Stealth Taxation at the Border

For decades, some of America’s most regressive taxes have lurked in the shadows of
U.S. trade policy.  Now the Bureau of Customs and Border Patrol is proposing to make those taxes an even greater burden on lower-income Americans and workers and farmers in poorer countries.

For over 15 years, CBP has maintained a “first sale” valuation policy that allows imports to be valued on the basis of the price of the first sale between the foreign producer and a middleman in cases where there are multiple, arm’s length transactions in the distribution chain.  The price of the first sale is presumably closer to the value of the cost of goods sold, since at most it would differ by the expenses and markup of only one more entity.  But CBP wants to change its valuation method to a “last sale” basis, which would reflect the price of the last transaction before the merchandise was imported into the United States.  Obviously, the last sale price reflecting the expenses and profits of more entities will, in most cases, be higher than the first sale price.  Thus, valuations, import assessments, and ultimately consumer prices, will likely increase.

CBP claims it wants to align its valuation policy with the policies of most U.S. trade partners, and according to a recent interpretation of the WTO Valuation Agreement, it is a perfectly acceptable—and in fact proper—method of valuation.  But its simply bad policy..  Tariffs are regressive; they are most regressive on necessities, like clothing and food; most clothing on Americans’ backs is imported; first sale valuation methodology is common among importers of clothing, and; consumer prices have already increased significantly over the past year.  Do we need consumers devoting big chunks of their “stimulus rebates” to higher import taxes?

On average, the U.S. tariff system is quite open.  Based on an analysis of U.S. imports in 2005, nearly 70 percent of all merchandise imports entered the United States duty-free and the average rate of duty (calculated as total duties collected over total import value) was around 1.4 percent.  (I cite 2005 because I did a comprehensive analysis of those data for a paper in 2006 that I have not yet repeated for subsequent years. The numbers I cite for 2005 are unlikely to be much different from 2007.)  That rate is pretty modest.  But it’s also misleading.

As is often the case, averages obscure important facts.  In this case the important facts are that most of the $23.2 billion in duties collected by Customs were assessed on imported clothing, shoes, and food products.  In fact, while clothing and footwear comprised 5.1 percent of the total value of imports, duties collected on clothing and footwear accounted for 42.3 percent of all duties collected.  Though the average duty overall was 1.4 percent, it was 7 percent on milk, cheese, eggs and other dairy products.  Have you noticed the huge jump in prices of these products at the grocery store in recent months (Sallie James has)?

Lower-income Americans spend a higher portion of their incomes on these necessities (food and clothing and shelter – don’t forget longstanding restrictions on steel, lumber and cement trade), and many of the products imported are produced in developing countries.  The 1.4 percent average tariff didn’t mean much to exporters in Macau, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Uruguay and the other six developing countries with average ad valorem duties in the double digits.  Imports from Cambodia accounted for 0.1 percent of total U.S. import value, but duties on Cambodian imports accounted for 1.2 percent of all duties collected.

U.S. tariff policy is already skewed heavily against lower-income Americans and poor workers around the world.  CBP’s proposal would make matters worse, which hardly seems consistent with the broader objectives of the Department of Homeland Security.