman recently looked at the effects of Trump’s policies on rural America, and found–to no sentient person’s surprise–that the effects have been disastrous.

Economists, reports Politico, are fleeing the Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service. Six of them resigned on a single day last month. The reason? They are feeling persecuted for publishing reports that shed an unflattering light on Trump policies.

But these reports are just reflecting reality (which has a well-known anti-Trump bias). Rural America is a key part of Donald Trump’s base. In fact, rural areas are the only parts of the countryin which Trump has a net positive approval rating. But they’re also the biggest losers under his policies.

As Krugman points out, whatever Trump’s campaign rhetoric might have promised, his actual policies have been aligned with (okay, dictated by) Congressional Republican priorities–what Krugman calls “G.O.P. standard”: big tax cuts for corporations and rich people, accompanied by cuts to the social safety net.

The only real deviation from GOP orthodoxy has been the tariffs, and Trump’s evident belief that trade wars are “easy to win.” Even the farmers who have been a reliable part of Trump’s base are beginning to recognize that they will bear the brunt of the substantial injuries caused by those wars.

As for the tax and social safety net cuts…

The Trump tax cut largely passes farmers by, because they aren’t corporations and few of them are rich. One of the studies by Agriculture Department economists that raised Trumpian ire showed that to the extent that farmers saw tax reductions, most of the benefits went to the richest 10 percent, while poor farmers actually saw a slight tax increase.

At the same time, the assault on the safety net is especially harmful to rural America, which relies heavily on safety-net programs. Of the 100 counties with the highest percentage of their population receiving food stamps, 85 are rural, and most of the rest are in small metropolitan areas. The expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, which Trump keeps trying to kill, had its biggest positive impact on rural areas.

It is fair to suggest that many rural Americans are unaware of the variety of ways in which Medicaid expansion and other social programs support farm country; some of those benefits are indirect (which doesn’t mean they aren’t critically important). The impact of the tariffs, however, is hard to miss.

What about protectionism? The U.S. farm sector is hugely dependent on access to world markets, much more so than the economy as a whole. American soybean growers export half of what they produce; wheat farmers export 46 percent of their crop. China, in particular, has become a key marketfor U.S. farm products. That’s why Trump’s recent rage-tweeting over trade, which raised the prospect of an expanded trade war, sent grain markets to a 42-year low.

If Trump succeeds in plunging us into a full-blown trade war, which certainly seems more likely than not, Krugman says American imports and exports will both shrink — and since farmers rely disproportionately on exporting, they will be the biggest losers.

The harm being done to rural America by Trump leads to that perennial question: why do so many of the people bearing the brunt of his ignorance continue to support him?

Krugman delicately suggests that it has to do with “cultural factors”–by which he means hostility to immigrants and resentment of coastal elites they believe look down on rural America. (What Krugman calls hostility to immigrants is, if the research is to be believed, part of a much larger and more ingrained hostility to non-whites and non-Christians.)

Krugman thinks that rural America’s support for Trump may start to crack as the negative effects of his policies become too obvious to miss. I’m less sanguine.

When we so-called “elitists” talk about “voting ones interests,” we are almost always referring to economic interests. When I listen to Trump supporters–when they post angry diatribes on Facebook or are interviewed for a new program–what I hear is a very different view of what constitutes their interests.

Economic reality be damned. Trump voters are defending their vision of America, and that vision is white, heterosexual, and fundamentalist Christian. So long as they believe Trump is hurting people who fall outside that narrow category, he’s their guy.