Monday, September 14, 2009

The trouble with tariffs

The stated logic behind tariffs is that they protect domestic jobs against international competition. That's the justification behind the recent tariffs on Chinese tire imports imposed by the Obama administration. Many people think this is a laudable goal; but is it worth the cost? As Brad DeLong explains, probably not:
"Let's see... 250 million cars in America... need 4 tires per car... need new tires every 2.5 years. 400 million tires a year... $1.4 billion dollars a year... 10,000 worker jobs saved... $140,000 dollars per worker-job per year.

Looks like we could (a) let the Chinese sell us tires, (b) tax each tire by $2.50, (c) pay each tire worker who loses his or her job $100K a year, and we come out ahead: American households have more money to spend on other things, China has more jobs to help what is still a very poor country grow, and tire workers have higher incomes and more leisure as well.

But, you say, it would be stupid to impose a $2 a tire tax and use the money to pay each laid-off tire worker $100K a year.

That's the point: when the policy you are adopting is worse for everybody than a policy you agree is stupid, the policy you are adopting is best characterized as really stupid."
We should not ignore or diminish all concerns about free trade. But the trouble with tariffs is that they usually cost more than they're worth in terms of protecting domestic jobs*.

Some have suggested that this tariff is designed to boost support for healthcare reform among labor groups. In that case, the cost/benefit calculation changes depending on the desirability of the proposed legislation. However, the point is that tariffs are rarely justified by their overall economic impact.

*Not everyone would agree that protecting domestic jobs is a worthwhile public policy goal. Assuming that it is, however, we need to consider whether it's a cost-effective policy.

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