Imagine a president boasting about how he raised your cost of living. Or how he made it more expensive to produce goods at your factory. Imagine that president standing at a lectern under the stars and stripes, smiling and beaming pride, as he announces he’s reduced your real income and impeded your company’s ability to compete at home and abroad. Of course, that is exactly what tariffs do.
But the pols never put it that way. Instead, they tell you that tariffs are needed to protect upstanding American producers from predatory foreign enterprises intent on cornering the market and stealing U.S. jobs. Or that tariffs are imperative to protecting an industry that is vital to national security. Or, as President Trump sees it, that tariffs generate revenue for the Treasury—a pay‐to‐play cash cow financed by foreign producers that previous presidents weren’t tremendous enough to figure out how to exploit.
Trump’s announcement last week that he’d tap into that bounty of “massive tariff money coming into the USA!” to provide more subsidies to American farmers—who’ve lost billions of dollars in export sales as a result of the trade war—got me wondering exactly who’s footing the bill for those subsidies. On Sunday, I provided a brief summary at Forbes, which I expand upon below.
Trump is right that tariff revenues are flooding the coffers of the U.S. Treasury. Duties collected reached a record high of $71 billion in 2019, well more than double the $33 billion collected in 2017 (the last year before Trump’s tariffs took effect) and—at 2.85 percent of total import value—more than double the weighted‐average tariff rate of 1.41 percent that prevailed from 2001–2017.
In 2017, the last year unaffected by Trump’s tariffs, U.S. import value totaled $2.33 trillion and the $33 billion of duties collected on those imports amounted to a trade‐weighted average tariff of 1.4 percent—precisely, the average over the previous 16 years.
In 2018, Trump’s tariffs began to take effect at different points in the year. The duties collected for the year surged to $48 billion, or 1.9 percent of the $2.55 trillion value of imports.
Then, in 2019, tariffs on steel and aluminum from most countries, and tariffs on most imports from China were in effect for the whole year. Those tariffs reduced import value slightly, to $2.50 trillion, but the duties collected surged to a record $71 billion—a 123 percent increase over 2017 for an annual rate of 2.8 percent. In other words, tariffs paid by U.S. importers to the U.S. Treasury increased from $33 billion in 2017 (last year before the tariffs) to $71 billion (first full year of tariffs). Where did that extra $38 billion come from?
Contrary to Trump’s claims, that money didn’t “[come] into the USA.” The products came in, but the money was already here. It was transferred as a tax from importers—U.S. producers, U.S. wholesalers, and U.S. retailers—to the U.S. government. By raising the costs of manufacturing inputs or final goods purchased by U.S. importers, the tariffs—in every case—amount to an increase in U.S. producers’ costs of production and/or an increase in Americans’ cost of living. Businesses were made less profitable (which means less investment and less hiring) and individuals and families experienced lower real income, on account of higher prices (which means less consumption and less savings).
So, who paid that $38 billion tax bill?
The table below reveals the imported products accounting for the largest shares of the $38.3 billion tariff “windfall.” The products are identified by the 6‐digit subheading of the U.S. Harmonized Tariff Schedule. In 2019, the total U.S. import value of $2.5 trillion was entered under 5,285 different 6‐digit subheadings or product groups. Close to 60 percent of that value consisted of products classified as raw materials, intermediate goods, and capital equipment—the purchases of U.S. producers.
The table shows the 100 products most burdened by Trump’s tariffs (I have the full table of 5,285 products offline, if anyone’s interested). The product accounting for the largest share of the $38.3 billion tariff increase was HTS-6 code 8517.62 or “MACHINES FOR THE RECEPTION, CONVERSION AND TRANSMISSION OR REGENERATION OF VOICE, IMAGES OR OTHER DATA, INCLUDING SWITCHING AND ROUTING APPARATUS.” This subheading likely consists of products that are both intermediate and final goods. The subheading accounted for $1.2 billion of the $38.3 billion tariff increase, or 3.23 percent of the total increase. In 2017, the $47.3 billion of imports of this subheading were subject to no tariffs. The tariffs in 2019 amounted to 3.1 percent of the import value, which had declined considerably—and presumably on account of the tariffs—from $47.3 billion to $39.8 billion. (Note the other fields in the table.)
Going through the table (which is sortable by any of the field headings), it should become apparent that these products bearing the brunt of Trump’s tariffs are mostly inputs used to produce manufactured goods in the United States. The cost of production in the United States for things such as solar panels, which use HTS 8541.40 (“PHOTOSENSITIVE SEMICONDUCTOR DEVICES, INCLUDING PHOTOVOLTAIC CELLS; LIGHT-EMITTING DIODES); computing devices, which use HTS 8473.30 (“PARTS AND ACCESSORIES FOR AUTOMATIC DATA PROCESSING MACHINES AND UNITS THEREOF, MAGNETIC OR OPTICAL READERS, TRANSCRIBING MACHINES, ETC., NESOI”); and machinery, which uses HTS 8537.10 (“BOARDS, PANELS, CONSOLES, ETC. WITH ELECTRICAL APPARATUS, FOR ELECTRIC CONTROL OR DISTRIBUTION OF ELECTRICITY, FOR A VOLTAGE NOT EXCEEDING 1,000 V”) are all higher on account of these tariffs. Higher costs mean lower profits, which means businesses have fewer resources to investment and create jobs. Or higher costs mean higher prices, which mean consumers have less to spend and save. Indeed, the tariffs on the dozens of items on this list that are consumer products directly reduce real income, unless retailers absorb the costs, which then translate into lower profits, less investment, and less hiring.
The bottom line is that the costs of Trump’s tariff are being shouldered by U.S. businesses and consumers. Producers and consumers of exactly what can be discerned from the table above.